A free online program that informs city officials about the debates and research surrounding the impacts smart city technology and planning have 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 Institute for Urban Research (IUR) at Malmö University in Sweden, claims to be "the first online, open-access educational program on smart cities from a social sciences perspective."
The program comes as local governments digitize services and integrate new technologies into operations. City and industry leaders have urged 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 not implemented basic policies surrounding data privacy, accessibility and cybersecurity.
In the new course, eight online modules consist of video and audio lectures and written materials. Each module takes about 30 to 60 minutes to complete and is designed for people to take at their own pace, even while commuting or doing laundry, said Chiara Valli, an IUR researcher and co-organizer of the program, in an email.
Module topics include "Data and the Social," "Feminist Smart City," "Big Data, Privacy and Security," "Participation and Democracy," "Post-Pandemic Futures," and "The Role of Cities and Public Officials." Those lessons are based on interviews with a diverse group of academic and nonacademic researchers who work at institutions, organizations and cities in the U.S., England, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, and Ireland, Valli said.
The goal of the program is to "offer an overview of the current debates on smart cities taking place in the social sciences organised per thematic modules," Valli said in the email.
The project will also feature a live online workshop in February 2022 and a panel debate at the conference Beyond Smart Cities Today: Power, Justice and Resistance at Malmö University next June.
Smart Cities Dive corresponded with Valli through email to learn more about the impetus and goals for the program. 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 begin?
CHIARA VALLI: This project was started by Guy Baeten in 2018 and financed by FORMAS, a Swedish research council for sustainable development. Guy is a professor of urban studies and the director of the Institute for Urban Research at Malmö University.
The idea of the project comes from the observation that there is a mismatch between the public debates on smart cities and the research on smart cities by social sciences researchers.
The public debate on smart cities largely revolves around technological advancement, issues of scaling up urban technological experimentation, cost-benefit balances, economic growth and international urban competition. At the same time, social sciences researchers that have been writing about smart urbanism [over] the past 15 years — this has been an exponentially growing field — have raised crucial concerns that such focus on technological development risks exacerbating uneven development and social inequalities in cities.
Still, social sciences academic knowledge on smart cities rarely circulates beyond academic circles and hardly [ever] reaches out to practitioners at municipalities and other public authorities.
When we looked for open-access educational programs on smart cities, we found an abundance of online courses and [massive open online courses] dealing with the smart city from a technological or business perspective, but we found absolutely no courses dealing with the smart city from a social sciences perspective that are made for and with smart city officials.
We decided it was about time we started organizing one.
Broadly, what are some of the ways that technology could make cities more progressive and emancipatory?
The first step is placing an understanding of the social fabric of the city and its entrenched power structures at the forefront. That’s why we proposed a course to go in depth with these crucial aspects. Sociological, ethical analysis of tech solutions and their relationships to the territory are the fundamental homework that needs to be done before considering any smart city solution.
One way of improving inclusion and equality would be for smart city solutions to engage in ongoing projects of local organizations, rather than landing from the top down. The relationship between local governments and companies is also crucial: We need to develop a common language with the tech industry, one that would address power structures. Local governments should also set the rules for procurement to avoid dependencies and lockouts.
Engaging in long-term planning rather than sporadic solutions would also improve participation and social engagement and offer the basis for solid empowerment.
Another message from the course is that, despite claims of objectivity, basing our technological solutions only on big data will inevitably lead to partial and limited results. All the experts we interviewed seemed to agree that we need to contrast the abstract nature of data by means of re-embedding both the questions and the answers of smart cities into the history, social constellations and power hierarchies of actually existing cities.
And this is not about replacing big data with small-scale qualitative [data], the challenge is how to evolve big data to the next level, where quality and nuance and sociological understandings are incorporated in the collection from the beginning, in the question making.
What are some examples of the social and societal implications of smart cities policies, planning and technologies that the program would address?
The core questions of the program are, What are the democratic, ethical [and] social justice challenges of current forms of corporate-based definitions of smart cities? How can technologies contribute to making cities more socially progressive and emancipatory?
People interested in taking the course should not expect that we will provide answers to all the big questions of smart cities, and we are not aiming at offering easily applied solutions. Our aim, actually, is that the conversations in this program will serve as food for thought that will inspire the daily work of smart city officials and practitioners.
Are there smart city policies or programs that are being rolled out without enough consideration of the democratic, ethical and social justice challenges that may come with it? 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 pulled out of the project in , officially invoking the pandemic as the main reason.
But we know that Sidewalk Labs' plans were met by a cascade of critiques concerning data privacy, lack of economic benefits for the Canadian tech industry, public hearings that pretended to be democratic, sidestepping city authorities by setting up their own authorities for public transit, etc., and their overall philosophy of 'technological solutionism' for social questions that need a much more complex approach than technological fixes. [Editor's note: Sidewalk Labs disputes the accuracy of these criticisms.]
How might U.S. city officials benefit from the program despite its Nordic European focus?
We felt that for the conversations to be meaningful, we needed to set some geographical focus, and since we are based in Sweden, that was the most obvious place to start from. Still, the issues raised in the course are broad and worth discussing for any kind of smart city. In fact, most of the experts we interviewed are from the U.S. and have done their research on smart cities in American cities.
It is worth to note, also, that although the course is directed mainly to city officials and practitioners, we think it can also be very valuable for researchers, students, and citizens interested in smart cities.
Clarification: We have updated this article to include a response from Sidewalk Labs.