Smart Cities – Who Benefits?

 
 
 
Cui bono, means “who benefits?” Asking cui bono starts us down the path to ethical issues. This column uses the case of smart cities to illustrate the ethical dilemmas created by an otherwise innocuous-seeming issue.
 

Communications of the ACM, July 2019, Vol. 62 No. 7, Pages 23-25
Computing Ethics: “Who Benefits?”
By Susan J. Winter

I am the incoming editor of the Communications Computing Ethics column. I appreciate what previous column editors have done since this column's inception in 2008 and intend to follow their lead, creating a space where computing professionals can raise good questions about ethics emerging from our work. This does not guarantee good answers but should elicit good discussions, which are always encouraged in the pages of this magazine.

For my inaugural column, I begin with perhaps the oldest ethics-related question of all: Cui bono, which means "who benefits?"

Cui bono? In principle, everyone. But a closer look at the smart cities rhetoric shows the benefits focused on a subset of the total.Cui bono, which means "who benefits?"

Cui bono? In principle, everyone. But a closer look at the smart cities rhetoric shows the benefits focused on a subset of the total.Cui bono, which means "who benefits?"

Cui bono? In principle, everyone. But a closer look at the smart cities rhetoric shows the benefits focused on a subset of the total.


People are known to be self-interested, out to improve their own welfare. The larger society sets ethical boundaries on improving one's welfare. Forbidden are theft, fraud, nepotism, bribery, violence, and a host of other behaviors. Asking cui bono starts us down the path to ethical issues. This column uses the case of smart cities to illustrate the ethical dilemmas created by an otherwise innocuous-seeming issue.

Smart Cities For Whom?

Ethical behavior is a professional requirement. ACM says computing professionals should contribute to society and human well-being (ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct General Ethical Principle 1.1). It is hoped that incentives do the job by giving computing professionals the means: by putting them on the cutting edge, by recognizing their innovations, by helping them to improve the lives of millions with technology.

Smart cities seem a good case in point. Smart cities use cutting-edge and innovative technology to improve livability for millions. They promise:

• Traffic cameras and sensors that automatically adjust traffic-light timing and toll collection to reduce congestion while conserving fuel;

• Smart buildings with cameras and sensors that determine occupancy and adjust HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) and lighting to conserve energy;

• Wi-Fi kiosks with local maps and points of interest to improve way-finding;

• Compacting solar-powered, trash cans that signal when full to reduce collection, odors, and vermin; and

• Self-driving vehicles to reduce congestion, parking space shortages, and fuel consumption.

Cui bono? In principle, everyone. But a closer look at the smart cities rhetoric shows the benefits focused on a subset of the total. Computing professionals produce hardware that is smaller, more powerful, and more energy efficient, as well as new and improved algorithms for data collection, handling, manipulation, analysis, and presentation. Tech companies benefit from new technology and expanded markets. Municipal officials benefit from their reputation for innovation. Property owners benefit from higher property values. Benefits abound for computing professionals, the tech industry, some municipal officials, and property owners. Yet the concept of smart cities is decontextualized and abstracted. None of these objectives is unethical, per se, but they do not touch on the interests of people who live in cities who are not computing professionals, tech companies, municipal officials, or property owners. Nor do they touch on the interests of rural residents (20% of the U.S.). One might say that is the way of the world, but the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct General Ethical Principle 1.1 also states, "When the interests of multiple groups conflict, the needs of those less advantaged should be given increased attention and priority."

West Baltimore includes poor neighborhoods. People in West Baltimore have expressed interest in smart cities. The interests of the less-advantaged conflicted with other interests. The less-advantaged do not believe that automatic traffic-light adjustments and smart buildings are a big win for them. Their neighborhoods have little congestion and do not need automatic traffic lights. Their aging housing stock needs much more basic attention than that provided by smart buildings. Their high-crime streets do not invite people to access Wi-Fi at a public kiosk. Compacting trashcans are outweighed by loss of trash-collector jobs, which they need. Self-driving cars are more attractive to people who have cars, and self-driving buses are ridiculous to people who hope to get a job as a bus driver and who depend on human drivers to keep order and deter crime aboard the bus.

Many who live in West Baltimore would not benefit from smart cities as currently conceived. In fact, they might lose. But that does not mean they cannot benefit from innovation. Many in West Baltimore want free Wi-Fi on buses where they spend hours each day riding to and from school and work. These residents would benefit from free or affordable Wi-Fi at home (and no fear of unexpected data charges) to do homework, apply for jobs, improve skills, pay bills, and otherwise participate in modern life. That way those who now allow neighbors to congregate outside of their apartments to share their Wi-Fi service would not have to ask their neighbors to disconnect when the service gets too slow. Many would benefit from video feeds from cameras and microphones that detect gunfire, with emphasis on community empowerment rather than surveillance. Are these smart-city objectives? They are difficult to find in promotional materials for smart cities.

About the Author: Susan J. Winter is Associate Dean for Research in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, MD, USA.

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