• Governance is emerging as a serious consideration when it comes to the use of advanced digital technologies to drive smart city objectives.
  • Cities looking to use 4IR tools will have to address challenges of accountability, limiting technology misuse, ensuring citizen privacy, strengthening cybersecurity and extent of AI.
  • The G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance has developed a policy roadmap that city leaders and administrators can refer to as a baseline for sound technology governance.

The ambition of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 11 is to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. To achieve this, cities are seeking to implement a range of smart technologies that can help them face down a crisis like COVID-19 and improve overall efficiency and quality of life.

But while this is a laudable goal, governance is emerging as a serious consideration when it comes to the use of advanced digital technologies to drive smart city objectives, especially given the importance of public trust in municipal administration. Issues like privacy, data protection, cybersecurity, and connectivity are emerging as areas where gaps exist regarding the ethical and responsible governance of smart city programmes.

Meeting governance needs

In 2020, as societies the world over struggled to respond to the spread of COVID-19, it seemed Singapore had come up with an effective technology-powered contact tracing system. Citizens were required to scan a QR code with identification information whenever they entered a public place, thus enabling contract tracers to track down anyone who may have been exposed to the virus. Additionally, an app was launched that allowed encrypted ID info to be traded via digital devices between people in close proximity that could then only be decrypted by the Ministry of Health.

While Singaporeans were somewhat sceptical of the systems, the government repeatedly promised that information would be used for contact tracing only. So when it was discovered recently that the police had been using the data for their own investigations, a crisis in public trust emerged that is still ongoing. While legislation is now being introduced to limit access to the data, in hindsight, it is clear that stronger attention to governance could have prevented what many citizens now view as government duplicity.

What happened in Singapore could happen anywhere as emerging technologies pose an entirely new range of governance challenges. In the coming years, cities looking to use 4IR tools will have to address these challenges – including accountability, restricting the misuse of technology, ensuring citizen privacy, strengthening cybersecurity, and the extent of human-machine collaboration. Debates over the deployment of new technologies will only continue to grow as each technology presents its own unique set of governance concerns.

With the global pandemic sparking a surge in digital innovation in everything from work and collaboration to distribution and service delivery—in many ways shifting the public’s expectations—cities have a critical role to play in how technology governance progresses over the next decade. For instance, in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, the chief privacy officer advises on handling personal citizen data, and the data protection officer ensures that all stakeholders comply with the privacy policies. This means not only addressing the foundational principles of ethical deployment, but also the role of private sector collaboration and the experimentation needed to evolve new technology governance approaches.

While different cities will have different needs, they will all need a technology governance framework they can refer to and customize based on local conditions. To that end, the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance (GSCA) was established to help cities identify and adopt foundational policies for smart city technologies, developing a policy roadmap that city leaders and administrators can refer to as a baseline for sound technology governance.

The G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance and a new policy roadmap.
Image: World Economic Forum

The roadmap is organised around five core principles: equity, inclusivity, and social impact; privacy and transparency; security and resilience; and operational and financial sustainability. Developed with the GSCA, the report, “Governing Smart Cities: Policy Benchmarks for Ethical and Responsible Smart City Development”, analyses how these principles are being deployed by 36 “pioneer” cities worldwide, drawing on a detailed survey and interviews with GSCA policy experts and city government officials. The policies of the pioneer cities were evaluated against the roadmap, building a dataset that can be used as a benchmark by other cities to assess their own policies.

“We need to work together to realise the potential of data to solve city challenges by putting it in the hands of those who can make a difference,” notes Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer for London, one of the 36 pioneer cities. “But we also need to do it in a way that is safe, ethical and responsible.”

Addressing governance gaps

Analysis of the pioneer cities against these model policies has revealed the real existence of governance shortfalls. All model policy areas except for open data had significant gaps. This leaves smart city technology deployments at best less than effective – and, at worst, a potential opportunity to expose stakeholders, including citizens, to threats.

Cities need to address these gaps to fully capitalize on 4IR technologies while protecting their citizens from malefactors. Reviewing policies with regards to smart city technology to identify gaps using the policy roadmap as a guide can be a critical starting point.

For instance, a lack of written policies can sometimes lead to missed opportunities. In Newcastle, Australia, funding from the federal government would not have been enough to install fibre in smart poles without alignment between the infrastructure and the utility provider. But since the city did not have a written ‘dig once’ policy, it may have missed the chance for the most effective and efficient rollout of technology.

To fill gaps like this, cities will need to work with a range of stakeholders. Local governments will need to look to national and regional policymakers for support as they work to align with guidance and regulations. Also, cities will need a strong governance model to enhance the effectiveness of policies. For example, Dubai has set up an office of cybersecurity in each of its 133 government entities and semi-entities. Their cybersecurity governance framework is reviewed annually by the director general’s office and assessed and audited by the Dubai Electronic Security Center.

Civic organisations can also help by providing cities with the technical skills to, for example, develop open data platforms as well as monitor city transparency and accountability. And, while regulated to mitigate unfair competition, cities should work with the private sector – including technology vendors – to help bring governance up to global standards.

Kakogawa, one of the pioneer cities in Japan, provides a good example of how leadership and citizen coordination can improve transparency and accountability. In 2017, the city enacted an ordinance to place 1,475 “mimamori” cameras – that is, cameras that “watch over someone with care and compassion” – in an effort to fight high levels of street crime. The mimamori system made it possible to detect residents carrying Bluetooth Low Energy tags, enabling parents and family members to receive a notification via a secure app of a child or an elderly person’s location. The city held a dozen town hall meetings where the mayor himself explained the purpose of the policy and answered questions. Citizens were assured that there would be clear limits on what the camera network could do and where the data would go. As the result, more than 90% of citizens welcomed and supported this effort, and the crime rate in Kakogawa fell below the prefecture average for the first time.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to ensure smart cities?

Cities represent humanity's greatest achievements - and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of humanity is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner, greener and more inclusive.

The World Economic Forum announced on June 28, 2019 that it was been selected to act as the secretariat for the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance.

Led by the World Economic Forum, the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance on Technology Governance is the largest global initiative of its kind, with its 16 founding partners representing more than 200,000 cities and local governments, companies, start-ups, research institutions and non-profit organizations.

Together, the Alliance is testing and implementing global norms and policy standards to help ensure that data collected in public places is used safely and ethically.

Read more about our impact on smart cities.

There is no denying the value of such digital tools – especially as cities recover from COVID-19, a crisis of unprecedented proportions. But governance gaps in the deployment of these tools could needlessly expose cities and their citizens to risk and inhibit their ability to respond.

The recovery from the global COVID-19 pandemic offers cities a unique opportunity to reset and re-examine the governance policies that guide the uptake of digital technologies, the pace of which is sure to increase in the coming decade. By being prepared with a strong roadmap to govern their smart city aspirations, cities will ensure they are in a position to meet tomorrow’s challenges with digital technologies that are efficient, effective, and equitable.