Can Smart Cities Be Equitable?

Homi Kharas and Jaana Remes at Project Syndicate: “Around the world, governments are making cities “smarter” by using data and digital technology to build more efficient and livable urban environments. This makes sense: with urban populations growing and infrastructure under strain, smart cities will be better positioned to manage rapid change.

But as digital systems become more pervasive, there is a danger that inequality will deepen unless local governments recognize that tech-driven solutions are as important to the poor as they are to the affluent.

While offline populations can benefit from applications running in the background of daily life – such as intelligent signals that help with traffic flows – they will not have access to the full range of smart-city programs. With smartphones serving as the primary interface in the modern city, closing the digital divide, and extending access to networks and devices, is a critical first step.

City planners can also deploy technology in ways that make cities more inclusive for the poor, the disabled, the elderly, and other vulnerable people. Examples are already abundant.

In New York City, the Mayor’s Public Engagement Unit uses interagency data platforms to coordinate door-to-door outreachto residents in need of assistance. In California’s Santa Clara County, predictive analytics help prioritize shelter space for the homeless. On the London Underground, an app called Wayfindr uses Bluetooth to help visually impaired travelers navigate the Tube’s twisting pathways and escalators.

And in Kolkata, India, a Dublin-based startup called Addressing the Unaddressedhas used GPS to provide postal addresses for more than 120,000 slum dwellers in 14 informal communities. The goal is to give residents a legal means of obtaining biometric identification cards, essential documentation needed to access government services and register to vote.

But while these innovations are certainly significant, they are only a fraction of what is possible.

Public health is one area where small investments in technology can bring big benefits to marginalized groups. In the developing world, preventable illnesses comprise a disproportionate share of the disease burden. When data are used to identify demographic groups with elevated risk profiles, low-cost mobile-messaging campaigns can transmit vital prevention information. So-called “m-health” interventions on issues like vaccinations, safe sex, and pre- and post-natal care have been shown to improve health outcomes and lower health-care costs.

Another area ripe for innovation is the development of technologies that directly aid the elderly….(More)”.