Our Collective Right to The City

BELONGING IN SMART CITIES

Larissa Suzuki
9 min readMar 29, 2021

Cities worldwide are experiencing tremendous transformations in their economy, environment and society due to rapid globalisation and urbanisation. Every day, nearly 180,000 people move into cities, creating over 60 million new urban dwellers every year. The world’s population living in cities increased to 50% in 2009, and by 2050 it is expected to increase to 70%.

In conjunction with the current economic crisis, this unprecedented speed in urbanisation has stretched urban resources to their limits and have made the interaction between people and places a global challenge. Worldwide, societies are experiencing aggravation in urban living in terms of law and order, health, safety and security, mobility, waste disposal, housing, utilities, education, transportation, and the provision of essential public services.

Digital technologies offer a new wave of opportunities to mitigate some of these impacts and create a balance between social, environmental and economic opportunities delivered through smart city planning, design, and construction.

[Architecture] “Why don’t you speak to me?”, asked Michelangelo

We are all energised by the considerable potential that smart cities can bring to us. We hear stories of designing the Internet of Things to control and interact with the architecture around us, using machine learning and deep learning for predictive maintenance, Virtual/Mixed reality applied to medical diagnosis, the use of blockchain to protect personal data, and the availability of data platforms to access the cities’ wealth of information.

Plugging in and using technological advancements to improve urban services is something that all cities should do. Nevertheless, smart cities are becoming a potentially dangerous title as it seems it is not necessarily something that will do the world tremendous amounts of good. One of the most influential economists, Edward Glaeser, argues that cities make people more prosperous, innovative, greener, healthier and happier. However, this is not what societies worldwide are experiencing so far. We have a stratified society, and those kinds of “smart things” will probably only be available and accessible, at least in the long run, for a very privileged few.

The standard ISO TC 159 defines accessibility as the “[…] extent products, systems, services, environments and facilities can be used by people from a population with the most varied characteristics and abilities to achieve a particular goal in a context of specific use.” In the context of Information and communications technology (ICT), accessibility can refer to the quality of a technology product or service that allows it to be used by people, regardless of their abilities or disabilities.

The United Nations estimates that 15% of the world population, or around 1 billion people, live with one or more disability’s conditions. Furthermore, more than 46% of seniors with age 60 and over have disabilities and more than 250 million of the elderly experience moderate to severe disabilities.

In June 2016, the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies (G3ict) launched an international initiative to define the current state of ICT accessibility in Smart Cities worldwide. They’ve also assessed the level of digital inclusion of people with disabilities and the elderly. The initiative included a survey with more than 250 international experts from municipal governments, industry, civil society, and academia, as well as a series of round tables in global Smart Cities (Quito, Barcelona, London, San Francisco, and New York) and interviews with administrators and technicians of those cities. The initiative confirmed that most cities are not fully accessible, and as a result, there is a growing digital divide affecting excluded disabled people and minorities.

The United Nations HABITAT, defines inclusive cities as “a place where everyone, regardless of their economic means, gender, race, ethnicity or religion, is enabled and empowered to fully participate in the social, economic and political opportunities that cities have to offer”.

Municipalities are under pressure to deploy their smart cities projects, mainly driven by technology companies, and people appear at best as consumers. An extensive body of existing literature [1–9] demonstrates a significant gap and shows that smart cities are not ready to meet the inclusive city’s requirements.

We are seriously having the idea of “smart cities” moved ruthlessly towards a design that mainly considers a singular perspective. The danger is that minorities are just not seen and perceived as the “others”. They are invisible, and their full humanity is not seen by those who practice “othering” to control the smart cities conversation.

Othering happens at all different kinds of levels. We’ve all had the experience of going someplace and feeling like this is not my place. These are not my peers. But what happens when the city, when the government say or act as if you don’t belong. It takes on a much more pernicious and dangerous form. Providing access to “smart things” designed without society’s needs and expectations in mind is not giving access at all. It neglects social inclusion and equity.

So in the smart cities arena, we’re in a battle. And it’s a battle between those who believe in social inclusion and equity and those who think that smart cities are to serve a narrow few. We should be asking ourselves some critical questions: How will access to smart cities technologies look like? How will all of society be using it? How can people be given access to information or advanced technologies without the knowledge to use them, and beyond that, without understanding what is behind it?

“What is the city but the people?”, asked Shakespeare.

Of all the forces that are reshaping our world, perhaps none are more important than our sense of who we are, how we are being affected, and whom we are becoming.

In the current period of accelerated change, leadership stories through media and data significantly shape our responses. The stories we hear speak to our deepest values and core beliefs, even at our subconscious levels. The knowledge economy and smart cities together have vast potential; however, who is part of the “we” in the smart cities development? It is clear that from the beginning of the smart cities movement, minority people weren’t in that we. Women weren’t in that we. People with disabilities weren’t in that we. So even though it has this glorious-sounding term, it then defined this we very narrowly.

Humans can only process so much change in a short period without experiencing fear and anxiety, which is a normal biological reaction. But how we respond to these is social.

There are two ways to respond to this change. One is called bridging, and the other one’s called breaking. Bridging is about connecting to the other. Where there’s no natural community as we are constituting these constantly. Bridging invites a sense of empathy, deep listening, and connection. Bridging helps us to respond to these changes as an opportunity.

Breaking sees the other as invisible, devalue the other’s perspective and needs, as somehow attacks who we are. And most of the stories and practices in smart cities developments, even in the developed world, are breaking [1–9]. We’re constantly defining our communities in opposition to the real collective we. We’re continually defining the “wenarrowly.

So, to some extent, that’s still the struggle we’re in. Can we define the “we” so that smart cities development are inclusive and not exclusive?

“The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights”, argued David Harvey

Oftentimes, cities are guilty of othering their citizens and their existing limitations to accessibility. Research has identified that cities still tend to be designed in a non-inclusive manner, considering a fully-abled 40-year old male as a norm for city design. Hence, groups that differ from this model are often neglected [10–14]. Furthermore, old and historical cities contend with strict heritage laws, while others feel they cannot handle transforming an entire area of established buildings and spaces. Today, people with different disabilities still face common obstacles, most of which can be easily solved. Examples of such barriers include the lack of wheelchair ramps, lifts, accessible toilets, and shops without step-free access for those with disabilities related to physical mobility. For citizens with audio-visual disabilities, a lack of social inclusion in train stations or bus stops generates obstacles. People on the autistic spectrum can suffer from the clutter and noise in some city areas. For all these and other reasons, smart cities can be seen as a threat to society.

In cities, “othering” is strongly related to mobility. The lack of accessibility prevents people from participating in the community’s economic, political, and social lives. Poor mobility design and access in society (e.g. transport services) results from a misconception that all citizens have the same mobility conditions. Although some efforts are underway to mitigate mobility in smart cities, they are still considered secondary plans, even in developed countries.

According to Professor Powell, the opposite of othering is not saming. It’s belonging. And belonging embraces differences and learns from them. It’s not afraid of differences, and yet it doesn’t make those differences infinite. Smart cities can provide benefits for everybody only when everybody co-creates them. Different views yield positive economic and social results and avoid smart cities developments to be designed by a singular perspective. Diversity and inclusion are crucial to both business and societal success. It is no longer a morality agenda. Rather, it is a prosperity agenda.

When seen as an opportunity, smart cities enable access to the environment, structures, services, processes, products, and information [15–24]. At the same time, cities employ equity to ensure that such access is fair, just and equitable to people of all abilities. It recognises and respects diversity and, through equitable governance, enables everyone to exercise their rights and duties as equal members of society [25–30]. Multiple initiatives are taking place worldwide using different technologies and infrastructures to address vulnerable groups’ accessibility, safety, and social inclusion. However, these efforts remain widely fragmented and are not addressing the “othering” of vulnerable citizens.

So how do we bridge connections to create smart cities where people truly belong?

We bridge by profoundly listening. We bridge by suffering with others, listening to others suffering. We bridge by engaging. We bridge by organising. And we bridge by empathy. It’s not easy. It’s a complex process. But it’s a rewarding process. And so, as we bridge, we move from an exclusive society to an integrated society, to an inclusive society, to a belonging society. Hence, without better collaboration between local governments, citizens, and other authorities, there is a notorious risk of not creating bridges for people with disabilities and the elderly.

We must notice that in a belonging society, the structure itself actually changed. When we talk about belonging, we’re not talking about belonging to something structurally exclusive and full of prejudice. We’re talking about changing the structures themselves. So belonging is not just how do we treat each other. Belonging is how we co-organise our economy, social structures, schools, faiths so that everyone belongs, and recognising we still have differences.

And yet, as important as it is to recognise each other, just recognising each other’s difference is not enough. We have to think about and change our social structures, too. So we focus on empathy. Empathy is just another way of talking about belonging. Focus on recognising that we are deeply related already.

If people with disabilities and minorities had that much impact — if we could bring everything we really have into the lab and the boardroom as we design the smart cities — how would the technology change? Give yourself the freedom to ask that question. We don’t often have the permission to ask that question in the places that we work. There are not many examples of efforts to create a belonging society. We are yet to create them and then deepen those examples. We will celebrate them. We will talk about them.

Until we open up our minds and think about what that means and give ourselves the freedom to do that, we won’t benefit from the potential of new technologies, structures, places and sustainability.

As we take part in building smart cities for everyone, if people with disabilities had that much impact, how would the world change? How would belonging look different if we were shaping it?

The potential is universal education and easy access to useful, relevant information to improve every person’s health and welfare. That is the potential we have. The potential is safety and privacy. Not the reverse. The potential is to bridge new fields and make new connections.

What would society be if people with disabilities and minorities roamed cyberspace with imagination and daring? The potential is sustainability and enrichment out of the destruction of the earth.

How do we get it? How do we give place to voices to come about? There are not many places to get those ideas around in our universally working places where we are the minority. Even if we had empathetic colleagues, it is challenging to immerse themselves and think about technology from a disabled person perspective to benefit people of all kinds and abilities.

It seems that until everybody is fully present and represented in the design process, in the decision process, in the lab, in the boardroom, at the table where decisions are made, we will not fulfil the tremendous potential and opportunity of smart cities.

--

--

Larissa Suzuki

Engineer, inventor, entrepreneur, philanthropist • #Data/AI Practice Lead, #AIEthics fellow, Interplanetary Internet @google • Prof @ucl