April 13, 2021

Smart Cities and the New Social Contract

Rhea Jiang

The social contract, broadly conceived, is a pact among individual members of a society with the goal of advancing collective interests. Cities play a crucial role in the formation of community by nurturing the public sphere and healthy encounters of difference.

A street sign sitting on the side of a road in Miami Beach

Photo by Nathan Rogers for UNSPLASH

In May of 2020, Sidewalk Labs announced that they were shutting down their flagship Quayside project in Toronto. Citing the uncertainty that COVID-19 had brought to the global economy and the Toronto real estate market, CEO Daniel Doctoroff wrote that “it has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed together with Waterfront Toronto to build a truly inclusive, sustainable community.” Yet even before the pandemic, Sidewalk Labs’ presence in Toronto was highly controversial, with organizations such as Block Sidewalk emerging in opposition to what they saw as a “surveillance test bed” for the tech industry. While these activists saw Google’s departure as a victory (Sidewalk is owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company), the dream of Sidewalk lives on in contemporary cities all across the globe. A 2016 survey found that 800 smart city projects had been implemented across 54 cities in the U.S. alone. Meanwhile, in 2018, South Korea studied and categorized a total of 60 such cities in the country. Newspaper headlines proclaim that “the future of the city is smart,” but the technology and infrastructure of the smart city has already been built, and is expanding at breathtaking speed. In many ways, the smart city is already here. It is thus all the more urgent to look critically at how the smart city is changing—and will continue to change—the urban social contract.

The social contract, broadly conceived, is a pact among individual members of a society with the goal of advancing collective interests. In democratic societies, the rights of the individual are preserved while allowing for a political authority that governs on the basis of a common good. Individuals commit to seeing themselves as belonging to a free community of equals, where each has an equal voice in political deliberations and an equal degree of accountability before the law. As many 20th century thinkers have noted, cities play a crucial role in the formation of this political community by nurturing the public sphere and healthy encounters of difference. However, current “smart city” developments pose significant risks to the social contract as we know it. Many new technologies are exacerbating asymmetries of information and power in the city, which restrict individual freedoms, hinder community building, and intensify socioeconomic inequality. In so doing, they threaten the free community of equals that is foundational to building a positive social contract.

Take, for example, the case of LinkNYC, a collaborative project between the City of New York and a consortium of private corporations known as CityBridge, including Sidewalk Labs. The project aimed to install open-access Wi-Fi kiosks across the city, financed by the monetization of their users’ data. At the surface, this may seem like an innocent public-private partnership with the positive outcome of expanding internet access. This greater accessibility, however, comes at a high cost to those who rely on it.

During the project’s first implementation, the data collected through LinkNYC brings in tremendous revenue for Google’s advertising business, but more importantly, it helps expand Google’s footprint from the online world into the physical one. The unfettered access to user data means that Sidewalk “can actually then target ads to people in proximity and then obviously over time track them through lots of different things, like beacons and location services, as well as their browsing activity. So in effect what we’re doing is replicating the digital experience in physical space.” Following waves of criticism, LinkNYC no longer tracks users’ movements or monetizes that data, but privacy concerns remain. Each kiosk has three built-in cameras, and email address registration is still required for Internet access; overall, there is still a glaring lack of effective public oversight

The privacy risks such projects present are not applied evenly throughout the city’s population. People with more wealth and access to resources are able to attain private services (such as a private Internet provider rather than public Wi-Fi, as in the case of LinkNYC), which may shield them from some forms of tracking, further increasing informational asymmetries among socioeconomic lines. As a consequence, the free community of equals is not free, communal, or equal at all—and the collective interest is expropriated by the interests of an elite few.

Smart city proponents and critics alike often make the argument that the technology itself is not the problem. They see smart city technologies as a mostly neutral tool, and more discerning advocates will call for greater public access and communication as a way to keep the “smart city” but ditch the unsavory aspects. It’s certainly true that technology has facilitated many beneficial developments such as better targeting of government support, expanding access to services, and identifying more sustainable solutions to urban issues. 

However, algorithmic transparency is not sufficient to solve problems of algorithmic bias. Data collection and management at such a massive scale will always pose inherent risks. In response to the criticism around matters of transparency, some municipal governments have adopted “open data” initiatives where all the data that is collected by the city is published online in an attempt to encourage government accountability and civic innovation. Guidelines around personally identifiable information and secrecy have failed to prevent the inadvertent identification of sexual assault victims, individual travel patterns, and political affiliations: as information scholars such as Ben Green have pointed out, there are “few clearly defined sets of data attributes that do or do not reveal private information.” The effective management of data therefore requires a hybridized approach that does not solely focus on legal compliance--we need a fundamental change in the nature of governance that is more accountable and inclusive.

The smart city is here to stay. While I believe that smart city technologies will always have some risk in their orientation towards certain undemocratic forms of governance, those risks can be managed and mitigated through the development of more democratic architectures around that technology. As Ben Green writes in The Smart Enough City, both public discourse and policy approaches need to consider algorithms “not as unassailable oracles but as socially constructed and fallible inputs to political decisions.” Only when we directly face the challenges of algorithmic governance can we begin to chart a better trajectory for its development. As cities become smarter, our social contract needs to become smarter too.