From Zurich to Santiago, from Zug to Valdivia, the concept of “Smart City” has been increasingly present in the public agenda. Several cities are announcing the use of digital technologies to secure access to services and regulate different aspects, such as mobility, connectivity and public security. Consistently, different private and public actors are promoting urban projects labeled “smart”, assuming the positive impacts of technology and data driven decisions.
For the project, Smart cities and human rights: the cases of Chile and Switzerland, the team of the Institute of Business Ethics cooperates with the Universidad Austal de Chile as research cooperation, funded by the Leading House for the Latin American Region at the University of St. Gallen.
In this project, the transatlantic team of researchers is studying smart cities, cities that use digital technologies to provide access to various services in areas such as mobility, connectivity and public safety. The common assumption here is the positive impact of technology and data-driven decision-making. Our institute and Chilean partners ask to what extent smart cities projects reproduce or even reinforce digital inequalities and power asymmetries, and how responsible business conduct looks like in such a setting. The effects on democratic processes, human rights and data protection will also be analyzed.
The two project leaders, Isabel Ebert, (HSG) and Alberto Coddou (Universidad Austral de Chile), select Santiago and Valdivia, as well as Zurich and Zug, as example cases. Both researchers have many years of experience in the research field of business, technology and human rights (also in connection with the UN). They complement each other perfectly, with public law and political theory on the Chilean side and economic ethics (also political science, peace and conflict research) in St.Gallen.
- Describe and map smart cities projects and their implications for planning, democratic processes and human rights
- Discuss core concepts and assumptions behind smart city intervention
- Convey a better understanding of the social, in particular human rights, impacts of those initiatives
There is a strong need for institution building around the governance of public-private initiatives such as smart cities, including channels for meaningful civic engagement and participation in project decisions that impact human rights, including mechanisms for contesting decisions.1 National and local governments need to carefully assist the ownership of digital infrastructures developed through public-private partnerships, and uphold appropriate structures for public interest governance, oversight and accountability. Smart cities need to build on civic tech governance that enables public oversight of digital tech with citizen’s engagement.
Assessing human rights impacts is crucial to understand project risks and how these may be mitigated through appropriate governance structures, particularly where the State is partnering with the private sector to implement smart city strategies. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, need to form the backbone of such assessments and ensure that the local government applies human rights in the local context, as articulated for example in the Declaration of Cities Coalition for Digital Rights.2 For example, digital rights can be transposed into precise contractual obligations that urban developers and their partners can be made to comply with. This, of course, requires that State actors invest time and resources into the identification of potential risks to human rights posed by a particular project, and should therefore be clearly stated a priori in requests for proposals.
To test smart city initiatives, many cities set up smart districts to pilot new technologies, with the hope of showing results that could then be endorsed or sponsored by local, regional or national governments. In these places, smart technology becomes the central focus of new real estate development projects, commercial initiatives and city governance structures. Either in conjunction with public entities or by their own initiative, private actors promote “smart cities projects” that involve the use of data and surveillance on public spaces. In this scenario, cities are reimagined and reconstituted as platforms that connect several data sources. During the current Covid-19 pandemic, the collection and analysis of data for private and public interests in the management of the city has accelerated to unknown levels, providing new traction to the smart city movement.
Critiques against the smart city movement have been raised mainly to the accumulation of private power and to the increasing state surveillance it allows (Greenfield 2013). In this regard, many critiques are based on power asymmetries that are enhanced by new technologies that, on the one hand, present themselves as neutral and non-discriminatory, and on the other, as protected by a black box which is too complex and difficult to understand for the lay person. At the same time, these technologies attract new data from potential users, but the access to that data from users and regulators is not guaranteed (Sadowsky & Pasquale, 2015). In this scenario, a human rights approach may provide an overarching set of normative standards that may be used to assess initiatives that attempt to make cities smarter through radical technological infrastructures. In other words, human rights may provide a unifying vocation, both procedural and substantive, to assess whether these initiatives comply with generally accepted standards of behavior of both private and public actors. When dealing with the smart city agenda, the emerging human right to the city seems to encompass many of the rights and interests that may be affected by this radical reshaping of cities as digital platforms, such as the right to participation, the right to privacy and public liberties more broadly.
To ascertain the gap between these initiatives and human rights standards, there are several associated approaches that may help us in the task of understanding the business models, the purposes and the interests that lay behind concrete smart city projects. In this regard, and apart from recent development in the field of “Business & Human Rights”, the research project refers to critical data studies and urban planning approaches to understand how smart city initiatives unravel in concrete experiences.
Dr. Isabel Ebert (email@example.com) & Mariam Shakil (firstname.lastname@example.org)