New Cities and Old Practices: Towards Smarter Citizen Engagement

When talking about smart cities, two myths still prevail. First, that technology can be a panacea to all our social problems and second, that traditional methods of public consultations will help municipalities...

When talking about smart cities, two myths still prevail. First, that technology can be a panacea to all our social problems and second, that traditional methods of public consultations will help municipalities understand some of our communities’ most pertinent problems, which are then to be solved through technology.

While technology can indeed help make cities more responsive to citizens’ needs, throwing sensors to excluded and traditionally marginalized communities will not magically amplify their voices. On the contrary, if ‘smart city’ projects do not critically engage with artificial intelligence, existing problems may amplify and new ones are likely to emerge.

By now, algorithmic discrimination is an unpleasant reality. From income to gender and race profiling, artificial intelligence inhabiting our public places could well produce a new type of undemocratic governance that is neither just nor accountable. Some cities in Europe are already experiencing the perils of an unregulated digital space, while Canadian cities are embarking on important debates over data gathering, management and governance – some being sparked by the new Sidewalk Toronto project. Other cities in North America, for instance New York, are proposing regulations to tackle algorithmic inequality.

While these concerns call for caution, technology also has an unexploited potential to improve our urban lives. Smart city projects, in particular, can intentionally use technology to make citizens’ public interactions and the delivery of services easier and more efficient. A less explored dimension of technology is its potential to improve the lives of the most disadvantaged among us: those traditionally or newly marginalized in our urban spaces.

Towards a smarter citizen engagement

The Smart Cities Challenge, launched by the Government of Canada, has motivated many communities to engage in submitting a project application. As part of the challenge, local authorities are incentivized to consult their communities at large.

Traditionally, the term “public consultation” for local governments implies city-hall gathering and other forms of meetings where citizens provide input to local authorities on various projects. This form of public consultation commonly attracts interested public and citizens who can adapt their working and life schedules to such meetings, as well as follow-up on issues. But, they are less effective in attracting socially and economically disadvantaged populations, those living in sub-urban areas, and those traditionally marginalized communities who often become invisible to decision-makers.

In preparing for the Smart City Challenge, many municipalities are leveraging technology for community engagement. Mississauga, Waterloo and Winnipeg, for example, are using online surveys for citizens, communities and other stakeholders to submit their ideas for the final municipal project. Montreal has gone a step further in launching a call for proposals that will inform the final city application to the Smart Cities Challenge. While this latter method is creative and democratizes the process of crafting the final application, it still remains passive and will attract already engaged citizens and technologically literate ones. Marginalized communities may still be left out of the process.

What is needed are proactive measures to reach all citizens, especially the most disadvantaged ones. These communities are to be reached where they live and work. Often, local authorities are not perceived as legitimate agents to reach out to marginalized communities. When this is the case, municipal governments should rely on community representatives, who are often referred to as ambassadors. Community organizations and other non-profit are also a resource to be pro-actively consulted in order for these new projects to be relevant and life-enhancing to the communities that need attention most.

Issues of discrimination and marginalization in our cities will only be amplified if we do not include marginalized communities in our smart city projects. Artificially intelligent systems reflect the values of those who build them, so the onus is on municipalities to decide whether or not inclusion is a value they want their ‘smart’ cities to have.


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