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Does ‘smart’ mean equal?

Digital technologies are reshaping our cities in new and novel ways. How can we ensure equal access to the benefits of the smart city?


At a time when injustice in our systems and in our cities are being exposed in a profound manner, it must be ensured that those involved in the next wave of city development, the ‘smart city’, do everything in their power to empower the marginalized and the poor, and not leave them even further behind.


The growing dependence on digital technologies in our cities and society, at large – a shift that was already well underway, but has only been accelerated during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic - isn’t an inherently bad thing. In fact, the effective use of emerging technologies – 5G, connected sensor networks, cloud computing, automation, and the like – has the potential to help our cities thrive like never before. If implemented with care, becoming ‘smart’ can encouraging a new age of transparency and innovation, enabling citizens to understand and devise their own solutions, acquire new skills through online learning, and improve their interaction and accountability with public authorities.


According to Bas Boorsma, one of the foremost experts on the subject of becoming ‘smart’, and author of A New Digital Deal: Beyond Smart Cities. How to Best Leverage Digitalization for the Benefit of our Communities, ‘A smart community is able to positively address societal divides by digital means, and is able to mitigate the divisive impact digital change may impose on a community."

It is not, however, a foregone conclusion that our cities will arrive at this ideal state.


As with any disruptive change in society, those communities that have been left behind before will only continue to be so if there is not an intentional means of inclusion in the process of change. In the case of digitalizing our cities, the rapid pace of change made possible through digital innovation creates an even greater risk than ever before to widen the gaps already present in our cities.


Income inequality in Thai society is well documented. In 2018, Thailand passed Russia and India to take the title of the world’s most unequal country. One contributing and increasingly important factor in this inequality is the disparity in access to information and communications technology (ICT) between individuals or groups. This disparity in access is referred to as the ‘digital divide’.


One of the latest USL Round Table guests, Dr. Saowaruj Rattanakhamfu from the Thai Development Research Institute, recently wrote, “The digital divide in Thailand has been a problem that [has] detrimentally affected poor households for a long time.”


In Dr. Rattanakhamfu’s article, “Covid-19 emphasizes the need to bridge the digital divide and reduce online educational inequality”, she cites the National Statistical Office of Thailand in stating, “only 3% of households with average annual income of less than 200,000 baht have Internet-connected computers, and 19% of households with an average annual income of 200,000 baht or more have Internet-connected computers.”


While it may seem modest to many, access to basic Internet-connected computers makes a major difference when seeking educational and job opportunities. As Thailand’s cities make the continuing march towards ‘smart’, access to computers and other technologies will become ever more critical to ensure that citizens of every ethnicity, gender and income-level are able to gain the necessary skills to participate in the new economy.


One common approach to addressing the unequal access to ICT is the development of digital community centers in poor and rural communities. These physical learning spaces help to provide access to both hardware and software that are lacking in many households, and when coupled with responsive programming, can help support people of all ages to be confident participants in the growing digital economy.


A key strategy of Thailand’s current Digital Economy and Society Development Plan is to ensure “everyone can reap the benefits of digital technology.” As part of this strategy, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society has set the goal of building Digital Community Centers all over the country and providing 10,000 free WiFi locations in both formal and informal schools.


This is a worthwhile goal. However, like most things involving the ‘smart city’, government alone should not be relied upon to provide all of the answers. Novel models of service delivery are needed to meet the needs of all city dwellers, and this is no different when addressing Thailand’s digital divide.


In developing the cities of the future, we will all need to come together, public, private, NGOs, academics and private citizens, to help bridge the gaps in our poorest communities and ensure ‘smart’ city means an inclusive city for all.




References:

Boorsma, Bas. A New Digital Deal: Beyond Smart Cities. How to Best Leverage Digitalization for the Benefit of our Communities, 2018

Global Wealth Databook 2018, Credit Suisse Research

Covid-19 emphasizes the need to bridge the digital divide and reduce online educational inequality: https://bit.ly/30zYewq

An article by David Fiske

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