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Centre for Digital Built Britain completed its five-year mission and closed its doors at the end of September 2022

This website remains as a legacy of the achievements of our five-year foundational journey towards a digital built Britain

In an increasingly digitalised built Britain, smart city initiatives are seen as a way to give local authorities the opportunity to boost their inter-urban competitiveness and to harness urban data to shape urban decision making and service delivery, often with a view to enhancing efficiency. As a result, a large body of research has been carried out on the ethics of smart cities- and several ethical concerns have been raised- such as the risk of breaches of privacy, anonymity, and informed consent.

Research by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Housing and Planning Research, in conjunction with the Centre for Digital Built Britain as part of the Construction Innovation Hub, highlights the need to have an ongoing critical dialogue about the ethics of the decision-making involved in the creation of smart cities.

In The ethical underpinnings of Smart City governance: Decision-making in the Smart Cambridge Programme, UK, a recent article published in Urban Studies, our researchers highlight that there are also ethical aspects which need consideration in the decision-making processes of smart city governance.  Their findings come as a result of in-depth interviews with experts, local authority representatives, and decision-makers.

Within the scope of this research, the Smart Cambridge Programme was used as a case study and the team found that decision-makers are often interested in Smart City projects because they present the promise of hitting multiple goals at the same time (for example, developing the city’s economy while solving problems such as poor air quality or traffic congestion), and therefore represent an attractive investment.

The study aimed to explore where choices were made, consciously or implicitly, in the process of developing the Smart Cambridge programme as a way of highlighting the ethical facets of Smart City projects more broadly. 

The research, which offers insights and brings practical benefits for different urban stakeholders, including local authorities implementing smart city initiatives, highlights the need to be conscious of the myriad decisions taken within the context of smart cities considering their ethical implications.

The research suggests that the transparency and trust between local authorities and residents would improve if smart initiatives focussed on particular urban issues such as transport, housing and homelessness. Additionally, the research highlights that the recognition of its findings on how different funding sources hold implications for accountability and autonomy in local decision-making will help local authorities make informed decisions when bidding for funding.

The study also showed that compliance with GDPR and procurement laws did not obviate the profound ethical questions that underly key decision-making in smart city governance and argued that multiple ethical decisions are made across different aspects of smart city governance.

Last but not least, the research encourages current and future Smart City decision-makers to think beyond legal frameworks alone and to consider the hidden ethical dimensions especially while shaping the urban spaces, with a view to improving opportunities for all local residents. The research states that it is crucial that the future capabilities of smart city policymakers are shaped by an understanding of the ethical implications of their decision-making, and also anticipates that this understanding might guide decision-makers towards more ethically sound and spatially just decisions.

*Based on the journal article, ‘The ethical underpinnings of Smart City governance: Decision-making in the Smart Cambridge Programme, UK’ published in Urban Studies.

*This research is funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF).