Ethically making smart cities

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To create a just and inclusive digital built Britain, we need to have ongoing critical dialogues about the ethics of the decision-making involved in creating smart cities. None of us will get it exactly right to begin with, but better outcomes for more people are worth the effort.

The ethical issues with ‘datafication’ and Artificial Intelligence in Smart Cities are relatively easy to identify. However, it’s much trickier to spot the ethical issues in the governance processes of creating Smart Cities, even for the decision-makers who implement them.

In The ethical underpinnings of Smart City governance: Decision-making in the Smart Cambridge Programme, UK, a recent article published in Urban Studies, we explore the ethical decisions involved in developing a Smart City. Our in-depth interviews with 13 experts, local authority representatives, and decision-makers from the Smart Cambridge programme highlight some of the implicit ethics of decisions – which are not always recognised as having an ethical dimension – and their potential impacts on citizens.

The Smart Cambridge programme is a collaboration between local decision-makers, university researchers and technology businesses. This work is supported by Connecting Cambridgeshire and the Greater Cambridge Partnership, and aims to direct investment in the region toward better transport, environment, living and healthcare outcomes. The purpose of our article was not to judge individuals and organisations or their choices as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead, we explored where choices were made, consciously or implicitly, in the process of developing the Smart Cambridge programme as a way of highlighting the ethical facets of Smart City projects more broadly.

Our research found that decision-makers are often interested in Smart City projects because they present the promise of hitting multiple goals at the same time, for example, developing the city’s economy while solving problems such as poor air quality or traffic congestion, and therefore represent an attractive investment.

These beneficial-sounding ends frame the project as inherently ‘good’, and decision-makers who follow laws and frameworks may feel there are no further ethical considerations to make. However, there are nuanced moral questions sitting beneath the surface, sometimes not even visible to the decision-makers interacting with them.

Our article highlights many of these, including:

    • Ethics of geography: Are the areas being covered by a project where smart solutions are implemented the areas most in need of investment? Are some communities left out of the decision-making process or benefits?
    • Ethics of expertise: Who has access to technical expertise? What does it mean for decision-makers to rely on external expertise?
    • Ethics of partnerships: How is risk distributed across partners? Who owns successes and who is responsible for negative outcomes? Who owns the data collected?
    • Ethics of funding: Who is eligible? Does the need to secure funding create power imbalances in terms of whose interests are prioritised?
    • Ethics of procurement: If procuring for value, whose definitions of value are used?
    • Ethics of engagement: Who sets the questions or frames the city’s problems in participatory processes? What solutions to these problems are presented? How are people brought in or made aware of opportunities to participate? Is this engagement accessible to a wide range of participants?

By highlighting these questions, we hope to encourage current and future Smart City decision makers to think beyond legal frameworks alone and to consider the hidden ethical dimensions of these projects. Only by making these implicit choices explicit can decision-makers hope to put in place measures that will mitigate against ethical problems.

Dr Hannah Holmes, Dr Richmond Ehwi and Dr Sabina Maslova are Research Associates at the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research, and Dr Gemma Burgess is CCHPR’s Director. This research forms part of the Centre for Digital Built Britain’s (CDBB) work at the University of Cambridge. It was enabled by the Construction Innovation Hub, of which CDBB is a core partner, and funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF).

This blog was originally published by CDBB (https://www.cdbb.cam.ac.uk/news/ethically-making-smart-cities) and is based on the journal article, ‘The ethical underpinnings of Smart City governance: Decision-making in the Smart Cambridge Programme, UK’ published in Urban Studies: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/00420980211064983

Feature Image Source: Summer Kwak on Pixabay

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