Digital Rights in Smart Cities: Towards Digitalisation for Citizens
Digital transformation

Digital Rights in Smart Cities: Towards Digitalisation for Citizens

In a context in which cities, governments, and services are becoming digital, focusing on digital rights is key. Otherwise, it’s easy to implement an urban digitalisation that only benefits a few. What can be done to avoid infringing upon the rights of citizens in these digital transformation processes?

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8 min read

Key ideas

  • The example of digital transformation in the city of Barcelona, led by the expert in social digital innovation policies Francesca Bria, laid the foundations for projects that promote an urban digitalisation centred around people.
  • Part of the challenge in these processes is to safeguard the human rights to privacy, freedom of movement, and to exercise community living.
  • This responsibility lies in the State, in companies, in citizens, and in social organisations.

In 2016, five years after the surge of the 15-M Movement in Spain and the ensuing Indignados Movement –whose main demand was the consolidation of a more participative democracy–, the mayor of Barcelona and social activist, Ada Colau, appointed social digital innovation policies expert Francesca Bria to the position of Technology and Digital Innovation Commissioner. The task was clear: together with Barcelona’s City Hall, she was in charge of leading the city’s digital transformation process from the public sector. This, with a specific mandate: not to lose sight that the project’s premise was, above all, that the technologies and digital innovation opportunities be at the service of the citizens’ magenta and of a new model of collaborative economy.

One year later, at the Ouishare Fest that took place in Barcelona, Bria explained to specialists from all over the world that this was the emblem that allowed her and her team to articulate bottom-up solutions, or as she herself recounted, analysing first of all citizens’ problems, and then the incorporation of technologies as potential facilitators. “The approach was different from what often happens when smart cities are planned; instead of being guided by technodeterminism –a theory that proposes that technology is capable, in and of itself, to incide directly and positively on the socioeconomic development of a determined group and that, therefore, should be at the centre of every society–, we first asked ourselves which were the social problems that had to be resolved and whether the technology was able to resolve them or not. Only in this way did we manage to position it in function of the city’s organisational and social process, and not the other way around,” she elaborated on in her lecture.

“With the participation of 40,000 citizens, we achieved a citizen and government agenda whose premise is that there cannot be a digital revolution without a democratic revolution.”

In the case of Barcelona, as specialists explain, the focus was on education, social inclusion, collective deliberations, and the empowerment of citizens. This way, not only large corporations –or governments– stood to benefit from hyper digitalisation and citizens’ extraction of data. The city’s implementation of technologies or “smartification” happened as true solutions were found to the citizens’ problems, such as housing, health, education, and transportation, respecting both the right to privacy as well as certain ethical criteria.

“This is why we had to confront platforms such as Airbnb, whose business model goes against affordable housing,” Bria explains, alluding to the fact that in the three years leading up to the conference, Barcelona saw a 60% increase in short-term rentals. “This is also why we make sure to create spaces in the city meant only for pedestrians, where cars cannot enter. Because when it comes down to it, no one knows territory better than inhabitants.”

The example of Barcelona –analysed by international governments, urban planners, NGOs, entrepreneurs, technology experts, and the world of digital innovation– is known across the world. This is partly because it laid the foundations of different programs and initiatives that spearhead an urban digitalisation centred around people.

In 2020, UN Habitat –the UN programme that seeks to improve people’s lives in contexts of urbanisation– launched its flagship programme: People Centered Smart Cities, which seeks to address the challenges that emerge at the intersection between urban planning agendas in highly digital contexts and human rights. This is considering that in 2019, there were still 3,7 billion people without internet access, and that the pandemic only escalated the urgency for local governments to tackle digital gaps in their territories, especially for historically marginalised groups.

Programs like these are what provide evidence that there’s still plenty to deal with and that cases such as Barcelona’s are scarce. The magenta that seeks to promote technological development in urban contexts and implement a digital transformation process in cities still needs to put its focus on digital rights, which are nothing but those rights consecrated as fundamental to humanity, but taken to the digital space. Because if not, we will end up with an urban digitalisation that only benefits a few. This is why the question that specialists are currently asking themselves is: How smart can cities be if they fail to consider their inhabitants’ collective intelligence? And, for that matter, what can be done to avoid infringing on human rights in the process of digital transformation?

Experts agree that the discussion is multidimensional, that multiple factors run through it, and that there’s no single answer. But if we consider that developing countries are aiming towards the digitalisation of their cities –without losing sight of the fact that there are still 700 million people around the world who live in extreme poverty–, the debate must be incisive, critical, and inclusive. 

Claudio Ruiz, a specialist in technology policy and a digital rights activist, explains that one starting point has to do with the way in which we as a society face the dramatic advance of technologies in every dimension of our lives. “A regulatory approach, from political authorities and even from citizens themselves, has taken place under the notion that digital technologies are always for the best. To this, we can add that we are completely unaware of how they work and have accepted them this way. Because there’s an element associated with design and commercial narratives that make them attractive and keeps us from questioning them,” he says. “This has hindered the development of a critical discussion regarding how or what regulates these digital technologies, for which we need to be able to take an in-depth look from a certain distance.”

As long as this doesn’t occur, Ruiz explains, we cannot move any further in a debate that seeks to clear certain myths, generate awareness, and move beyond simply affirming the need for regulation. “Fine, we’ve got to regulate, but what do we regulate? Further beyond what companies can develop and sell any way they want, the key lies in how we regard these products and their effects in a critical way in order to control certain perverse consequences, such as unconsented extraction of data or the creation of monopolies, which don’t benefit citizens either.”

Up to this date, there are two paradigms that reign over regulation models. In the United States, the tendency is towards a larger commercial integration of certain companies so that important portions of the market are not controlled, versus Europe, which through its Digital Service Pack (the result of a series of digital regulations passed over the last 20 years) establishes certain regulations that safeguard users’ privacy. These two approaches, as Ruiz explains, reveal the regulatory difficulties with regards to the concentration of mined data and the consequences of the increasing digitalisation of processes and services. “There isn’t just one Internet or digital services law, and thereby there is no single responsible entity. Every regulatory agent has a role; the State, businesses, academia, the press, social organisations, and citizens. And our governments must implement measures that are not contrary to certain internationally accepted standards.”

This discussion came up with the massification of digital technologies and has gradually evolved over time. During the 80s, the predominant –and somewhat naive– narrative established that these new digital spaces were going to democratise information and be free from governments and regulations.

Soon, it was uncovered that the same inequities that were –and are– present in the physical world were being replicated in digital spaces. For this reason, it was necessary to agree that the exercise of human rights should be respected in any space and context. Otherwise, the benefits would go only to the technological companies whose business models were based on the extraction of information and personal data.

“When it comes to implementing technologies, the question of whether the implementation is made in pursuit of a better life often isn’t what decision makers are asking themselves,” Ruiz explains. “What smart cities really do, under the promise of efficiency, is to transform public spaces into private spaces. This is why we have to regard these matters not only from a technical point of view, but a political and social one as well.”

According to Juan Carlos Lara, Executive Co-Director of the NGO Derechos Digitales, “When certain forces are strained, exercising their influence over how life is carried out, the idea of regulation may seem problematic. Nevertheless, these ideas are necessary for safeguarding the human rights to privacy, freedom of movement, and to exercise community living.  The responsibility lies with the State, businesses, citizens, and social organisations. As a society, we must highlight the value of participation and democratisation of services. Digital technologies have the potential of tackling inequities, but also of exacerbating them.”

Thinking about rights for the digital world, Lara explains, isn’t thinking about rights for an Internet world, but rather, for a world that even outside of this sphere is willing to turn people and their activities into numbers and codes over which others make decisions.

“The role of digital rights is to bring into the public policy discussion the normative needs of the mechanisms that protect the rights of people who are affected by the use or abuse of datafication of information. It’s creating a collective awareness regarding the fact that the great opportunities offered by digitalisation also come accompanied with risks.” 

This is the warning offered by Adam Greenfield, a US urban planner who for years has been analysing and exposing the risks of smart cities. He proposes that the information that is gathered ends up benefiting decision makers and that in the process of technologising everyday life –which presumes to seek knowledge of users’ behaviours, habits, and needs, in order to eventually provide optimal services– there is still a hierarchy in place. Or somebody who knows what we want, even more so than ourselves.

The analysis Rethinking the Smart City, Democratizing Urban Technology, published in 2018 by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Foundation, raises the idea that the criticism of cities’ smartification is rooted in the lack of connection with the real world’s problems; in the technocratic search for domination over our everyday urban existence (by means of sensors); in an almost pornographic obsession with vigilance and control; and in the inability to put citizens, rather than corporations, at the centre of the development process. 

And that maybe, a solution has to do, as it was in the case of Barcelona, with digital sovereignty. “A simple idea that aims for citizens to be able to express their opinions and participate in how the technological infrastructure that surrounds them operates and to what ends it serves them.” Because otherwise, and if it fails to contribute to its inhabitants all-round development, is a city truly smart?

Somos UNIT, compañía registrada en Chile como Diseño de Servicios SpA.

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