The COVID-19 pandemic has uprooted our social norms and daily lives in unprecedented ways. However, cities and communities around the world have risen to the challenges in ways that are unsurprising, given that the development of smart cities has seen an uptick in recent years. More than ever, cities around the globe are learning to embrace the opportunities presented by technology to tackle existing and potential challenges.
For the first time ever, the fourth annual Dialogue jointly-organised by Dentons Rodyk and the Singapore Management University’s Centre for Cross-Border Commercial Law in Asia was conducted virtually, a fitting testament to this year’s theme. The Dialogue featured Minister for National Development and Minister-in-charge of Social Services Integration, Mr Desmond Lee; Singapore Management University’s President, Professor Lily Kong; and National Practice Leader for Privacy and Cybersecurity at Dentons Canada, Ms Chantal Bernier. They were joined by over 500 delegates from 18 countries across 4 time zones, seeking insight into how to navigate the challenges and opportunities arising from developing smart cities.
Smart Nation Initiatives in Singapore
In his opening address, Mr Lee shared how the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred better use of digital tools in public health and urban planning. He presented examples of technology adopted by the Housing Development Board to aid municipal planning, and digital tools harnessed by the National Parks Board to create predictive models for the benefit of conserving biodiversity across Singapore’s urban landscape. Mr Lee also shed light on existing socio-economic inequalities that have been brought to the fore by the pandemic. In this regard, the government has collaborated with NGOs and civil society organisations to provide digital equipment for students from low-income households for the purposes of remote learning.
Scaling an ASEAN Smart Cities Network - Promises and Challenges
Professor Kong delineated the various physical, societal and institutional challenges faced by those in the Southeast Asia region in developing a network of smart, connected cities. These include antecedent challenges that many cities already face, including divergent infrastructural developments, privatization and formalization of city spaces, social inequalities, the need for both vertical and horizontal integration, and balancing the competing ideals of speed and efficacy in implementing smart nation policies. Professor Kong gave examples from the city of Mandalay, Myanmar, where drones and GPS trackers have been used to improve city planning and public health. However, such initiatives may have been implemented at the cost of those in the lower socio-economic classes, as taking away their anonymity can also mean taking away their means of survival. Professor Kong concluded that the key to properly scaling a regional ASEAN Smart Cities network is to pursue incremental change; to go slow, and to go small.
Privacy Issues in Smart Cities
Ms Bernier highlighted the various privacy challenges that have arisen across smart city projects and the solutions that were pursued, including creating legal bases for collecting personal data, ensuring consistency of use of personal data collected, protecting against improper surveillance, data security, and monetization of data by private actors. Ms Bernier also addressed the emerging privacy challenges of data sovereignty, and the dangers of allowing foreign actors jurisdiction over the personal data of citizens in exchange for assistance in setting up smart city infrastructure. She noted that one way of targeting this issue is to add a data residency requirement into such data procurement agreements.
The Future Ahead
An engaging panel discussion steered by the Global Vice-Chair and ASEAN CEO of Dentons Rodyk, Mr Philip Jeyaretnam, SC followed. The panel considered how best to ensure the sustainability of smart cities, and focused specifically on environmental sustainability and the privacy rights of citizens. They were also asked about possible strategies to prevent smart cities from exacerbating inequalities. In this regard, the panel highlighted the importance of a grassroots approach to smart urbanism and gathering feedback from a diverse group of citizens, bearing in mind the goal of making technology accessible for all. The panel also addressed the audience’s concerns about whether the increasing connectivity of societies might create fertile ground for digital hackers and scammers to operate. In response, Ms Bernier noted that the solution would call for increased mutual legal assistance between countries and their law enforcement agencies, especially in situations where such wrongdoers will be able to conduct their disruptions remotely, and escape jurisdiction.
The Dentons Rodyk Dialogue 2020 demonstrated the various socio-economic and legal challenges that accompany the development of smart cities across the globe. However, it also highlighted the undeniably vast potential of smart cities, which has been observed through the harnessing of digital tools to improve the daily lives of citizens, proving especially useful in the time of an unprecedented global pandemic.