CES 2020: Accessibility and Equity in the Smart City

Panelists during a recent Consumer Electronics Show discussion worked through the challenges that come with creating a truly inclusive design for smart cities, taking into account issues like poverty and inequality.

CES Panel - Smart City Equity
From left: Damon Embling, journalist for EuroNews; Omar Khan, chief product officer of Magic Leap; Tom Pey, CEO of the Royal Society for Blind Children and chair of Wayfindr; Laura Schewel, CEO of StreetLight Data; Park Won-Soon, mayor Seoul, South Korea.
Lucas Ropek/Government Technology
LAS VEGAS — At last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, vendors and public officials discussed how smart city design could be made more inclusive and equitable and truly place citizens first.

The issue was a central topic of discussion in a panel session titled "The Reality of Smart City Development."

“If technology does not serve us and amplify our lives, then obviously we are not doing our jobs,” said Omar Khan, of Magic Leap, an augmented reality startup.

Inclusion, typically defined as design that considers people with a disability or some other disadvantage, seeks to create platforms and services that are universally accessible, according to Deloitte.

Examples discussed at the session included a successful partnership made by mobile navigation system company Wayfindr and Google to help blind people navigate the London subway system using Bluetooth. 

However, the boundaries of this model were also tested, with audience members asking panelists about two of the biggest barriers to equitable design: inequality and homelessness.  

Christopher Clark, the mayor of Harvey, Ill., asked the panelists what could be done to advance smart city initiatives for communities like his own.

"Many of the cities in America are smaller cities. They're not larger cities," he said. "How can small cities invest in smart city solutions when they don't necessarily have the capital?"  

Indeed, studies have shown that smart city development takes place largely in affluent communities, where the poor are frequently sidelined or pushed out by gentrification and high living standards. Communities with less disposable budgetary cash, meanwhile, have little way to take advantage of these technological advances.  

“Public-private partnerships are really what we are looking into," Clark said later, speaking with Government Technology, while noting that those partnerships are difficult to come by because Harvey, unlike a city like Los Angeles or Seoul, South Korea, has a population of some 25,000, a 22 percent unemployment rate and severe budgetary shortfalls. "Companies typically will not [partner with us] because we don’t have enough data to use,” he said. 

Laura Schewel, of StreetLight Data, offered that some strategies have allowed cities to work together with their metropolitan planning organizations to seek smart solutions; and others have created regional user groups that can share best practices and purchase vendor solutions together. 

StreetLight Data, which was founded in 2011, has assisted a number of cities develop with its traffic metrics and data visualization applications, but Schewel said that vendors should work harder to make affordable solutions for smaller communities.    

"It is incumbent on smart city vendors like us to have products that don't just work for Seoul and New York and London," Schewel added. "We've been working very hard on that."  

Another audience member pointed out that while free Wi-Fi is great if you have a smartphone, it does little for people who don't: "When I think of inclusiveness I think of the homeless population and I wonder about smart city solutions for them?" the audience member asked. 

This question was fielded by speaker Park Won-soon, the mayor of one of the smartest cities in the world: Seoul, South Korea. 

Park himself noted the problem of inequality in South Korea, pointing out that many cities in his country "try to be a smart city, but many of them don't have the resources." Inequality between communities has kept pace with economic change and urbanization, something borne out by studies of income distribution

One partial solution has been the creation of the Smart Cities Association, an international consortium of communities that, among other things, work together to develop funding opportunities for smart city development, Park said. 

Smaller cities have sometimes managed to rise to the top of the smart city ranks, but those communities are typically more affluent and have more disposable budgetary cash to play with.  

Clark said that in looking for future smart opportunities, his community would continue to be creative with the tools at their disposal.

“We just fly by the seat of our pants to do the best we can with what we’ve got,” he said. 

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.