Cordel Green | Smart cities through the lens of human rights – technological and ethical dilemmas | Remark


The company’s operating systems are undergoing a profound transformation, including a fast approaching future when computer chips are near zero in cost and connected sensors are widely deployed, fueling exponential “datafication” and the Internet. of all things. Another feature of the changed society is that even faster than governments, technology companies are able to know our age, our illnesses, our political and religious views, our sexual orientation and inclinations, our family, our friends, our partners, our enemies, our spending habits – designed to take advantage of advertising-driven business models.

It is in this context that we need to think about what it means to be a smart city. The answer is a question of point of view. The techno-rational concept I have just described has an enormous economic cost, estimated at around 1.6 trillion dollars. This is a dehumanizing and illusory universe for the vast majority of cities that cannot afford to provide even basic services much more than the cost of acquisition and recurring expenses necessary for smart city infrastructure. This portends the perpetuation and widening of the global digital divide that separates individuals and communities on the basis of historical inequities.


Is this inevitable or are we capable of a conception that privileges humanitarian concerns over technological determinism and the transatlantic dogma on the organization of society?

If we start from a place of fairness and justice, I would say that poverty in all its forms is to the smart city concept, what cancer is to the body. A city cannot be smart if it is not human. It would be a sensitive city, not smart, or more to put it mildly, a smart city with a stupid outcome. This is not to say that the technology is not of great strategic advantage, but that it is not deterministic.

Talking about chips and sensors must therefore be subordinated to the idea of ​​making citizens “intelligent”, by which I mean citizens who know digital and media information.

Let us remember UNESCO’s definition of media and information literacy: it is “a composite set of knowledge, skills, attitudes and practices which enable individuals to access, analyze , critically appraise, interpret, use, create and disseminate information and media. produced with the use of existing means and tools on a creative, legal and ethical basis ”.

Admittedly, it is more difficult than it seems. The concept of digital literacy becomes particularly difficult as the artificial intelligence operating systems that are deployed function like a black box – opaque, scalable, unobtainable and understood by very few. This is one of the most pressing ethical concerns in our transition to a world in which people develop deeper and closer relationships of trust with “smart” devices controlled by artificial intelligence.

This suggests the need for a ‘new / digital media and information literacy’ framework, designed to include up-to-date skills and working knowledge of AI, big data management and use, l ‘Internet of Things, AI ethics, AI governance, machine rights and other technologies of the fourth industrial age such as 3D, augmented reality, virtual reality and the cloud. Exposing and understanding these issues is essential for the training of the digital citizen and their ability to fully play their role in society, in particular in a smart city.

With this in mind, the Broadcasting Commission is currently working with the Mona School of Business and Management, the Slashroots Foundation and UNESCO, to establish a Digital Media and Information Literacy Competency Framework for Jamaica. The results will include tools to assess and possibly certify digital literacy, and recommendations for the creation of a national digital literacy policy that will include the definition and monitoring of goals in education, training, employment, digital security and media literacy.

The Broadcasting Commission has also spearheaded the Caribbean AI Initiative, which is a collaborative project with the UNESCO Cluster Office for the Caribbean and supported by the Information for All Program of the UNESCO (IFAP). Under the auspices of the Caribbean AI Initiative, we have developed the Caribbean AI Roadmap which will be offered as a guide for Caribbean Small Island Developing States in using AI to support their transition to digital economies and societies. Learn more about

As small island developing States, we in the Caribbean cannot afford to ignore the lessons of ancient history. The author of Four lost cities teaches us that the leaders of ancient cities, like their contemporaries, “… often want to invest in beautiful shows”, to the detriment of real needs. The smart city narrative carries a similar risk.


I will then move on to the right to good governance, which derives from the standards of contemporary international human rights law. In any concept and design of a smart city, we must take into account what the UN Secretary General describes as a “trust deficit disorder” that plagues the world. We’ve seen it during the riot on Capitol Hill and now with tech companies that are no longer trusted to draw our social boundaries. This notable decline in trust in public institutions, over time, if left unchecked, will undermine the basis of shared values ​​and tolerance in society.

The dilemma is compounded by a “conceptual vacuum”. In the old world, citizens could rely on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948) to demand respect for their rights to freedom of freedom, expression and conscience. But these rights have never been considered for the “virtual person”, a phenomenon made possible by the Internet. The central question now is whether the new “e-citizen” can insist on these rights beyond electronic borders and through legal systems that were intended for localized solutions.

What is the “nature” of this e-citizen, his e-rights and the jurisdiction to which e-government will be applied? What rights will the city-state constrain when everything there is to know about a citizen is accessible electronically and remotely? How should we respond to the real fear that smart cities are expanding the ability of tech companies to extract vast amounts of valuable data that can then be used for marketing purposes or even to manipulate people’s behavior and choices?

These are not just technological choices, they have profound implications for our future and we must fully engage on these issues before we plunge into a “technological abyss” in the pursuit of smart cities.


I want to conclude with two specific recommendations. The first is that we should explore the implementation of Data Trusts as a tool for data governance. By this I mean that governments should introduce legislation requiring companies to access and use public data by negotiating with data trusts that represent the interests of data subjects in general or in specific circumstances. It’s time for us to accept that if the data is the new oil, then the people involved should be the oil barons.

This idea is foreshadowed in the recently drafted Caribbean AI roadmap that calls on the Caribbean islands to manage data assets through aggregated datastores and a three-tier regional data management infrastructure to capture, categorize , clean, format, store, analyze and archive data.

I also suggest that the law impose fiduciary responsibilities on platforms as a solution to information asymmetry and power imbalance between platforms, governments and users. One can model other relationships of power and trust such as lawyer / client, doctor and patient, where the trustee has an obligation to protect the interests of the vulnerable party.

My larger point is that legislation, policies and regulations that were designed in a bygone era are now mostly inadequate to support a transition to a digital society. We need new frameworks, including socio-technological and culturally relevant laws, policies, guidelines and regulations.

There is no doubt that the future will be different, but it is not yet set in stone. It will be shaped by opportunity, volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. We have been propelled to an existential crossroads and will have to choose, as Carlos Moreira and David Ferguson observe in their book, The transhuman code, between building a better future with the help of technology or building a future with better technology at the expense of a large part of humanity.

We face these deep choices and difficult decisions knowing with humility that this is not the first time in human history that technological innovation has brought about a transformation of society, on a large scale. We can only hope that we will choose our path wisely and that our concept of “smartness” in designing modern cities will be such that the smart city is like a tide that lifts all ships.

– Cordel Green is Vice-President of UNESCO’s Information for All Program (IFAP) and Executive Director of the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica. This article is adapted from his keynote presentation at the IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society.


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