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Both technology and ethics are needed in the smart city

Illustration: Undraw
Published Jun 03, 2021

Barbro Fröding’s current research project is about identifying and dealing with the ethical issues that may arise when new technology and people meet, specifically residents in a city. How do you go about knowing if a study requires ethical approval at all and how do you make sure that ethics becomes a part of the everyday dealings of the smart city and in planning new research studies?

Barbro Fröding (Foto: Privat)

Imagine that you want to use heat-sensitive sensors, mounted on city busses, to see how temperatures vary between different places. If you e.g. want to discover heat leakage in the city this seems like a perfectly practical and non-controversial method. But what if the sensors are also able to identify heat patterns that reveal information about the persons that happen to be between the sensor and the façade. All of a sudden your sensor has collected information that could potentially be sensitive although this was not your intent at all. Then it is easy to see that the study requires thorough ethical consideration and perhaps ethical approval.

The city of Stockholm’s vision is to become the world’s smartest city by the year 2040. In the project “Smart and connected city”, digitalization and new technology will be used to simplify and improve life for residents, businesses and visitors. Artificial intelligence, AI, is a part of this and will be used to analyse large amounts of data. But since a city is filled with people and the new technology has far-reaching possibilities it is easy to see how conflicts between data collection and integrity can arise. The alternative of getting consent, e.g. from all cyclist passing the street crossing of Fleminggatan and S:t Eriksgatan on a Wednesday afternoon in June, is more often than not practically unviable. This is where KTH’s Division of Philosophy comes into the picture.

Barbro Fröding's five conclusions

  • It is not sufficient to just follow the law
  • More ethics support is needed
  • Find inspiration in research ethics
  • Share open data and reasoning
  • Aim for dialogue and co-creation

Barbro Fröding is an associate professor in philosophy at the Division of Philosophy. The first part of her ongoing project uses the city of Stockholm’s work on the smart city as an object of study. In interviews with six persons who are key to the city’s different projects, she has examined to what extent they have encountered ethical issues, how they have dealt with them and what kind of support they have had in managing ethical issues. The result is a report with concrete advice and conclusions, which also covers ethical issues in different areas, that the city can learn from. Barbro Fröding emphasizes among other things that it is not enough to just abide by the law. There are several reasons to have higher ambitions than that. To begin with, the city has a special responsibility since they exercise public authority. An additional reason is that the development of the smart city requires that the residents have confidence in the authority that collects and deals with data. That confidence must be well managed, e.g. through clear communication about how the information will be used as well as openness and honesty about goals and implementation.

A second conclusion is that there is a need for more structured support regarding ethics. This could e.g. be in the form of an ethics committee, a coherent ethic policy, training and access to a sounding board. Otherwise, there is a risk that ethics are dependent on specific individuals. Barbro Fröding also thinks that the city can get inspiration from the world of research.

- In large parts of academia, there is a practice of making ethical considerations, e.g. in medical research. Often in combination with clear communication with the persons affected. This is an acquired competence and a way of thinking that has been exercised. Regardless of the organization, you must be able to acquire and exercise that competence.

Other recommendations are to share open data, reasoning and applications and to aim for dialogue and to have an openness to co-creation.

- The city of Stockholm has been very committed to the project. Now the report is finalized and the next step will hopefully be workshops for employees working on the smart city projects. This is currently being planned together with the city’s AI coordinator, Anna Hörlén. The participants will get training in identifying and dealing with ethical problems and they will get access to a common language for recurring conversations about ethics.

Collaboration with MIT in Senseable Stockholm Lab

The initial example with the heat sensors comes from Senseable Stockholm Lab, a collaboration between KTH and MIT Senseable City Lab, that the city of Stockholm both finances and plays an active role in. This is where the second part of Barbro Fröding’s project is found.

- In the lab part of the project, MIT researcher Fábio Duarte and I have written a brief article about ethical aspects of data management. It has been a more academically focused work compared to the applied work in ethics for the city. I really enjoy both aspects!

The collaboration has been ongoing but due to the pandemic there has not been any exchange of researchers over the Atlantic and it has also been more difficult to deploy the technology.

- It would have been interesting to visit and see how they work, but apart from communication always being more cumbersome when you are not in the same office, neither the pandemic nor the distance has been any major problem.

Continuing forward the idea is for Barbro Fröding to be an ethical resource in the lab. Both as a sounding board and discussion partner, but when needed also to consider ethical aspects of new projects before they are started.

- Such a consideration can show if you should seek ethical approval or other permissions for your research but also increase awareness of the ethical issues that may arise in the projects. I hope that the collaboration with MIT and other partners in the lab can be of use as well for other researchers at KTH when dealing with ethical aspects, concludes Barbro Fröding.

 Text: Johan C Thorburn

This is the tenth article in the School of Architecture and the Built Environment 's new series of articles on selected research, education or collaboration initiatives from each department. You can find the previous articles here:

  1. KTH Architecture: Introducing Lighting Design Research in Architecture
  2. Civil and Architectural Engineering: He is planning a new student competition about self-sufficiency
  3. Real Estate and Construction Management: New forum for discussion and cooperation on housing issues
  4. Philosophy and History: The Mediated Planet: Claiming Data for Environmental SDGs

  5. Sustainable Development, Environmental Science and Engineering (SEED): Collaborations to understand and manage water

  6. Urban Planning and Environment: What makes us decide to change our travel behavior, to opt for innovation and a sustainable future?

  7.  KTH Architecture: Redesign in focus for a sustainable cultural heritage

  8. Civil and Architectural Engineering: Fossil-free steelmaking – large scale storage of hydrogen in rock caverns

  9. Real Estate and Construction Management: Collaboration with the City of Stockholm and three-dimensional properties

Belongs to: School of Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE)
Last changed: Jun 03, 2021