Smart Cities and Their Smart Decisions: Ethical Considerations

By on June 29th, 2017 in Ethics, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

In many respects, information and communication technologies (ICTs) pose new challenges to society. It is worth recognizing what ICTs represent within the urban space because of their widespread use and increasing presence in people’s daily lives. ICTs allow new ways of interaction between citizens and communities and, according to many authors, their use can improve not only communication within society, but also public management as a whole. Their use, therefore, favors greater social and economic development.

At the same time, it seems worth evaluating how such widespread presence of ICTs could in some cases influence the information flow that supports decisions and policies — with negative social impacts if an unethical selection of information that is generated and collected leads to biased political decisions, bringing about greater inequality and discrimination.

Such scenarios become more likely and more potentially dangerous as so-called “smart cities” are increasingly deployed all around the world.

The aim of this study is to foster discussion on some possible consequences of the diffusion of ICTs and their underlying telecommunications infrastructure in the form of smart cities, and to propose some initial elements of an ethical framework to address the irreversible “ICTization” of our societies.

Technological Environment

The present generation of engineering students seems to ignore the processes that created our technological world, especially related to its communication dynamics. For example, not all students are aware of issues such as the digital divide, a complex problem that goes beyond merely technical issues and involves knowing how different users and social groups understand the information accessed through ICTs, in ways that make sense in their specifi contexts.

The very role of technology in contemporary societies is worth discussing. Postman [1] proposes a classification of cultures and their technologies into three categories. In the first one, cultures make use of technology only as a basic tool – subject to the jurisdiction of social values and religious systems – in a culturally integrated way that does not impose contradictions in the worldviews of those societies.

In a second category, cultures function as technocracies in which the adopted tools modify the cultural reality and defy or threaten social customs, myths, politics, and religion. Finally, a third category includes the technopoly, which results from an understanding that social progress only comes from the human ability to apply knowledge to create inventions. Inventing, in the sense of creating new technologies, means changing the world for the better, and this is an irrefutable certainty. Such a significant change undervalues the traditions of social and symbolic worlds, making them invisible and irrelevant.

In this context, one of the basic principles that characterize the technopoly is the absolute need to have access to any information, whenever and wherever necessary. Such certainty is considered one of the main factors of progress.

Of course, many discoveries whose applications have been very useful to society have resulted in services that led to their increasing integration into people’s lives. They have then evolved from this initial phase of simple convenience and became necessities. For instance, the development of telecommunications, a key element of ICTs, stands out a process in which technology takes precedence and becomes increasingly essential. Throughout the twentieth century, as Ribeiro [2] remarks, telecommunications entered our social and economic lives, initially as something useful but not essential until eventually the benefits they brought became inextricably integrated into the fabric of our societies, to the level as we know today in which everything depends on its presence.

Communication Systems Build the Modern World

The telecommunications revolution in all its aspects (television, radio, telephony, and data communication systems) connects the world and its different cultures. Its presence enables the technocracy and causes changes in various societies and cultures, bringing about the so-called “global village.” In combination with the computer, another powerful invention, these two technologies renewed and reinforced each other. Rapidly, the digital world was integrated to the telecommunications infrastructure, eliminating the intrinsic differences of legacy systems and established the basic premise of the digitization and convergence of different types of communication structures.

Finally, intelligent and distributed systems, in their many levels, completed the scenario with all the conditions required for the establishment of the technopoly.

Rosa [3] points out that we are indeed living today the technological revolution centered on information and telecommunications. Thus, ICTs became a parameter for life in society. In addition, Postman [1] warns that the technopoly is reductionist in its goals, limiting discussion to efficiency and effectiveness, eventually leading to a loss of focus on the social reality that generated these very informational structures.

ICTs Made Available in a Ubiquitous Manner

The current scenario in which telecommunications services are formed of different network structures creates the conditions for the emergence of the Next Generation Networks (NGN), and therefore, increases the importance of the ubiquitous Wireless Sensor Networks (WSN). According to Aguilar et al. [4], the network of wireless sensors represents an emerging technology that resulted both from the advances of micro-electromechanical systems and from the latest wireless technologies, over the last decade.

According to Evans [5], to meet that demand research on WSN has advanced in a broad range of applications that include monitoring of vehicular traffic in cities or of environmental phenomena, among many other possibilities.

Smart Cities

The convergent role played by ICTs in the daily lives of individuals, companies and governments becomes increasingly important as cities effectively turn into platforms of economic development. This is highlighted by the European Technology Platform [6], an initiative aimed at instigating the development of network capacities as a way to achieve their potential in allowing improvements in the living standard of citizens.

In this sense, Firmino [7] points out that there is a major commitment of planners and technological development agencies to stimulate integrated technological development in many cities and regions worldwide, as a way to create digital smart cities.

However, this transition raises new security issues. According to Deluca [8], although the WSN are backed by a specialized structure with no connection to communication networks, a significant part of these networks can be, and indeed are being, connected to information systems.

Another key issue relates to the privacy of the information monitored by sensors, and to the implications that the violation of this principle can have on citizens’ routines and habits in case of malicious or unintentional data exposure. In this context, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) [9] points out that one of the most important challenges for adopting these emerging technologies in smart cities is in data protection and privacy.

Presence of Power and Authority in the Relation Between Technology and Society

Technological neutrality is the bias that permeates the discourse about the benefits of applying ICTs in smart cities. However, one should note the weakness of this view, as pointed out by many authors. Dagnino [10] describes such a perception of science as a neutral activity carried out by researchers imbued with the purpose of seeking the truth as illusory and disconnected from social reality.

Thus, the reliance on ICTs in the management of smart cities has often been presented as absolutely neutral, whether in smart buildings, in traffic monitoring, in the surveillance of stadiums, or in the monitoring of water flow in basins. Nevertheless, according to Dirks [11], smart cities should have a level of maturity in the collection, processing, and dissemination of information. These requirements are summarized in three specific points: instrumentation (collection and provision of data), interconnection (different systems are interconnected and data are exchanged to produce information), and finally intelligence (with the ability to use the information, modeling patterns, and behaviors).

For Paraense [12], the use of distributed intelligence in the management of smart cities requires a sensor network as an interface between the real and the digital worlds. Ubiquitous Networks (USN) in the structure of smart cities will act as eyes and ears, collecting data and acting as a source of the information required by the city management. According to the IBM taxonomy, this part refers to the instrumentation phase.

Although there are many potential benefits, it is necessary to consider the conditions for the adoption of such new technologies, and to consider the issues related to their acceptance by the population such as data privacy, information security, availability, interoperability, and the provision of the necessary infrastructure as well as an efficient and effective management. This corresponds to the interconnection phase.

Finally, the third and most important part of the process, the intelligence dimension, requires going beyond the strictly technical aspects. When analyzing ICTs’ contributions, either positive or negative, to efficiency and productivity or their environmental effects it is not enough to evaluate machines, structures, and systems. The role of specific forms of power and authority should be taken into account in the third phase. After all, the technology is connected with political decisions, and is capable of manipulating reality and of favoring certain social classes.

Winner [13] exemplifies such a problem by mentioning the case of the Long Island bridges. In short, these bridges were built intentionally below the standard height in order to preclude the passage of buses. This action was a way to manipulate society, as this would prevent the black and poor population to get to these so-called sophisticated areas, keeping it exclusive for the middle and upper classes. In such a way, technology granted privileges to certain social groups over the others.

Thus, when it comes to the construction of smart cities, it is very important to understand what underpins their structures and to understand what are the purposes of their sensors. The key issue is then asking whenever city authorities acquire data by means of sensor system, what were the criteria for this acquisition, who is coordinating that data acquisition, and what is being done to avoid manipulations similar to the Long Island bridges case.

Invisible Decisions and Ethical Matters

An analogy could be made in this case: what if “information packets” were thought of as buses and cars coming from different origins (sources), and handled throughout their paths by “bridges,” and then subject to routing criteria not necessarily clear to the society? Based on the source address the “bridges” may decide the preemptions, the queuing, and the speed of processing, and act as strategically located filters. Additionally, the discourse of managers imply that all decisions are based on open and socially-accepted parameters, supported by information based on data obtained from informational structures that operate at full technical efficiency. However, we claim here that this very argument does not unveil the intricacies of certain invisible aspects that untrained eyes are unable to grasp, from the process as a whole, to the manipulations intended to meet specific interests.

It is timely to consider that, although the technopoly could try to deny it, it is necessary to reflect on the construction of smart cities because they can affect the rights of their inhabitants.

These cleverly manipulated cities remind us of the reflections, in Jonas [14], about the role that technology has played in an ethical sense, due to its unique position in human life, in which technology acts as a social ordering entity whose detrimental effects (unintended results caused by the technological developments) cannot be predicted.

A risk pointed out by Postman [1] is the disconnection that the technopoly creates between the information and its human purpose. If the systems lack a human meaning, the information becomes an end in itself, what may distort reality. An even more serious situation would be the conscious intention to manipulate reality, something that can occur in the intelligence phase by means of maneuvers that lead the preceding (instrumentation and connection) stages to address the interests of specific groups.

In reality this invisibility ensures that decision-makers can covertly prioritize the treatment of higher-class areas to the detriment of poorer ones. As an example of this risk, discriminatory treatment to certain social classes was somehow inherent in the digital participatory budget program in a large Latin American city because of the greater access to the Internet in the higher social classes. Hence, a process such as voting over the Internet, which in principle would be essentially democratic, was distorted simply because the citizens from privileged classes made use of their higher digital literacy. In this case, privileged citizens used their greater capacity for network mobilization to change the trend of a given vote to favor a project of their own interest to the detriment of other projects that appeared to be more appealing to other social classes.

In some parts of the world, issues related to ethnicity, culture, or religion could emerge as a result of decisions that lead to a loss of privacy for some minorities. This can happen if technical decisions are motivated by the use of particular physical, linguistic, or cultural characteristics as a basis for discrimination or persecution. For example, it is possible that the algorithms behind video surveillance systems in major European and American cities are trained not only to detect suspicious movements and facial expressions of passersby, but also to direct the search to individuals from specific ethnic groups, supposedly more likely to be linked to criminal or terrorist acts. The same bias may occur with algorithms that analyze voice data in telephony or VOIP services, whenever this results from prioritizing the detection of certain languages or particular types of accent. The decisions that originate in all these unequal treatments might incur embarrassing situations for many citizens simply because they happen to belong to these ethnic or social groups.

Moreover, particularly with regard to privacy of collected information, one can extrapolate a scenario envisioned for digital cities from what already occurs in the deployment of smart energy grids, in order to evaluate the risks involved. Indeed, in many pioneer localities in which the technological transition to smart grids occurred in the last decade there were several violations of the principle of privacy of data collected. In these case, the original purpose of data collection was improving the operating efficiency of the power grid. This goal was distorted to serve various state agents – either police officers, scrutinizing household energy consumption patterns in the search for traces that indicate activities, such as the home production of marijuana for personal consumption, or tax auditors looking for evidences that someone is running a business at home without a license. These are also examples of invisible decisions that, in order to meet specific interests, interfere in information flow, filtering and redirecting data to a different purpose from what it was initially expect to do.

More recently, a massive leak of classified information showed that national security agencies in one country were not only scrutinizing telecommunication data from their own citizens, but also violating the privacy of telecom and Internet users abroad.

Thus, it is necessary to evoke an ethical dimension in order to protect and inform society of such deviations, which may undermine the essential values of citizenship because of decisions disconnected from these values.

As Srour [15] remarks, there is a risk that an economic power could induce partiality and allow unfair standards of conduct to be used to justify opportunistic conveniences with discriminatory and unethical discourse.

It is worth noting here that the adoption of some assumptions might lead to thoughtless choices that have not even been noticed as such. As a result, a network may have been installed at technically incorrect points, or it prioritizes information from certain areas, or it collects data of interest to certain groups and the final reports are generated with manipulation of the collected information, which leads to unreliable statistical results – to name but a few possible problems.

Finally, the technopoly takes full control, undisputed since the decisions were supposedly “technical options” in order to achieve progress and welfare for all.

At What Point Does Transcendence Become Possible?

In a scenario where society is developing digital smart cities, ICTs and communication highways, deployed by governments and companies with varied interests play a key role. But if society decides that it is necessary that development is guided by an ethical commitment to the social good, then who would ensure that all decisions comply to that commitment and who would accept the challenge to constantly reinforce it and make it transparent?

Decisions in the field of information technology (IT) refer to IT governance guidelines that, according to Costa [16], refer to the assignment of responsibilities and decision rights and to the respect for principles, so that this process evolves transparently and achieves the business objectives of the organizations.

In this broader context, the organizations responsible for the informational structures of the smart cities must apply best practices and models in order to transcend traditional decision-making processes. Examples of best practices and models include return of investments in information storage, defense against manipulation, and quality assurance in citizen services, regardless of any economic factors. Vasquez [17] explains that deciding and acting in concrete situations is a practical-moral problem that refers to responsibility, in which the freedom and determinism of the human acts pertain to the realm of ethics.

According to Garcia [18], in the face of a new reality, society should act in a structured and comprehensive way to avoid solutions that meet only the mere sum of private interests. The transforming power of reality should not be based only on economic power, and should encompass ethical values.

Proposal of an Ethical System

According to Elizondo [19], the ethical perspective of technology encompasses economic, social, institutional, and environmental dimensions, and is not limited to scientific and technological contexts.

The role of ethics is to establish limits by means of codes, ordinances, rules, and laws that express social values and guide decisions. Although most laws and regulations aim at altruistic values, according to Pereira and Fonseca [20] there is an inconsistency between ethical discourse and the political and technological decisions.

In this context, one has to afford ethical discourse the possibility of effectively influencing the reality, contributing to a new social scene entailed by smart cities. To make possible the proposal of an ethical perspective, Elizondo [19] states that its implementation would take place through the structuring of a system consisting of axioms, values, norms, and finally, a set of evaluation criteria.

This work proposes, as a contribution to that matter, an anthropocentric axiom, as a perspective that places the human being in the center of society and of its ethical values, without ignoring the human responsibility towards other beings, whose lives have a value that is comparable to ours, and towards the planet itself.

From that axiom it is possible to establish a set of values, ethical values applied to attitudes, behaviors, situations, objects, etc., because human beings are also socio-historical beings. In practice, these values help us understand more clearly the scope of social goals. When properly structured on a scale, values ensure safety in times of crisis, strong social structures, and efficient political institutions. In this proposal some fundamental values are emphasized, such as:

  • Human dignity, with respect to full human development, guaranteeing fundamental individual rights to everyone;
  • Freedom, combining cosmopolitanism of minds, individual autonomy, democracy, and transparency of ideas and motivations;
  • True altruism, in which prevail scruples and respect for the interests of all; and
  • Justice in which equality and fairness are ingredients of an authentic citizenship.

In this context, a decision depends on a hierarchy of values in which each value is subordinated to a higher one in such a way that the most fundamental values are highlighted. The reasons for that hierarchy of values are manifold, and must not be subject to particular situations. In order to be fully accepted it requires the participation of all.

The third element in the ethical system is represented by norms. These norms connect the values to real situations, allowing decisions to be taken in the accomplishment of duties. Deontological theories assert that the duty must be determined by rules with permanent validity, regardless of the consequences of its application. An action motivated by duty regardless of particular interests or inclinations will then be considered morally good. This becomes possible when the action rests on human rationality and, in this case, the rational imperative implies ethical action.

One can find this concept in Kant’s categorical imperative, which prohibits acts that cannot be universalized, and therefore does not admit any exceptions in favor of some individuals. As a rule, all participants involved in the deployment of smart cities are asked to act in compliance with this universal requirement.

A last point to be considered in the proposition of an ethical system is the evaluation system, which will determine if a situation fits into what was established as acceptable within the system. It is proposed here that the determination of what is right does not depend on fixed rules, in such a way that it could be simplistic and decontextualized or could cover for inappropriate actions. The rules must overarch all sorts of consequences arising from a particular decision.

In order to be comprehensive, we suggest resorting to teleology or to the ethics of responsibility to uphold everyone’s responsibility in face of all kinds of actions and decisions.

It is worthwhile emphasizing here the reactions that may arise when one sheds light on unethical attitudes, such as a kind of argument that attempts to justify and conceal all the vices of the decisions without clearly explaining them. As Moraes [21] remarks, the fragility of human discourse lies in that it can be used to clarify as well as to disguise its essence behind obscure words. So we should be aware in order not to allow the denial of responsibilities. The decision-makers must assume their responsibilities, and the society must demand that from them.

In the context of the actions related to the deployment of smart cities, we propose a new role for IT Governance: to add an ethical dimension to the realm of responsibilities that arise in face of this new reality, and formulating and issuing guidelines that encompass this new perspective. One should assign rights and responsibilities, in order to allow audit mechanisms and security measures, supported by supervisory committees that can evaluate the IT activities and operations to identify and mitigate ethical problems and ensure total transparency.

This is not a simple task, since according to Mitchan [22], technology poses many challenges to ethics, let alone the tendency of the technopolistic arguments to escape any ethical responsibilities.

Possible Praxis?

In order to ensure that intelligent and distributed information systems effectively correspond to the ethical expectations of society, how is it possible to protect society against the fallibility of all these actors and prevent them from engaging in misconduct? This seems to be the biggest challenge. According to Srour [15], when the ethical issue is widespread it is up to the entire society to organize itself to create the means to audit and supervise the decisions. Thus we propose here the establishment of technical procedures aimed at expanding the boundaries of IT Governance practices, so that informational structures are transparent and always respectful to the agreed values and principles, as protectors of democracy.

As remarked by Mitchan [22], the concept of “responsibility” is a recent concern in the area of ICTs, and only after undergoing a wide range of legal, philosophical, and religious contexts has it found its application in science and technology.

Currently, civil liability applies to workplaces and to the potential hazards of some products. It would therefore be necessary to extend this principle to the new dimensions that result from the expansion of technological power.

It is worth recalling the reflections of Jonas [14], who anticipated the transcendence of the new living standards, and of the non-application of the traditional ethical view. Such an outdated understanding of ethics required a new conception of duties, responsibilities, and rights in which these values should consider the future consequences of procedures whose effects could damage society. The question that emerges refers to the fact that certain attitudes are not guided by ethical responsibility, or by the organizations in charge of digital governance, which create norms and rules, without even conceiving of such a reality.

Finally, some might take advantage of supposed technical neutrality in the name of efficiency and, with the blessing of the technopoly, would deny their responsibilities, and wouldn’t even be questioned about the possible consequences of their actions for the future of society.

Essential to Add an Ethical Dimension

The considerations in this article can be enriched by the concerns raised in the Unesco Earth Charter [23] which call for stronger democratic institutions at all levels and for more transparency and publicity in the exercise of power, including participation in decision-making and the access to justice.

Therefore, we ask for the presence of institutions to account for the deployment of new smart cities in conformance with their original purposes. It is of great importance to point out the hidden risks behind decisions that might go unnoticed within society simply because they are based on the argument of technical efficiency.

Furthermore, aware of the inherent non-neutrality of the application of science and technology, the Earth Charter proposes that it is necessary to grant independent access to justice and to administrative procedures. This would allow contextualizing ICT in a bigger picture as an agent of the dominant technopolistic logic, which if left to its own devices would become indisputable.

The Earth Charter stress the importance of upholding the right of all recipients of the information provided by these systems to effectively receive it as originated from trusted sources, properly collected, without any social bias in handling the information along its path. In fact, any manipulation in the information delivery would certainly distort the perception of reality, producing errors and causing detrimental effects in people’s lives.

Hence, the Earth Charter reasserts the need to promote the meaningful participation of all individuals and organizations in decision-making, to stimulate and expand the debate among engineers, network specialists, and information systems experts. These professionals will face practical and moral decisions, and the definition of the intelligent information systems operation may bring about conflicts of interest.

Therefore, we can conclude that it is essential to add an ethical dimension in every decision level, defining responsibilities, to hold the policy-makers accountable for their decisions not only in deployment phases, but also during operation. Only such transparency in all decision levels can avoid that distortions caused by biased information could overshadow the benefits of smart cities.



David Bianchini is Professor at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, and President of the Committee for Ethics in Research with Human Beings, Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas, Rodovia Dom Pedro I, Km 136, Parque das Universidades, Campinas SP, 13086-900, Brazil. Email:

Ismael Ávila is with CPqD – Research and Development Center, Rodovia Campinas – Mogi-Mirim, km 118, 5 CEP 13086-902, Campinas, SP – Brasil. Email: