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Resisting gender blindness in smart cities

23 March 2020

Given their huge potential, it is crucial that smart city initiatives provide benefit for all members of the community, but they are not doing enough to account for gender, Brenda Martin writes.

Love it or hate it, the global infatuation with smart cities appears here to stay. Smart city initiatives, especially in Asia and the Pacific, are manifesting in drastically different ways. Smart city efforts range from attempts to build technological utopias from scratch, such as in Songdo, South Korea, to plans to improve waste management systems, like in Laos.

Following criticism of the technology-centred nature of many smart city projects, it is now increasingly common to find human-focused goals such as inclusion, improving quality of life, or better livability within smart city policies.

Yet when examining these policies in Asia and the Pacific, there is rarely any specificity regarding what gender inclusion means and how it must be implemented.

Many smart city initiatives in the region are being created gender blind. In fact, smart city policies and developments across Australia, Thailand, and India have failed to implement a gender-sensitive approach.

The Phuket smart city initiative includes an expanded Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) system with facial recognition capabilities for ‘public safety’, but there is no articulation of how the initiative aims to achieve that public safety, and certainly nothing addressing whether it has considered gendered differences in safety.

In Australia, Darwin’s smart city program also includes installing CCTV cameras with facial recognition capabilities – that the council insists it will not use – without reporting on any gender-specific purpose or goals. How might these ‘public safety’ initiatives look past the male experience of assault – mostly perpetrated by a stranger in public – and make visible the experience of women, who are more likely to experience physical assault by someone they know, and in their own home?

Smart city policies across the three countries certainly showed promise, and included potential smart traffic management systems with smart traffic lights, a move designed to improve citizens’ quality of life by improving outcomes in congestion, time spent commuting, fuel usage, and air quality.

Once again, however, recognition of gendered differences in urban mobility, and how a smart traffic management system might respond to these, is glaringly absent.

Governments structuring initiatives in this way have raised a key question. What does it mean for women and non-binary people when governments build gender-blind smart city initiatives into the urban spaces around them?

Further, what might be the impact of the increasing incorporation of types of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the smart city technology mix – ones in which data and algorithmic decision-making are supercharged by capabilities such as machine learning, enabling complex data analytics and prediction, image recognition, and language processing?

AI industries and technologies appear set on course to exacerbate gender inequality significantly unless a targeted intervention is undertaken. Primarily, this is, according to recent research, because a powerful feedback loop of gender bias exists within the technology industry, further entrenching the systematic lack of diversity in the AI workforce that then builds bias into AI systems.

Not only does an overwhelmingly male AI workforce often fail to predict and identify the potential gender-related social harms caused by their creations, AI technologies continue to shroud themselves in a mystique that serves to exclude those who could. Affected communities, social workers, and social justice campaigners are all absent from the process.

The Australian Human Rights Commission have highlighted how implementations of new technologies often serve to reinforce or exacerbate existing inequalities. By failing to account for gender in their design, both in terms of gendered needs and the social structures that maintain gender inequality, smart cities are going to further disadvantage women. This is even true of initiatives designed to provide an overall social benefit.

Smart city developments need to take a big leap beyond their current lip service to inclusion, and centre on the lived realities of each society’s most marginalised women. Policymakers working with smart city projects must ensure that they are specifically researching gender-specific needs and using them in all smart city designs. Strategies could include gender-disaggregated data collection and looking at gendered outcomes and unintended consequences of all smart city policies.

It is crucial to build the gendering of smart city initiatives on an understanding of the diverse social, political, and economic barriers faced by women if governments hope to avoid inadvertently exacerbating these barriers.

This will require a different kind of technical expert to be offered a place at the decision making table. It will demand experts skilled in situating proposed technological solutions within a gendered cultural and political context, in facilitating genuine collaboration and co-design between AI technologists, councils, and diverse community representatives.

Only when these experts are included in smart city design can policymakers, and the community as a whole, begin to put gender and equity back in the sights of the smart city.

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Updated:  7 July 2020/Responsible Officer:  Crawford Engagement/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team