Aiming for Good, Clean, and Fair Technology

Dr. Rebecca Hammons is an Associate Professor at Ball State University with 40 years of experience working as a software executive. Recently, Dr. Hammons also served as the IEEE IoT Initiative’s Smart Cities Working Group co-chair. Given her expertise in ethics, we asked her for recommendations on how smart communities can operationalize ethics.

“Have you ever heard of the slow Italian food movement?”

When asked how Dr. Hammons would describe the role of ethics in smart cities, she compared it to the slow Italian food movement. Italians like their food to be prepared “good, clean, and fair.” Likewise, she explained, “slow tech” is responsible and responsive. Smart communities ought to engage in “slow tech” for ethical use of technology.

Good – use tech that serves a specific purpose in the community

Clean – create and acquire tech that is repairable, reusable, and recyclable

Fair – leverage tech in a way that genuinely helps to support disadvantaged members of the community

Dr. Hammons recommends that community leaders should carefully assess investments and relationships with industry partners. As the speed of technology outpaces government regulations, community leaders should proactively advocate for community policies that – at the very least – assure that smart cities initiatives don’t harm their community.

Ethical practices lead to community trust and engagement.

Dr. Hammons challenges us to think about ethical community engagement in terms of product management. First and foremost, community leaders need to engage stakeholders when designing a solution or product. The voice of those affected by the problem and impacted by the solution must be present at the table. Next, these stakeholders need to inform the development of user stories – how does the proposed solution/product solve the problem? Finally, stakeholders must work alongside developers in the pilot phase to validate a solution.

Genuine community engagement starts with an ethical approach to smart city development. Bringing in the voices of community members is not only the right thing to do but overall ensures better outcomes and builds trust.

Challenges on ethical community engagement.

Many challenges can threaten community engagement efforts and the ethical approach that leaders intend to take with new technology initiatives. So, what steps can leaders take to operationalize ethics in their adoption of technology? Dr. Hammons offered three recommendations:

  1. Follow proper product management procedures. Too often, tech initiatives emerge in cities because a big tech firm approaches an urban planner with a sexy high-tech solution. Tech initiatives should instead be identified from community needs and not on opportunities to spend money.
  2. Create sustainable community engagement and develop communication plans for all smart city initiatives. Maintaining open channels of communication and keeping the community informed reduces the potential for misunderstanding and mistrust.
  3. Develop social responsibility policies for the good, clean, and fair use of digital solutions. Relying on legislation and ordinances alone does not help educate stakeholders about what the city considers best practices, but creating can significantly improve the residents’ understanding of ‘slow tech.’

Above all, Dr. Hammons recommended that community leaders undergo additional training on smart city concepts and technologies. A deeper understanding of the concepts equips them to better steward tech initiatives and advocate for community members’ general well-being.

Although not as tangible as the digital IoT solutions that smart cities deploy, ethics plays an essential role in adopting and executing smart city initiatives. For community leaders to overcome some of the most pressing ethical challenges – such as closing the digital divide and delivering equitable services – they must follow a holistic approach where real community problems and needs fuel tech initiatives.


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