How inclusive can smart cities really be?

“ The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation” – Albert Einstein. 

As the world moves into a new era of modern technologies, cautions must be taken to leave behind past mistakes. Today, modern technology is evolving at a rate where the concept of a “smart city” is becoming the new reality. Defined as a place where traditional networks and services are made more efficient with the use of digital solutions, smart cities have been dominating the news as well as the conscience of society. Published in early 2022 by Forbes, the article “Can smart Cities really be inclusive?” highlights how the concept of smart cities has fallen victim to the age-old issue of lacking inclusivity. 

Smart cities run on the conveniences of smarter urban transport networks, such as upgraded water supplies and more efficient ways to light and heat buildings through factors such as artificial intelligence (AI). In theory, this would mean a more interactive and responsive city administration, safer public spaces, and meeting the needs of an aging population. However, the elderly, lower-income communities, and minority groups are often disproportionately left out of the benefits of a digitally-run society.

Digital exclusion refers to the inability for an individual to make informed choices about their use or non-use of digital practices. Lack of access to the internet, lack of computer literacy, and pricey technological equipment are just a few of the many barriers these communities are faced with when trying to adapt to the fast-pace advancements of a smart city.The amount of jobs available is also expected to decline with the rise of smart cities. Furthermore, these digitally-excluded communities above are expected to be most affected by such job shortages.

Additionally, AI has been heavily recorded  as perpetuating issues of racism. A 2018 study conducted by Joy Buolamwini, found that AI software accurately recognized people of color only 65% of the time.  Overt racism in facial recognition devices have been the cause of significant concern over the past few years, such as when African Americans were identified as gorillas or when law enforcement-based AI tools favored Caucasian prisoners over prisoners of color.  

Such digital inequalities and exclusions are not unavoidable. Deloitte has provided suggested improvements that could drastically reduce the compounding effects of digital exclusion, including:

  • Assessing internet availability infrastructure.
  • Regulating employment loss.
  • Implementing free computer literacy courses.
  • Building Living laboratories – dedicated public spaces where cities can test how smart solutions interact with residents and public infrastructure. 
  • Investing in inclusion funds for financially disadvantaged areas.

Moving away from applying comfortable, traditional approaches to current and future automations will be key to stomping out inequalities in an already innovative, yet still segregated society. But the question remains: Can we humans, as naturally individual-centric beings, change our ways of innovation and technological progression for the benefit of mankind as a whole?