Smart Cities: Where the IoT and Ethics Converge

essidsolutions

As mass urbanization continues to increase, it’s crucial that cities around the globe adapt. Modern technologies have facilitated the emergence of smart cities, where IoT allows for advancements designed to improve the quality of life for all. However, these technologies should never entrench on civil, constitutional or ethical rights of citizens.

The explosion of technology over the last decade may have brought us to a place where, by leveraging the power of the IoT to create Smart Cities, we can remedy, or at the least reduce, many of the ills long associated with mass urbanization. The real challenge may come in doing so ethically, and in such a way as to ensure that the rights of the people living in those cities are not compromised in the name of progress.

This question will grow in importance as more of the world’s citizens move to urban areas; the United Nations predictsOpens a new window that 68% of the world’s population will reside in cities by the year 2050, continuing a trendOpens a new window that saw the number of city-dwellers increase from 751 million in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018. The tech industry has benefitted; smart city technology spending reached $80 billion in 2016, and analysts expect that number to grow to $135 billion by 2021, according to a reportOpens a new window published by the International Data Corporation (IDC).

The goal is to create cities that use information and communication technologies (ICT) to augment the quality and performance of urban services such as energy, utilities and transportation in order to decrease resource consumption, waste and overall costs – in other words, a smart city.

It’s true that, despite the optimistic predictions of past generations, the cities of the world are not sparkling, traffic-free utopias replete with flying cars, glass skyscrapers and robot butlers. Not yet, anyway. But in smart cities in the U.S. and abroad, one may find smart parking meters, parking and garage lights that run on sensors, electric vehicle charging stations, or digital service kiosks that provide free public Wi-Fi, phone calls, device charging, and a tablet for access to city services, maps and directions.

Other smart cities feature electronic police surveillance and predictive crime data analytics, energy efficient buildings, a unified, rechargeable smartcard that enables its owner to pay for all public transportation services throughout the city with a single swipe, and sensors that, among other things, optimize traffic flow management.

None of these technological revelations would exist without the IoT, which is best and most simply described in this context as the gargantuan network of devices around the world that connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi or sensors. The device can be a washing machine or a parking meter or a wrist watch or an automobile. Each of these devices on its own is comparatively dumb; connect it to the Internet and it becomes “smart.” Cities can work the same way.

The intent of technology at its roots has always been the improvement in the living conditions of the common man and it remains so today. Electric cars and buses have zero tailpipe emissions and are therefore easier on the environment and less harmful to living things. Planning and zoning decisions in a smart city can be data driven. Some cities have reported reduced crime as a result of the acquisition of enhanced police surveillance technology.

The strategic placement of Wi-Fi hotspots throughout a smart city ensures digital equity and access to information among the citizenry. Some analysts predict that smart cities will record 3% incremental growth and $20 trillion in additional economic benefits over the coming decade.

There are risks associated with sustaining a smart city, foremost an inherent vulnerability to computer hackers, whose activities cost consumers and companies $445 billion worldwide every year, according to one report. A smart city whose entire infrastructure is networked together could be brought to its knees if not adequately protected, and law enforcement is no better or successful at preventing or prosecuting cybercrime today than it was a decade ago; to the contrary, it is on the rise. Moreover, all the smart devices in the world aren’t worth a thing if their connection isn’t secure and functional. The systems that run smart cities have to be maintained and upgraded and as the city expands and grows, so too must the technology that supports it. This requires increased spending, which offsets some portion of the cost savings benefit of going “smart” in the first place.

Finally, protecting the rights of citizens undergoing a smart city revolution must be given the highest consideration. Everyone with a smart phone knows (or should know) that he or she has largely forfeited an expectation of true privacy in return for the considerable conveniences the smart phone delivers. The average citizen must not be expected to further forfeit his or her rights in return for the conveniences living in a smart city can provide.

This is not lost on the citizenry. Protests have taken place in cities around the world in response to several smart technology initiatives, mostly involving privacy. Planners have an ethical and moral responsibility to guarantee citizens are not surveilled as a matter of course and that any personal information is, if collected at all, purged immediately. Technology, after all, can be a tool of progress only when implemented ethically. Otherwise it can be used to oppress the rights of the citizens it was created to serve.