The blog of the Urban Institute
December 2, 2019

To Make “Smart Cities” More Inclusive, Leaders Need Better Tools and Data

December 2, 2019

A 2017 National League of Cities survey found that 66 percent of US cities have invested in “smart city” technology, such as smart meters for utilities or wifi kiosks. Over the next two decades, cities around the world are poised to spend $41 trillion on these technological applications.

Critics of smart city technology argue, with good reason, that rapidly integrating technology in all aspects of government can exacerbate cities’ existing inequalities.

For example a recent report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration found that 54 percent of families with income less than $25,000 use the internet at home, compared with 82 percent of families with income above $100,000. Low-income families on the wrong side of the “digital divide” can easily miss out on the benefits offered by smart city applications. Technological investments in historically excluded communities also have the potential to exacerbate gentrification and displacement, or increase the capacity for surveillance, which threatens residents’ privacy.

On the other hand, advocates for smart cities often argue that adopting technology can not only boost cities’ efficiency, but also help them meet commitments to advance equity and inclusion (PDF).

For example, remote diagnosis and health monitoring can help communities of color, who are often disproportionately affected by chronic diseases, gain better access to health care and improve health outcomes. Digital learning can connect students from historically excluded communities with quality instruction, global resources, and more support. Last week, we shared how policymakers and community organizations in Chicago and St. Louis are using technology to engage residents and address disparities.

Clear, monitored goals can help cities innovate equitably

So how can cities ensure that all residents reap the benefits of technological advancement? The answer lies in how cities set goals at the outset of new projects and monitor their progress.

Our new report found that cities need to first “hardwire” equity goals into technology projects as they are developed, implemented, and evaluated.  For instance, Portland, Oregon’s Smart Cities PDX Priorities Framework establishes a process for designing smart cities projects, including engaging under-represented communities and data collection to understand disparities, as well as criteria for support which mandates all projects must “address an inequity/disparity.”

Cities should also leverage technology to measure progress towards achieving their equity goals to hold projects and themselves accountable. For example, Louisville integrated racial equity indicators into their LouieStat open measurement and performance system to improve accountability and performance.

Through common tools, leaders can better define and advance their goals

City officials who make decisions about technology and data investments must determine what technologies to invest in, understand where and how to deploy those technologies, and measure the impact of smart city programs. To ensure all these steps advance equity and inclusion, we found that officials need tools and processes that support incorporating equity into every step of technology adoption.

To help develop these tools, one component of our new Accelerating Innovation for Inclusion Initiative, supported with a grant from the Mastercard Impact Fund, in collaboration with Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, will focus on researching the current gaps cities face in implementing technologies to advance equity, including interviews with city officials who guide new technologies and the communities they serve. Based on this research over the next year, we will produce a framework to help cities incorporate equity as they harness new technology, which we hope leaders will be able to easily customize for their cities’ unique needs.

The project will also develop a public data tool to address one or more of the analytical gaps that we identify in our research. Ideally, this data tool will help policymakers gain the information and analysis they need to rigorously incorporate equity into daily decision making. It can also help community groups and journalists hold cities accountable to their equity commitments.

This data tool will continue Urban’s ongoing efforts to create new data science resources as we identify needs. One such example is our Open Data Bias Assessment Tool, a prototype of an automated tool that allows city officials, concerned residents, and other stakeholders to quickly assess the representativeness and bias of geographic and demographic data.

As cities rapidly adopt new technology, these commonly accessible frameworks, tools, resources can offer leaders valuable structure and information as they define, measure, and make progress toward equity and inclusion.

Photo by Westend61 via Getty Images.

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.