Blog Posts from Students

Read the Latest Insights from Students

Below we publish blog posts written that students have shared with us. The content represents the writers’ personal thoughts and reflections. If you are interested in writing please contact Lena Olsson or Christina Geijer af Ekström. [Guidelines for writing]

We present our latest blog post: 

Atharva Gawde, 4th year, Northeastern University, student in Global Cities and Human Rights, with Professor. Martha Davis, an affiliated faculty of ours:

**Are Smart Cities a Solution, or the Start of a New Problem?**

As the populations of cities around the world keep rising, cites’ impact on the global stage rises as well. They are more and more being seen as the forefront for solving issues such as climate change, inequity, and human rights. To handle this role, some local governments have turned to the development of “smart cities” to address the myriad concerns of a diverse citizenry.

Smart cities are generally defined as cities which use information and communication technologies as well as other tech applications, to better aid city administration, service delivery, and citizen involvement. What this means is that physical devices, such as cameras and sensors, are used to generate data which is then analyzed by government entities to better address residents’ concerns.

One example of this is the deployment of Surtrac, a system of smart traffic lights implemented by the city of Pittsburgh. This system adapts to changes in traffic patterns, reducing travel time, and in one instance decreasing vehicle emissions by 21 percent. Another example can be found in Buenos Aires, where the government created a program called Digital Citizen, which allows people to procure documents and access city services using their smartphones. In Chennai, the government has taken on the project of restoring 3,000 bodies of water. This requires the use of drones which land on the surface of the water, take and analyze a sample, then send real-time information on pollution levels to be analyzed.

Cities around the world are utilizing smart city technology in a variety of ways to help their citizens. However, even with all the benefits that smart cities can bring, there is still great cause for concern. One major concern is the lack of involvement from the people of a city in the development and implementation of smart city technology.

The development of smart cities comes mainly from corporations hired out by cities privatizing previously public functions. Due to this, citizens become viewed as data gatherers at best, and at worst, obstacles. Many times, rather than fit technology to the needs of the citizenry, the people are instead forced into the molds created by these technological developments. One of the main tenets of human rights cities is the human right to participation, the idea that the people have a right to participate in the changes of their city. This takes that away from them. Another issue arising from privatization of public functions is that they move from being viewed as services to be provided at cost to profit-centers for companies.

Smart cities rely on a multitude of cameras, sensors, and other technologies to gather data to develop the innovations that they are known for. However, this excessive surveillance creates issues, especially with increased surveillance as part of a smart city’s security efforts. While in theory, efforts to boost security are beneficial, the long history of over policing and bias against minority communities shows the flaws in this system. Take for instance crime data being read into an artificial intelligence to determine which regions of a city need a higher police presence.

The AI would most likely look to areas with high crime rates to distribute officers. In a completely apolitical world, this would be beneficial. However, the world we live in still grapples with racially biased policing, where Black people are arrested at much higher rates than any other demographic. In this world, the AI only exacerbates a long-standing problem; and worse legitimizes racist policing practices by providing an excuse of robotic “neutrality.” This all stems from the fact that technology is developed by biased individuals, who then implement their own biases in what they develop.

To pretend that all technology is apolitical is naïve at best and malicious at worst. Another example can be seen in facial recognition technology being adopted by police across the world. Studies from MIT and Harvard have demonstrated that a lot of facial recognition technology have difficulty in distinguishing the faces of people with darker skin tones. In 2021, using this technology, police in Detroit wrongfully arrested a man they mistook for a shoplifter.

While there are many ways in which smart cities can be useful for the development and progress of a city, there are still many considerations to be made as to whether they will do more to help or harm the populace. When we get stuck on the view of technology as the thing that will help push us forward, we forget all other methods through which cities have developed for years. That is why it is important to take off the blinders and see how we can use technology as one tool in the arsenal to help push humanity forward, not as the secret weapon that will save the day.