Feb. 23, 2021
Smart Cities are Changing the Way We Argue About Justice
From ride sharing to food delivery, transportation control centres, COVID-tracing app, fitness trackers and facial recognition, digital technologies control us and our cities. Smart cities, and their related urban digital technologies, are characterized as vessels for the attainment of sustainable, efficient, transparent, healthy, and accountable cities and societies. However, these technologies—larger data flows, more sensors, complex analytics software, internet-connected devices, and open data platforms—have produced little substantive evidence of improved living conditions. In fact, they introduce new problems; reproducing, reconfiguring, and amplifying existing urban inequalities such as economic and cultural marginalization. Indeed, a growing chorus of critical voices are questioning the social justness in smart cities.
Dedicated to making space for arguments about social justice within the smart cities framework, Drs Mackinnon, Burns and Fast are co-editing a volume on “Digital (In)justice in the Smart City.” The volume enters into longstanding and diverse discussions on justice as it relates to the imbrication of technologies and the urban fabric. This article briefly introduces the volume, and then muses on the impact smart cities have on arguments about justice.
Key Themes in “Digital (In)justice in the Smart City”
“Digital (In)justice” traces the logics, rationalities, infrastructures, divisions, and role of people and communities, as well as the pressing need to recenter justice in these socio-technical entanglements. The book—under contract with University of Toronto Press and expected Fall 2021—provides a venue for bringing together smart city and social justice discussions occurring across a range of disciplines (e.g., geography, urban studies, urban planning, sociology, anthropology, communications, digital humanities, information technology, science and technology studies, engineering, political science, public policy) and geographic contexts. Commissioning 24 original chapters, and dialoguing with five leading urban and data scholars, we gained insight into both longstanding and contemporary debates around the urban, digital, and justice.
In the process of compiling the volume, five key themes emerge that illuminate, challenge, and provoke future direction for urban digital justice: 1. challenging the foundations of smart, 2. data decisioning and data justice, 3. infrastructures of injustice, 4. complicated and complicating digital divides, and 5. urban citizen and participation. Challenging the Foundations of Smart explores the ideologies and assumptions that predate and underpin smart city development and establishes conceptual foundations for a new smart city research agenda focused on feminist, queer, and more than human diffractions of digital justice. Data Decisioning and Data Justice analyzes the logics, rationalities, governance, and creation of urban data. Building on critical data studies and data justice, the authors in this section identify (in)justice within data-based socio-technical arrangements. Infrastructures of Injustice offers empirical cases of smart cities ranging from prototypes to actually existing ones from the global north and south. Each contribution foregrounds the uneven, granular, and scalar contexts of smart cities and the (un)just potentials and capacities. Complicated and Complicating Digital Divides challenges and updates longstanding discussions of the digital divide in order to examine landscapes of inequality and (in)justice. Chapters in this section refuse to take for granted what work the digital divide has and can do for us, and instead use the lens of the digital to think about social, political, and economic inequalities across a spectrum of foci. Lastly, Smart Urban Citizenship and Participation explores the political geographies of digital injustice, focusing on the classic themes of citizenship, belonging, community, and the public sphere.
Arguing about Justice in the Smart City – Who’s Responsible?
In undertaking this research and reflecting on the relationship between smart cities and social justice, it has become clear that the digital does, in fact, influence the way we argue about justice. Many modern social justice scholars did not anticipate or explicitly write about the profound impact digital technologies and smart cities will have on socially just urban futures. When writing about social justice in the context of globalization, Fraser (2005) sets up a distinctive shape to arguments about justice that interrogates who is responsible for claims of (in)justice. Paralleling Fraser’s (2005, 69) assertion that “globalization is changing the way we argue about justice,” we assert that the digital also changes the way we argue about justice. With globalization, claims for justice—who’s responsible—shifted from the modern territorial state to corporations and transnational agencies (UN, WTO). Similarly, smart technologies that are increasingly controlling aspects of civic life are not locatable within the jurisdiction of civic society or the state. Private, often international, corporations—Alphabet, IBM, Microsoft—are developing and licensing hardware, software, and applications that run the smart city.
Adding to this, who’s responsible changes again when we consider digital technologies within a smart city framework. The introduction of the “city” in smart cities manifests additional state and civic responsibility that is not present when we focus singularly on digital technologies. Dozens of nation states all over the world have deployed of smart initiatives: US Department of Transportation’s Smart Cities Challenge, Infrastructure Canada’s Smart City Challenge, and Indian’s 100 Smart Cities—just to name a few. And while high-level federal policy directives and corporate influence propel the smart agenda, it is within cities that smart plays out. Putting the who on cities and states renders visible the political and institutional arena to make claims for justice. However, this is a big responsibility for civic society, especially when officials are bombarded with tech-centric solutions but often lack training in critical data or science and technology studies.
Yet another complication to who’s responsible for making claims of (in)justice is the growing manifestation of smart “citizens.” A growing body of literature critical of tech- platform- and data-driven smart cities are advocating for citizen-centric smart cities and community-engaged digital governance. Does conceptualizing smart citizens, then, put the onus of who’s responsible for ensuring just and equitable outcomes of smart city initiatives onto ordinary citizens? Does the smart citizen, in fact, embody the everyday struggles facing citizens, and citizens in greatest need?
We also cannot forget the massive responsibility on researchers and research teams (e.g., academic, NGO) that are developing, implementing, and studying smart city technologies. Their work informs all level of government, businesses and decision-makers on the appropriate and suitable implementation of emerging technologies. In this process of studying social justice and the smart city, it became clear we urgently need (better) representation of humanities and social science scholars on these data and technology driven projects, as well as (better) engagement with the populations being affected by the technology being developed. The intersection between corporate, state, civic, citizen, and professional responsibility certainly complicates who’s responsible, which in turn further problematizes the political, societal, economic, and cultural arrangements that redress digital injustices.
The intricate web of who’s responsible is one example of the range of complexities for how individuals and collectives argue for social justice in the smart city. Rather than presuming social justice has a singular, self-explanatory meaning, it is deeply important to consider what frameworks we mobilize to evaluate fairness, oppression, and justice within digital urbanism. The book “Digital (In)justice in the Smart City” strives to make stories of injustice visible, and challenge entrenched inequalities that are pervasive in our smart cities. Fraser (2012, 43) states that “only by pondering the character of what we consider unjust do we begin to get a sense of what would count as an alternative.” Ponder, we do.
Fraser, N. 2005. ‘Reframing Justice in a Globalized World’, New Left Review, 36, pp. 69–88.
Fraser, N. 2012. ‘On Justice’, New Left Review, 74, pp. 41-51.
Fast, Victoria. 2021. Smart Cities are Changing the Way We Argue About Justice. Calgary Institute for the Humanities Newsletter, Winter 2021, 6-9. https://arts.ucalgary.ca/calgary-institute-humanities/news-and-publications/newsletter