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No turning back: smart technologies have transformed our lives and cities

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Jeff Merritt

Head of Internet of Things and Urban Transformation
Member of Executive Committee, World Economic Forum

COVID-19 showed us the many benefits of smart technologies. Were we ready to let the genie out of the bottle?

Thirteen years ago, IBM coined the term smart cities. That same year Apple unveiled its App Store. Both ideas promised to change our lives. Yet for much of the world, it took a global pandemic to realise the true value of these innovations.

Trends toward remote working, telehealth, distance learning and automation have been progressing at a steady pace over the last decade; COVID-19 hit the gas pedal. In the face of lockdowns and restricted activities, internet-enabled devices became a lifeline for billions around the world.

Cities respond

Cities have been on the frontline of the fight—not only to save lives—but to maintain a sense of normality during uncertain times. As city services were upended by COVID-19 and local governments pivoted to crisis management mode, many public workers finally realised what Silicon Valley had known for years: data is power.

Command and control centres, a hallmark of the smart city movement, where cameras and live data feeds are used to fight crime or gridlock, quickly popped up in cities around the world to track new COVID-19 outbreaks and available hospital beds. Plans to automate and digitise government services were also fast-tracked.

The rapid encroachment of smart technologies into our lives and cities is valid reason for concern. The potential risks to privacy, security and civil liberties are real. Ongoing challenges and misuse of facial recognition software are a perfect case in point.

It can be tempting to demonise the technology, but these tools are not inherently good or bad. What matters is how we govern and manage their use.

Taking control

In December, a new coalition of business leaders and consumer advocates came together with a commitment to advance more trustworthy smart technology. Enabled by the technology and digital platforms that they sought to shape, the group outlined a vision of shared responsibility to help empower individuals and organisations to make more informed decisions regarding design, adoption and use of these devices.

In parallel, cities across the globe are uniting under the heading of the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance to chart a course towards the ethical and responsible use of smart technologies in cities.

These efforts build on the work of many before them. In this tug of war between creating new opportunities and safeguarding against risk, success is a moving target—and that’s a good thing.

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