Why We Need to Be Thinking About Ethics and Oversight in Smart Cities

Cities aren’t designed or built for parents. That’s what a tragic incident that happened in New York last week illustrated yet again, as well as sparking discussions of how best we can design and build our cities to be accessible and socially inclusive.

As the article outlines, the inaccessibility issues that are increasingly arising around the design and development of our transport and cities has occurred partly because of demographic imbalances. That is cities and buildings being designed primarily by “white men, working 9-to-5 jobs”, as outlined by Kaufmann, the transportation researcher.

This echoes findings by Australia’s largest national study into community engagement in infrastructure to date.

Led by Melbourne School of Government and Melbourne University. The report entitled The Next Generation Engagement Project looked at community engagement as a ‘sticky problem” finding:

We found that, despite the many gains made by community engagement over the past two decades — in terms of acceptance as a vital component of project delivery, formalisation of roles, and growth in the number of individuals dedicated to the practice — community engagement continues to lack the recognition and influence of other project design and delivery disciplines. As workshop participants stated, ‘Success is measured by “on-time and on-budget”, not services and community outcomes’

In short: the process of community engagement and working with end users on how they want their built environment to look and operate can often become more of a “show and convince” process rather than a genuine collaborate and co-create experience. This perhaps is partly due to the fact that, as the report outlines, “funding for engagement is typically less than 1% of project budget on major projects >$1billion and generally resourcing only increases with community outrage (addressing costs incurred vs proactive cost avoidance),” yet it is one of the most influential factors affecting project delivery.

Smart cities —opportunity to rewrite the status quo

Which brings us to the topic of smart cities and how it provide an opportunity to rewrite the status quo if you like around design development, community engagement (or community co-creation) and ongoing planning and asset management.

Now with the use of technologies such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and connectivity there is an increasing ability to create built environments that accommodates the diverse needs and requirements of all citizens, not the needs, desires and requirements of a few — namely the decision makers and designers.

Take the application of virtual reality in community engagement.

Interactive intelligent VR provides a platform to enable design to be democratised doing away with the need for end users to be expected to make sense of architectural drawings.

Through the use of virtual reality designers can immerse people in designs before the environment is physically built not just to observe but to provide rich, experiential feedback on the design. What options have the designers neglected to consider? This turns the role of urban designers and architects into urban enablers.

As Zeynep Bodur Okyay, President and CEO, Kale Group outlined in a recent World Economic Forum article, a smart city is not about what technology you use, it is about the people.

The term ‘smart city’ has become a buzzword in the ever-growing literature on urbanization and digitalization. To me, a smart city is one that encourages and facilitates its citizens’ participation in physical and digital spaces, and online and offline processes.

But there is a need to express caution with all of this.

As this KPMG report, which looks at bias and supremacy (how much control should humans maintain in decision making) in artificial intelligence (AI) report outlines, researchers have identified over 180 species of human biases capable of affecting decision-making but the key concern looking through this with a smart city lens is that:

“… there is a live risk that AI and machine learning programs will operate to the advantage of dominant groups at the expense of others.”

In short we will repeat the mistakes of the past continuing to design and build cities that are inaccessible and not socially inclusive using unbalanced data guided by existing human cognitive bias.

As The Australian Human Rights Commission in their 2018 issues paper Human Rights and Technology Issues Paper outlined “Technology should exist to serve humanity. Whether it does will depend on how it is deployed, by whom and to what end.”

Ann Nolan is the co-founder and chief development officer of Snobal, an ambitious award winning emerging technology company building AI assisted VR solutions for the built environment.