Leicester Smart City Challenges

What does it mean to live in a city in the UK is an interesting question, particularly in the early twenty-first century? Even more interesting is to ask what it means to live in a smart city in the UK in the early part of the twenty-first century. We are familiar with hearing how we live in an age of escalating and widespread technological change, but what is it about the use of technology and the data that supports its deployment across society that draws our attention to these changes?

Technology has long been said to shape our lives in new and uncertain ways, and the UK has been a technologically focussed society since the Eighteenth Century, as the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. We might assume that we have grown used to waves of technological innovation and change over this period, but each time we have been faced with a new way of making stuff, of figuring stuff out, of communicating about it, we’ve been forced us to reappraise the nature of our participation in community life. We’ve gone from a naturalistic view of ourselves, to a mechanical view of the entire cosmos, and now we are shifting into a digital age that utilises our knowledge of matter at a quantum level.

We place a lot of faith in technology, believing that somehow its use is guaranteed to improve the quality of our lives. How we interact with one another, how we travel around, how we earn an income, how we spend our money, how we access shared public services, how we manage our health, how we educated our children, how we grow old together, and so much more, are all being underpinned with emerging and untested forms of technology, which in many ways, we are not yet consciously aware of, or have been able to consent to.

Consistent throughout this story, however, is that the forces that repeatedly sweep through human society only amplify the divisions and inequalities in society that are already existent. When new forms of technology are introduced, they tend to magnify the existing divisions between the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor, the able and the less-able. For the most part technology is a neutral phenomenon, but human society is shaped by divisions of interest, resources, power and legitimacy. Some people prosper from the introduction of new technologies, and can ride the waves of innovation. Others, however, who are less well positioned in the social field, are never going to adapt and benefit from new technologies.

The challenge we have now, as new forms of data-driven technology are sweeping through our economy (like electronic banking, shopping, travelling, learning, and communications, and so on), is that many people are unprepared to meet the challenges of this change, because they are less informed and educated than others. The adage that knowledge is power is amplified with knowledge-driven technologies, because as tools for advancing the economy and the social systems that we are dependent on, this knowledge, and boldness needed to deploy these technologies, is not evenly distributed. Like Neo in the Matrix, it is easy to mistake daily life for its face-value experience, when in fact we became a data-driven social system a long time ago.

While we might not want to displace the core technological underpinning of our society, because it brings us many benefits and improvements that will see future generations prosper in ways that past generations never thought possible except in dreams, we are still entitled to ask questions about what this technology is being used for, about who is benefiting from it, about what it means for our ongoing relationships with one another, and what the moral and ethical principles are that should inform how we use technology and data in our daily lives?

Our project to understand Leicester as a smart city, then, is going to look at ways that technology and data-driven systems shape and form the lives that we live on a daily basis. What’s the impact of these technologies on the way that we form and maintain relationships? If we are collecting data and using the information that we generate from our interactions with these systems to decide how people access resources, then what are the safeguards that we need to put in place to ensure that any bias against different social groups is not hidden in the structure of these complex systems? Are we able to question and challenge the people who put these systems in place, and who administer them? Whose voices get heard in the process of deciding how these systems are designed and managed?

We know from our experiences of using social media in recent years that the innocent promise of a beneficent and plentiful society can quickly be manipulated for nefarious gain. The consolidation of the global technology industry around a handful of international, data-focused corporations means that we have very little say over the way technology is developed and applied in our lives locally. The expectation seems to be that use of data gathering technology in the form of the smart city is an unquestionable good overall, despite some short-term challenges. Can we be that naive? Can we assume that these corporations are acting for our benefit?

If we look at these issues through the lens of local life here in Leicester, it is certain that we will find many living examples of how technology is not being deployed openly and equitably. The fault lines that run through the whole of society are concentrated here in Leicester. The competing interest groups, the economic inequalities, the cultural diversities, the differences in identity, the reliance on legacy forms of communication, administration and oversight, all compound the sense that change is going to be problematic here in Leicester, and that we need to think carefully, openly and inclusively about how any technology-driven changes in the form of the smart city are implemented and developed.

The part that Leicester Stories can play in this process is to start to learn how to tell the stories of change. This means telling stories that inspire, as well as stories of fearfulness. To manage and support change in an inclusive and socially progressive way, that sees the potential for good in people, rather than antagonistically limiting some people’s potential to play their role in the social democratic process. Stories and personal testimony are a rich mine of ideas, lessons and imagination that can aid the process of equitable use of technology, and we can be confident that in telling these stories we will add to the storehouse of imagination and potential that we will need to benefit from the promise that the smart city offers.

This project is supported by The Alan Turing Institute, whose mission is to promote the understanding of the ethical and social issues arising from the use of data science and artificial intelligence. Professor Edward Cartwright of De Montfort University is leading the project, along with colleagues Dr Swati Virmani and Dr Ruben Martinez Cardenas of the Leicester Castle Business School.

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