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Developing the Smart City

By Tom Stoelker

Like so many tech phrases that have been trending over the past few years, the term “smart cities” takes a complex concept and boils it down to a buzz tag.

“It’s is an umbrella term that covers a whole range of tech changes happening in cities, from how governments interact with their citizens to how they make use of their data,” said Nestor Davidson, professor of law and director of the Fordham Urban Law Center.

Davidson was putting the finishing touches on a symposium titled “Smart Law for Smart Cities: Regulation, Technology, and the Future of Cities.” The event will be held at Fordham Law School on Feb. 27 and 28, and is co-organized by the Fordham Urban Law Journal, the Fordham Urban Studies Program, the Center on Law and Information Policy, and the Center for Digital Transformation.

“The programs worked really hard together to bring in panelists that could engage in a very interdisciplinary dialogue,” said R.P. Raghupathi, Ph.D., director of the Center for Digital Transformation and professor of business analytics in the Schools of Business. “Our program focuses more on the tech and application, so we’re dealing a lot with data.”

The symposium will primarily explore the regulatory landscape for potentially disruptive advances in urban governance from a variety of sectors, including energy, sustainability, surveillance, and healthcare.

“Whether it’s on the data side or on the infrastructure side, there are concerns that laws could become a barrier to progress,” said Davidson. “My sense is that the legal side isn’t as prominent a part of the conversation as it should be.”

Davidson said that with technology advancing so rapidly, the pace of law remains at a pre-digital grind. Legal reform that can respond to the pace of change and yet allow for thoughtful deliberation is becoming increasingly important, he said.

Much of the conversation on smart cities focuses on privacy concerns. Davidson cited the example of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent initiative to reduce traffic deaths by installing cameras. The initiative has been celebrated by pedestrian and cycling activists, but has also become a cause for privacy advocates. In Great Britain, Davidson said, there is currently a national conversation about the pros and cons of security camera surveillance—yet cameras are already ubiquitous.

“The best we can do now is to have a dialogue before the technology is already there and we can’t participate,” he said. “People need to understand the benefits and the costs before it all becomes a reality.”

Data gathered by urban surveillance cameras reflects larger policy concerns, such as who has access to it. Joel Reidenberg, Ph.D., the Stanley D. and Nikki Waxberg Chair and Professor of Law and director of the Center on Law and Information Policy, will moderate a panel on surveillance data.

Davidson said smart city technology could potentially foster openness by creating community conversations that extend beyond local libraries and church basements, while at the same time giving community boards access to the city’s data. One panel, “Perspectives from the Public Sector,” will feature Manhattan Borough President Gail Brewer, who recently launched an initiative to train community board members on parsing the city’s data. Brewer has been a longtime advocate for opening the government’s data closet, having sponsored the city’s open data legislation in 2012.

“We have to make city data usable and we have to be able to coordinate the various agencies,” said Brewer, who noted that city agencies often use different terminology for the same thing-—for example, to describe building locations. “Community boards have none of this expertise, but we have a posse of people who care about tech and government (and) who can help them sort through the data.”

If knowledge is power then educating the public will be key. A panel moderated by Rosemary Wakeman, Ph.D., professor of history and director of the Urban Studies Program, will focus on resident engagement.

“It’s one thing to access the data, but it’s another to have power over it,” said Wakeman.

In addition, there are concerns regarding equal access to broadband. Another panel will explore this “new digital divide” and how the technology will affect people’s everyday lives.

“Smart cities have almost a utopian quality; it makes it seem as though things will be good and happy and perfect,” said Wakeman. “But there’s also a specter of dystopia where everyone could become part of a systemized grid.”

The Fordham Urban Law Journal will publish a selection of articles and essays from participants. Panelists said that they hope the articles will lay the groundwork for a scholarly discourse on the role of law in the technological transformation of urban governance.

“I can’t wait to see the results and how we can begin to implement them,” said Brewer.



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