IT is difficult to win a debate on ethics when you are pitted against a crowd of tech-acolytes.
I was taking the position that a more vital consideration in developing cities are ethical ones rather than the smartness of the technology utilised in the infrastructure and running of facilities.
During the Maxis Innovation Dialogue recently, ethicists were pitted against the techies at polarised ends.
External to the debate setting, the most prudent position to take is the middle ground, which suggests that we can build smart cities that serve the communities that reside in them.
The concern here lies in the question as to whether we are being too hasty in turning to technology to resolve all problems that plague city dwellers.
Phrases such as ‘smart cities’ seem to appeal to the modern sensibilities of progressiveness, especially in raising our quality of life.
But are we saying that urban problems can be resolved only with technology and, therefore, the responsibility to develop smart cities to a certain extent is to be placed on the shoulders of tech companies?
Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad alerted us to the stumbling blocks in developing smart cities, which lie in involved parties working in silos.
At the launch of the Malaysia Smart City Framework on Sept 23, Dr Mahathir alluded to the need for cooperation between various tiers of government and the private sector, as well as reminding us that while developing smart cities may integrate our cities with technological solutions, the prosperity and well-being of the rakyat was the ultimate goal.
Hence, it cannot be a case of using technology for technology’s sake.
In recalibrating our debate of smart cities versus ethical cities, a multitude of concerns arise.
One of these is that vulnerable sections of communities may be further marginalised where technological solutions may be inaccessible, such as in the case of cashless payment systems.
When adopting such systems, one has to bear in mind sections of our society who have no access to connectivity, and skills to handle the technology.
Ethical cities can incorporate ‘smart’ initiatives where the use of technology is essential such as waste management through artificial sensors, alleviating traffic congestion, and efficient use of resources such as electricity to illuminate community spaces.
However, in most cities that require attention, poverty is the greatest concern.
Cities are not effectively dealing with rising property prices, the lack of public transportation, congestion, pollution, lack of accessible healthcare and quality education, and most importantly, safe spaces for our children to grow.
With everything else, we tend to be convinced by the use of gadgetry peddled to us by tech companies without substantial justification.
One example that has faced much resistance is the development of the waterfront in Toronto, Canada, a disused part of the quayside area.
The project obtained its approval in October, subject to conditions and restrictions; for instance, data collected will be treated as a public asset.
It faced a barrage of criticisms and questions, in particular the motives of big tech giants becoming involved in urban development. One expert critique called the initiative ‘surveillance capitalism’. Others questioned the tech giant’s experience in urban planning.
Are residents within these smart cities to end up being subjects of a larger experiment controlled by algorithms and artificial intelligence tools cloaked as magic potions, which are miraculously able to resolve the ailments of the cities?
There exists a need to ensure that our smart cities are indeed ethical cities. We have to ask the right questions to elicit the answers that will allow us to make well informed decisions.
There must be public consultation where details of the development are open to scrutiny in town hall meetings with residents.
At every phase of the development, there must be continued monitoring by city council officials as they are accountable to the residents who pay their assessment taxes.
There must be an end to any integration of innovation, clearly researched and rationalised as a vital need to the problems that blight a city.
Planning experts, environmentalists and educators who deliver services to the community must be engaged.
There must be clear compliance with procurement laws.
There must be a clear framework of how any use of AI, which harvests rich data from residents and users of the city’s facilities, is managed.
Finally, an independent panel of experts representing all parties, mostly the community, must be established as part of the monitoring system.
Cities need to be sustainable, resilient, economically vibrant, inclusive and democratic.
Keeping in mind that technology is the mere scaffolding that lifts the structures of our society, cities cannot be built from technology up; they are built from the needs of the humans who reside within them.
The writer is an Executive Committee member of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) and Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, HELP University, Kuala Lumpur.