Government and governance, Science and technology, Health | Asia, The World

23 July 2020

While COVID-19 is a substantial policy problem unto itself, it will also have many knock-on impacts, including on smart city projects, Kris Hartley writes.

COVID-19 has arrested the world’s attention, and for good reason. However, policy challenges that were urgent before the crisis, if anyone can remember them, have not gone away. Climate change, socio-economic inequality, rapid urbanisation, and digital transformation, among other issues, remain salient around the world.

It is fair then to consider what effect COVID-19 will have on policy approaches to these lingering issues, including its effects on state-society relations. One place to start is at the intersection of pandemics, technology, and urbanisation – the smart city.

The integration of technology and urban policy – to which the catch-all term ‘smart cities’ is loosely applied – has been a consequence of scientific progress, commercial prospecting, and the needs and consequences of accelerating urbanisation.

These forces have found mutual purpose in the digitalisation of urban life, including cloud computing, water reuse, and platforms for civic engagement, among others. As such, smart cities have moved beyond the sole domain of technology and become a salient topic for governance more broadly.

This invites reflection from the perspectives of both public policy and political science, fields that have no roots in technology but can ask relevant questions about fairness, legitimacy, and power relations.

From a governance view, calls are growing from these disciplines to democratise smart city policy decisions, which are made often by experts, tech firms, and political elites. Given a growing appetite among governments to measure and monitor society – an approach not always popular among the public – smart cities’ commercial agenda continues to benefit from an undemocratic policy-making environment.

China offers an instructive case in the opportunities and perils of this type of smart city governance. Smart city supremacy is a policy priority in China, but this ambition should be analysed for both its virtues and flaws. Given the expertise and resources required to develop smart cities, China has some substantial advantages.

More on this: Privacy, trust, and smartphone apps

China benefits from a growing innovation ecosystem and has become globally competitive in some technology subindustries including 5G, autonomous vehicles, and artificial intelligence.

Further, China’s history of developmental reform and experimentation suits the smart cities development model.

Even as technology infrastructure outstrips demand and smart projects fail to gain initial traction elsewhere, China’s urban technology projects – from Tencent’s Net City to the Sino-Singaporean Tianjin Eco-city – are seen by the government and industry as valuable cases for experimenting with and mainstreaming smart cities programs.

Shenzhen, home to Net City, is an illustrative example. It is now an innovation hub and a key pillar of the Chinese government’s Greater Bay Area initiative. These smart city aspirations are backed by substantial policy capacity and political will, but there are concerns with how China, and indeed many countries, are planning to use urban technology.

Despite these governments ambitiously marching towards ‘smartness,’ thorny issues around surveillance and data collection cannot be ignored – especially when there is room for political and technological forces to collide or collude.

In China’s case, the performance of local political leadership is evaluated not only on economic growth but also on an increasing array of metrics, including environmental outcomes and more recently their city-level pandemic response.

These types of incentives illustrate also that as fiscal belts tighten amidst the pandemic-induced global economic contraction, efficiency is becoming more crucial, and smart cities claim to offer compelling opportunities to achieve it.

Under these circumstances, the use of urban technology would at first seem benign and even beneficial. However, the distressing specter of surveillance and control lurks behind these potential benefits.

More on this: The rise of ‘big other’ smart cities in China

China is not likely to experience the same noisy political reckoning about the balance between privacy and security that democracies would, and in the face of global criticism its government is unlikely to curtail the use of surveillance technology such as facial recognition in domestic social and political projects.

This is a cautionary tale and can be used to build awareness about such practices elsewhere.

In democracies, it is distinctly possible that claims about efficiency, order, and progress have so captured the smart cities narrative that pushback over political or social concerns risks being dismissed as luddite panic.

Test-beds for new urban technologies and demonstration projects will continue across the world, as they have in China’s case, through a wave of technology-enabled ‘new towns.’ How such endeavours will fare in the post-COVID-19 era is hard to predict, but society, government, and businesses must watch and learn from the outcomes of these trials.

If they go well, the coming worldwide project to build pandemic resilience will likely be connected with urban technology, and smart cities could be seen to play a crucial role in preventing and controlling outbreaks.

However, policymakers should not be carried away by their enthusiasm. Without sufficient protection for civil society and personal liberties, it is no stretch to assume the eventual convergence of, for instance, health profiling and behaviour monitoring, particularly in countries where citizens have little opportunity to offer input or mount opposition.

This is, of course, only one among numerous possible threats to personal liberties that arise from the widespread adoption of technology in public services.

Ultimately, it is crucial not to let the ongoing blitz of jaw-dropping technological novelties lure society into believing that all problems can be rationally tamed. Not all that computes is progress, and most global crises and their urban manifestations – from pandemics to irrational investment exuberance and depletion of natural resources – are the products of ‘un-smart’ human behaviour, something that remains embedded in the technology that humans create.

Technology neither provides a conclusive fix for unsustainable behaviour nor excuses humanity from an inconvenient reckoning about the perils of greed and exploitation. Before embracing a post-pandemic smart city surge, policymakers must embrace this fundamental lesson.

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