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Smart Cities Workshop: Data, Tech, Institutions, and Trustworthy Governance

9-10 October 2020

Online, hosted by the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

About the Workshop

Smart is in. The latest buzzword in the technology industry and policy circles is smart. We’ve built massive networked surveillance systems with the rise of the Internet that seem poised to inject intelligence into every aspect of our lives. Proponents of the Internet of Things, big data, sensors, algorithms, artificial intelligence and various related technologies make seductive promises, including that increased intelligence—“smart” phones, grids, cars, homes, classrooms, clothing, and so on—will minimize transaction costs, maximize productivity, and make us perfectly happy.

Yet society isn’t really structured to optimize social institutions and systems to maximize efficiency, productivity, or happiness. It may sound counterintuitive, but we usually take the opposite approach. We don’t optimize. The social value of leaving a wide range of opportunities open for the future generally exceeds the value that society could realize by trying to optimize its systems in the present. At least in the United States, Europe, and most liberal democracies, the default operating principle of social governance of people and shared resources is to leave things open and underdetermined; this principle allows individuals and groups to engage in self-determination with different outcomes, depending on the context and changing conditions. As law professor Julie Cohen succinctly put it, we need ample room for play.

Nonetheless, seductive promises of intelligent optimization are difficult to resist. Smart cities are exemplary. Around the world, cities have jumped aboard the smart tech bandwagon; others race to catch up, as public officials worry about falling behind. But whenever one sees “smart” in tech discussions, insert “supposedly” in front of “smart” and then ask a series of questions: Who gets smarter? How? With respect to what and whom? Who gains what power? These and many other important questions need to be asked prior to investment and deployment.

Smart cities require governance, especially governance of intelligence and intelligence-enabled control. In some very important respects, smart cities should remain dumb, and that will take governance. One way to quickly see the point is by way of analogy to the Internet and the decades-long and still ongoing debate about network neutrality. When an ISP knows who is doing what online, the ISP gains power that can be exercised in various ways, such as price discrimination or prioritization. Network neutrality regulation aims to constrain intelligence-enabled control by infrastructure owners so that users retain their freedom.

Cities will face very similar challenges for many different infrastructures and services. Integrating surveillance, AI, automation and other supposedly smart tech within basic infrastructure as well as public and private spaces raises a complex set of questions that need to be asked and carefully deliberated by communities before going down the smart city path. The governance challenges cities face demand systematic study. Thus, we propose to use the Governing Knowledge Commons (GKC) framework to structure a series of case studies that examine smart tech deployment and commons governance in different cities. We see the project in two ways: First, it is critically important as interdisciplinary social science. We need a deeper understanding of community governance institutions, the social dilemmas faced, and the dynamic relationships between data, technology, and human lives.  Second, it is critically important as policy guidance. The GKC framework provides a series of questions that any community should be able to answer prior to or at least during deployment of supposedly smart tech. Using the GKC framework to study smart cities also allows researchers to focus on different resource-user-technology systems within a smart city—e.g., transportation, health, education, and so on.

This Governing Knowledge Commons (GKC) workshop, to be followed by a book collecting case studies focused on Smart Cities and knowledge commons, offers a strategic opportunity to advance knowledge on how cities should respond to the challenges presented by digital networked technologies. Emerging smart cities will require trusted governance and engaged citizens. Integrating surveillance, AI, automation and smart tech within basic infrastructure as well as public and private services and spaces raises a complex set of ethical, economic, political, social, and technological questions that requires systematic study and careful deliberation. Using the GKC framework to structure case studies that examine smart tech deployment and commons governance in different cities serves two fundamental purposes: First, it ignites interdisciplinary social science. Second, it provides important guidance for communities deploying smart tech. The workshop and book will deepen understanding of community governance institutions, the social dilemmas communities face, and the dynamic relationships between data, technology, and human lives.

Participants (invited)

Recommended Readings for Participants