Will Smart Cities Inevitably Worsen Social Inequality?

Positive action will be required to ensure that smart city solutions don’t just favour the already wealthy and connected

Our world is becoming more unequal. The disparities are perhaps most evident in our cities, where rich and poor are often neighbours, with slums standing in the shadow of skyscrapers. Large cities are less equal than the nations that host them – as well as being more unequal than smaller towns.

While smart cities can potentially benefit all citizens through increased efficiency, critics say that the application of digital technologies in the urban realm – far from addressing these divisions - will increase social inequality still further.

A lot of smart city initiatives, they say, are very top-down, devised and driven by corporate, techno-centric agendas that don’t generally even consider inequality, let alone how to reduce it.

When a process is made ‘smarter’ and more efficient, employment will change, and there will be losers. And the automation that will come from the urban Internet of Things will particularly threaten jobs for the lower-skilled. Cleaners, drivers and warehousing staff may be the first to find their jobs replaced by robots.

Big data and Artificial Intelligence control more and more of what is happening in cities. Decisions by algorithms - job application screening, health insurance premiums, targeted ads from payday loan companies - may exacerbate inequalities. Cathy O’Neil, warns in her book ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ that algorithms are allowed to judge and differentiate between those who are ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ without being visible, accountable or in any way regulated, and that this is highly discriminatory.

And smart cities, cannot be smart for everyone simultaneously. Alexandros Washburn, former Chief Urban Designer for New York reminds us that “A city is a communal creation, and a city cannot perform from everyone’s perspective as if they were the only one that mattered. The light cannot turn green in both directions. The elevator cannot be waiting at every floor. Decisions have to be made about which direction and which floor, and those decisions, even in small ways, effectively create winners and losers”.

These discriminatory tendencies of smart technologies are worsened by the digital divide. What about those who simply don’t have access to digital services? According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2017, 4.8 million adults in the UK had never used the internet and 22% of disabled adults hadn’t either. And it’s those with the lowest income that are least likely to have access. Offline households are missing out on estimated savings of £500 per year from shopping and paying bills online, not to mention access to jobs, social interaction and government services.

Positive action will be required to ensure that smart city solutions don’t just favour the already wealthy and connected.

Digital inclusion is, fortunately, a solvable problem and is moving in the right direction. In cities across the developing world, connectivity is soaring. Mobile phones allow people to use digital payment services, benefit from e-learning, and access primary health care. In the UK, smart-phone penetration has hit 85% of the adult population and is continuing to rise, free wifi is spreading across cities, and more and more older people are getting online.

The ‘civic tech’ movement is working to direct technology to more progressive outcomes. In New York, Civic Hall uses collaboration and inclusive design to develop digital tools for the public good. In the UK, ‘Tech for Good’ promotes ‘tech with humankind in mind’. And there are initiatives to make smart cities work for citizens, like the Smart Citizen platform, and the citizen-sensing tools from The Bristol Approach. And, of course, a number of start-ups are focusing on improvements, such as more efficient public transport or better air quality, which may disproportionately benefit the poorer sectors of society.

Unfortunately, support for citizen-innovation is dwarfed by the funds going into R&D and new commercial initiatives that are blind to social impacts. Regulators, too, are more focused on the ability of companies to compete in markets on an equal basis, rather than the ability of citizens to participate in their smart cities on an equal basis.

Smart-city technology will tend to increase social inequalities unless proactively directed to deliver positive outcomes. As well as investing in equitable solutions, decision-makers in companies and governments will need to move a way from the tech-determinism and instrumental thinking that dominates today. Instead, they should ask what kind of life we want to lead, what values we want to uphold, and how can technology contribute to that?


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