A free online program that informs city officials about debates and research regarding the impacts of smart city technology and planning on social inequalities, data security and privacy and a democratic society, launched to the public in September .

Smart cities for city officials, a project of The Urban Research Institute (IUR) To The University of Malmö in Sweden claims to be “the first online and open access educational program on smart cities from a social science perspective”.

The program comes as local governments digitize services and integrate new technologies into their operations. City and industry leaders have insisted and underscored the need for equity and inclusion in such efforts. And a July report from the World Economic Forum found that many cities, even when adopting new technologies, have failed to implement basic policies around data privacy, accessibility and cybersecurity.

In the new course, eight online modules consist of video and audio lectures and written materials. Each module lasts around 30 to 60 minutes and is designed for people to follow their own pace, even during commuting or laundry, said Chiara Valli, researcher at IUR and co-organizer of the program, in an email.

Module topics include “Data and Social”, “Feminist Smart City”, “Big Data, Privacy and Security”, “Participation and Democracy”, “Post-Pandemic Futures” and “The Role of Cities and Public Officials” “. These lessons are based on interviews with a diverse group of university and non-university researchers who work in institutions, organizations and cities in the United States, England, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada and Ireland, Valli said.

The objective of the program is to “offer an overview of the current debates on smart cities taking place in the social sciences organized by thematic modules, ”Valli said in the email.

The project will also feature a live online workshop in February 2022 and a debate at the conference. Beyond smart cities today: power, justice and resistance To Malmö University next June.

Smart Cities Dive corresponded with Valli via email to learn more about the program’s impetus and goals. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SMART CITIES DIVE: Who led the efforts to create the project and how did you decide to partner with Malmö University? When did it start?

CHIARA VALLI: This project was started by Guy Baeten in 2018 and funded by SHAPES, a Swedish research council for sustainable development. Guy is Professor of Urban Studies and Director of the Urban Research Institute at the University of Malmö.

The idea for the project comes from the observation that there is a gap between public debates on smart cities and research on smart cities by social science researchers.

The public debate on smart cities revolves largely around technological advances, questions of intensifying urban technological experimentation, cost-benefit balances, economic growth and international urban competition. At the same time, social scientists who have written on smart urban planning [over] the past 15 years – this field has grown exponentially – have raised critical concerns that such a focus on technological development risks exacerbating uneven development and social inequalities in cities.

Yet academic social science knowledge about smart cities rarely circulates beyond academic circles and hardly [ever] is aimed at practitioners from municipalities and other public authorities.

When we researched open access educational programs on smart cities, we found an abundance of online courses and [massive open online courses] treat the smart city from a technological or commercial point of view perspective, but we have found absolutely no course dealing with the smart city from a social science perspective that is suitable for and with smart city officials.

We decided it was time to start organizing one.

Overall, in what ways could technology make cities more progressive and empowering?

The first step is to bring to the fore the understanding of the city’s social fabric and its entrenched power structures. This is why we have offered a course to deepen these crucial aspects. The sociological and ethical analysis of technological solutions and their relations with the territory are the fundamental duties to be done before considering any smart city solution.

One way to improve inclusion and equality would be for smart city solutions to engage with ongoing projects of local organizations, rather than landing from the top down. The relationship between local governments and businesses is also crucial: we need to develop a common language with the tech industry, one that would address power structures. Local governments should also establish procurement rules to avoid addictions and lockouts.

Engaging in long-term planning rather than sporadic solutions would also improve participation and social engagement and provide the basis for strong empowerment.

Another message from the course is that, despite claims to objectivity, basing our technological solutions solely on big data will inevitably lead to partial and limited results. All of the experts we interviewed seemed to agree that we need to contrast the abstract nature of the data by re-integrating both smart city questions and answers into the history, social constellations, and power hierarchies of actually existing cities.

And it’s not about replacing big data with small-scale qualitative data [data], the challenge is how to take big data to the next level, where quality, nuance and sociological understandings are built into the collection from the start, in the framing of the questions.

What are some examples of the social and societal implications of smart city policies, planning and technologies that the program would address?

The central questions of the program are: What are the democratic, ethical [and] social justice challenges of current forms of business-based smart city definitions? How can technologies help make cities more progressive and socially empowering?

Those interested in taking the course shouldn’t expect us to provide answers to all the big smart cities questions, and we don’t aim to offer easily applicable solutions. Our goal, in fact, is for the conversations in this program to serve as food for thought that will inspire the daily work of smart city makers and practitioners.

Are there smart city policies or programs that are deployed without sufficiently taking into account the democratic, ethical and social justice challenges that may arise? Are there any examples of this?

Well, there is of course the case of Toronto, where Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs had planned a smart city neighborhood on the waterfront. After 2 years of planning, they withdrawn from the project in [2020], officially invoking the pandemic as the main reason.

But we do know that Sidewalk Labs’ plans have been kept by a cascade of criticism regarding data privacy, lack of economic benefits for the Canadian tech industry, public hearings that claimed to be democratic, bypassing municipal authorities by creating their own transit authorities, etc., and their overall philosophy “technological solutionism” for social issues that require a much more complex approach than technological fixes.

How could American municipal authorities benefit from the program despite its Nordic European orientation?

We felt that for conversations to be meaningful we needed to set a geographic focus, and since we’re based in Sweden, this was the most obvious place to start. Nevertheless, the questions raised in the course are vast and worth discussing for any type of smart city. In fact, most of the experts we interviewed are from the United States and have done their research on smart cities in American cities.

It should also be noted that while the course is primarily aimed at city officials and practitioners, we believe it can also be of great value to researchers, students and citizens interested in smart cities.

About The Author

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.