Smart Cities and Digital Ethics: a few thoughts


10 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Worldwide, city leaders are hungry for smart city status. They believe in the promise of connected devices, location-aware sensing technologies and masses of data combining to inform (or make) better public service decisions, optimise efficiency and provide a brighter future for all citizens. What I hope they also believe in is the real and immediate need to grapple with and positively attend to the big ethical questions around fairness, transparency, agency and accountability associated with smart city technologies.

In December 2019, I attended the Digital Ethics Summit organised by TechUK. The summit focused on the relationship between individuals, data and society; concentrating on putting digital ethics into action and asking whether this is positively impacting our everyday lives.

Among the highlights of the event were the thoughtful and inspiring contributions of Doteveryone Interim CEO Catherine Miller, Ada Lovelace Director Carly Kind, and technology and politics broadcaster, Stephanie Hare.

Catherine posed a vital question: “What are the conditions required to allow for ethical and responsible tech, and how do we do it holistically to create systemic change?” 

Meanwhile, Carly encouraged us to “move beyond [the] discussion of bias and discrimination and have more complex notions of fairness.”

“Every session mentioned facial recognition systems in one way or another, including the proliferation of these technologies in public spaces by corporations—without oversight or governance,” Stephanie observed.

Since the crux of the event was to explore whether digital ethics was providing us with the tools we need to ensure safe and responsible innovation practices when designing and deploying powerful technologies, let’s look at our future tech-enmeshed smart cities from a few perspectives…

Controversial Smart City Development: A Poster Child

Toronto’s Quayside, a 12-acre urban development project spearheaded by Google associated Sidewalk Labs, promises a futuristic city with eco-friendly buildings, autonomous vehicles, sensors and robots.

The project, however, is mired in controversy and continues to receive criticism, e.g. around process, democracy, governance and how the proposed community will handle data privacy. An oversight panel found their “frustratingly abstract” proposal to include “irrelevant or unnecessary” innovations and said that it “did not appear to put the citizen at the centre of the design process for digital innovations.” Not good.

By October 2019, Waterfront Toronto (the organisation overseeing Toronto’s waterfront developments) allowed the project to proceed with a couple of conditions. First is that any data Google collects must be treated as a public asset. And secondly, the area will only cover 12 acres (as opposed to the proposed 190-acre neighbourhood). 

The organisation also made it clear that this doesn’t mean the project will push through. Quayside will still be subject to formal evaluation and public consultations, with a final vote set for March 2020. 


The involvement of large technology companies in urban development is likely to increase in the coming decades. Naturally, this raises questions around citizen surveillance, freedom and individual rights to privacy as well as who owns and has access to the massive amounts of data captured. Barcelona Digital City is addressing these and many more questions as they don’t want their infrastructure and data owned by “big foreign corporations” – Barcelona’s priority is to go beyond the concept of the smart city and take full advantage of opportunities brought about by highly transformational data-driven technologies…We aspire to continue our efforts in linking innovation with values such as social and economic justice, solidarity, ethics, and gender equality.” Sounds great to me, and hugely encouraging to see a major city approaching smart technologies in this way.

Questionable Government Decision on 5G Tech

Late last year, the Indian government received criticisms for allowing Huawei to conduct 5G trials in the country and there is currently furore in the UK over the company’s involvement in the UK’s 5G infrastructure, with the Prime Minister defending the decision, despite a US government source quoted as saying it would be “nothing short of madness”. 

Although 5G allows users to have faster speed and increased bandwidth, the issue lies with the Chinese telecommunication giant’s ongoing ban in several countries following security concerns, facing allegations that its products contain security holes that allow the Chinese government to spy on countries and companies. 

Despite opposition, Huawei’s use cases in India are set to be conducted early this year, joining other telecom companies like Ericsson, Samsung, Nokia, and Cisco. The outcome of the company’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network looks likely to go ahead but political pressure from the US could yet prove pivotal in how this story unfolds.

Aerial photography of high-rise buildings during daytime
Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash


The issue of foreign investment in key national infrastructure, which 5G will be, is not a new one. However, our smart city operating systems, centralised control rooms, intelligent transport systems, sensor networks and intelligent meters – and smartphone apps – will all be enabled by 5G. Hence, our smart city security will be influenced by those actors who provide and govern the underpinning digital infrastructure. 

The Connected Places Catapult published the ‘Playbook for at scale deployments of advanced urban services and 5G use cases’ in 2018. It helps people to explore some of the issues I’ve mentioned and recognises “There are also security concerns. Critical infrastructure is falling prey to cyber attack. It needs to be made clear that as cities become smarter, they may also be more vulnerable.” 

Inaccessible Smart Cities

While a wide array of digital innovations aim to make lives easier for a lot of people a study by World Enabled and the University of California at Berkeley found that 96% of digital development projects around the world do not mention people with disabilities. Meanwhile, research by World Enabled and Smart Cities for All found that only 18% of smart city experts can name a city that follows ICT accessibility standards

According to activist and President of World Enabled, Dr. Victor Pineda, “Everything that comes out of a city is shaped by society’s beliefs… so, if cities are systems that continue to leave people out, we have to reshape these systems.”

At this point I want to bang the drum for a project undertaken at Calvium that is not dependent on connectivity, but could be, and that is NavSta – our mobile wayfinding system designed to help people with invisible impairments to travel independently through railway stations. Accessibility and inclusive research is at the heart of the project and informed the design and development of NavSta throughout. NavSta is a model for thinking about and doing inclusive smart city projects.


One billion people around the world have some form of disability. As Sarah Wray statesWhile technology can help improve life in cities for people with disabilities, there’s a risk that without adequate oversight and appropriate input, it could widen inequality. People with disabilities are already more likely than those without to experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes, such as less education, poorer health, lower levels of employment and higher poverty rates.”

How do we design our smart cities responsibly, to ensure that we create the kind of inclusive societies that we want? A good start would be to use the Consequence Scanning Toolkit that I was introduced to by DotEveryone.

Person in a wheelchair moves along a paved city street, away from the camera.Photo by Photo by Yunming Wang on Unsplash

Smart Cities’ Role in Climate Change Mitigation

Our digital consumption is contributing to the worsening state of our climate. The amount of additional waste fuelled by fast-moving products, elevated pollution and the decline in biodiversity are just a fraction of the price we pay for progress

Meanwhile, a recent report by climate scientists revealed that the energy we consume to power internet usage—from running data centres to powering individual devices—is about to have a bigger impact on global warming than the entire aviation industry. By 2030, internet use is predicted to account for 20% of the entire world’s electricity. To put this in context, internet use today consumes 10% of the world’s total electricity.

Smart cities can help reduce the world’s rising temperatures, especially since urban areas emit 70% of the world’s carbon dioxide. However, Smart City Lab points out that “the best complementary ‘decarbonisation’ solutions to combat climate change have probably not been proposed yet.” 

Climathon, an organisation that studies alternatives and proposals to achieve zero emissions in 20 to 30 years, compiled several ideas for smart cities to help mitigate the effects of climate change, including:

  • Vegetated or green roofs that trap CO2 metals and reduce temperature, similar to those in Copenhagen (which are now mandated by Denmark’s law).
  • Climate-friendly transport logistics through the use of software that ensures vehicles are always functioning at full capacity while moving goods from one place to another.
  • Movable vertical farming land that will produce more contamination-free food and increase arable land, especially in crowded cities.
  • Tracking companies and politicians’ actions, donations, and standpoints on climate change through an app that will let people better understand the corporations and legislators they follow.
  • A smart bin that uses gamification to encourage people to play their parts in waste separation; the organic waste is then sent to companies that use these as raw materials.


Perhaps the greatest ethical and moral question of our time is how do we tackle climate change as the consequences of doing nothing to reverse emissions become more and more apparent around us. Cities of the future must not only challenge the orthodoxy of current planning and strive towards carbon neutrality but actively seek to reverse the effects of existing unsustainable practices.  Practical work is underway in Kolkata, India – the Climate Smart Cities program is working to deliver an evidence-based plan for rapid deployment of energy-efficient technologies, and investment in climate-resilient infrastructure at the local level.

Be Mindful of How We Design, Develop, Deploy and Use Digital Tech

We all have to be mindful of the way that we think about digital technologies for our public spaces and responsible in the ways that we create, deploy and use them.

There is much great work going on around the world that is driven by and underpinned by ethical considerations, and much, much more that isn’t. We all know a lot more than we did ten years ago about the ways in which digital technologies can deliberately or inadvertently be used to monitor and track people, as well as influence our behaviour. The result of this can be minuscule or can have seismic societal implications. 

Key for societies is to ensure that their smart cities reflect the values and behaviours that their citizenship wants.

By 2022, the International Data Corporation predicts smart city investment to reach $158 billion. The opportunities for positive change are huge, so it’s vital that we collectively ensure that ethics are at the centre of what we create. We all need to be ethical and responsible innovators.

NavSta is funded by the Department for Transport through the First of a Kind Round 2 competition, delivered by InnovateUK.

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