To what extent are we taking responsibility for the privacy of people in our urban places?

Smart cities without full attention to the principles of responsibility might well turn out to be dumb cities, argues Simon Carter.

Digitalisation – the application of digital technologies to pretty much everything – is one of the great mega-trends of our time. It sits alongside the likes of globalisation and urbanisation, and, like both of these, it is a double-edged sword. It delivers enormous benefits, but also considerable risks.

The smart cities movement is a highly important one. It brings exciting technologies to bear on our cities to improve liveability, wellbeing, productivity, resiliency and environmental footprint. Built environment sustainability leaders are pursuing them with great enthusiasm and the movement is on a terrific growth trajectory.

However, to what extent are we taking responsibility for the privacy of people in our urban places, for the wellbeing of people caught in digital-driven change and immersed in virtual environments, and for security in a cyber world that leaks like a sieve? These are just some of a number of critical issues with digitalisation that demand our careful attention, urgently.

I have been researching the digitalisation of the real estate sphere in the context of sustainability for some time and have been continually surprised at the lack of concern given to such ESG issues. It is common for people to claim that job automation is not a serious issue as we will lose some jobs, gain some jobs and it will all net out. Research, such as AlphaBeta’s notable 2017 report for Google Australia, The Automation Advantage, does not support that proposition. New industry companies tend to employ smaller workforces than old industry ones. We must also remember that job automation can happen quickly and some segments of our community will likely struggle with rapid change.

I have also often heard the claim – typically from people invested in artificial intelligence (AI) or Internet of Things (IoT) technologies – that we shouldn’t be concerned about privacy because we have given away so much of it already. This seems analogous to us now not caring about reducing carbon emissions because we have done such a poor job with climate change to date.

Are we now going to simply throw privacy out of the window? Is it not a human right? Does the idea of our children being fully exposed in such a world not frighten you? No, we must now do what we can to right the ship with privacy, on a platform of ethics.

Personally, I am highly concerned about digitalisation, with my research having led me to the conclusion that it is an issue that could rival climate change in terms of significance to humankind. Indeed, while climate change transforms our planet, digitalisation might well transform our very species.

I am yet to hear a half-convincing argument about how AI could be controlled. I take President Putin’s commitment to aggressively advance it for global power seriously. I note that the high-profile figures who suggest that it is not of great concern tend to be heavily invested in it. A Zuckerberg or Bezos might well become our first trillionaires on the back of AI.

Australia’s organisations are currently in the early stages of their journeys with cybersecurity yet will need to quickly perform in a heavily IoT-connected world. Cybersecurity has surged as a risk in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2018, in the top five alongside several environmental risks.

Communities associated with technology-driven city developments such as Sidewalk Toronto (Sidewalk is an Alphabet (Google) urban tech entity) should rightly be very concerned about how their data will be collected, secured, used and transacted. In Toronto, it is my understanding that a meaningful dialogue is beginning to unfold between the community, Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto. This engagement process is critical for generating the trust needed to pave the way for many smart and responsible cities to come. If data is the new oil then trust is the pipelines through which it flows.

Sustainability must of course be systemic in its approach, understanding the interconnectivity of many factors – E, S and G. Partial or siloed approaches can easily lead to unintended consequences in related areas. The pursuit of IoT-based smart cities without serious consideration for issues such as those above could cause considerable social damage and undermine our higher goals of sustainable cities or sustainability for humankind.

While we do want to draw people into our smart cities movement with positive language and vision we should take care not to polarise the opportunities and risks around digitalisation as positive and negative respectively. They are different sides of the same coin. I occasionally climb mountains and I do not relate to the extensive risk management measures I have to take as a negative burden, but simply as my ticket to summit success. Likewise, an organisation’s risk function is a structure that underpins growth and prosperity.

The polarisation of digitalisation could be counterproductive and irresponsible. I have many times seen technology advocates (as well as the media) present an image of the Terminator and say, with a chuckle, “Hey, let’s not worry about Skynet,” suggesting that the risks associated with it are just science fiction. People raising the issue of job automation are also sometimes positioned as Luddites (not a great reference given that corporate responsibility or sustainability was not particularly big in Victorian England). This technology versus society polarisation is similar to the business vs polar bears path that we first went down with climate change, and one well worth avoiding. I am sure that most smart cities advocates want technology for the sake of society and the environment so let’s work hard to ensure an integral and balanced discourse.

This article is a call to any sustainability-related movement – smart cities, green buildings, corporate responsibility or responsible investment – to step back and recognise digitalisation for what it is. When such movements started we referenced mega-trends such as climate change, resource security, ecosystem destruction and urbanisation. It is time to revisit the megatrends currently playing out in our world and recognise the significance of digitalisation and its double-edged sword nature.

Digitalisation is only going in one direction. It is extremely seductive, highly disruptive, all pervasive, helping to solve many vital ESG issues, and is giving humankind extraordinary power, some say god-like. It could be our greatest of tools, but if not urgently guided with responsibility and wisdom, as well as positivity, it could also be our Achilles heel.

Simon Carter is director of sustainability strategy practice Morphosis.

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  1. Smart phones don’t make smart people. Smart meters don’t make smart people. Smart cities will not make places or people smarter, or more sustainable. Only the people themselves can do that.

  2. Thanks Simon for these thoughts. Similar to Shelley there is always the opportunity to polarise the debate, and therefore limit its detailed analysis of this new Frankenstein’s monster.
    If one takes the ‘follow the money’ route digitalisation will, like previous revolutions, play out to reward those already heavily invested in the technology and are producing ‘policy capture’ ‘advice’ now to government as to digitalisation’s positives. So who is onto this?
    What readers need to know is the who’s who in the alternate space, what policy details are out their (dare I say regulation) and IT standards that can be referenced as good practice, sustainable development goals. Cities are with us for the near future, but they don’t have to be dystopian if communities can have a say.