Fourth Industrial Revolution

Why we need better governance to manage how cities use tech

Smart cities are the future.

Smart cities are the future. Image: Pawel Nolbert/Unsplash

Jeff Merritt
Head of Centre for Urban Transformation; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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Fourth Industrial Revolution

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

I don’t know the number of traffic intersections I crossed driving my daughters to school this morning. Or the last time I checked my email on a public Wi-Fi hotspot. But my city officials do (or easily could).

We are surrounded by digital technology in public spaces, but to most of us, it’s invisible. Travelling downtown or hanging out in a public park, you could encounter security cameras, traffic cameras, pedestrian or bicycle counters, Wi-Fi access points, or sensors that turn on lights.

This technology has the potential to improve our lives — it can help keep us safe, reduce traffic, improve disaster preparedness, provide reliable access to the internet, and decrease pollution.

It can also cause serious harm if it is not managed in a responsible way. The growing use of digital technologies in our public spaces has raised a number of political and ethical questions.

Some cities are able to track and identify millions people each day with cameras and lines of code. Coupled with other systems that monitor communication, internet use and transportation, these technologies can threaten privacy and civil liberties.

It’s easy to fault the cameras, or the facial recognition technology, but these tools in themselves are not good or bad; our ability and willingness to govern their use is.

Innovation has always been fundamental to the growth of cities. Throughout history, cities have been shaped by new technologies such as the steam engine, electricity and cars. With each new technology, cities have had to rethink the patterns of urban life and put place new rules and processes to guide this transformation.

As cars transformed urban planning in the twentieth century, we saw a myriad of new global norms and standards to help establish order and prevent chaos. Governance frameworks like speed limits, driver licenses and auto insurance were universally adopted. Meanwhile governments had the flexibility to customize local laws as they saw best.

This same foundation of global norms and solid public policy is desperately needed to manage the roll-out of digital technologies in our cities. We need universal norms and rules not only to determine how and when we capture data in public spaces but also to define how this data can be used. It is not about creating one-size-fits-all policies, but regulations that make us feel safe anywhere in the world.

That is what the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance on Technology Governance is working to address. Established in 2019 under Japan’s leadership, and being championed by Saudi Arabia in 2020, the Alliance has united over 200,000 cities and local governments, companies, start-ups, research institutions and non-profit organization around a shared set of principles for the responsible and ethical use of smart city technologies.

In the coming months, the Alliance will begin piloting a set of global policy standards for the responsible and ethical use of smart city technologies. The World Economic Forum, the international organization for public-private cooperation, has been selected to act as the secretariat for this Alliance, providing a neutral platform for building consensus and driving collective action in an increasingly fragmented world. Our hope is that these policy norms will provide a roadmap for cities of all sizes to more effectively adopt new smart city technologies without having to worry about a myriad of potential unexpected consequences or harm.

So, am I upset that my city might be able to track my morning commute or know my internet behavior? It depends on what happens next.

We are at a critical juncture, where governance decisions made in the coming years will decide if our kids grow up in cities that look more like utopian dreams or the stuff of nightmares. Now is the time for residents, business, governments and civil society to come together to set new rules to ensure that the technology and data it captures are used in a responsible and ethical way. There is too much at stake to leave our future to chance.

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