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The secret to building a smart city that’s anti-racist

In the face of COVID-19, the smart city movement has increasingly gained momentum. Drones, autonomous freights, and AI-based remote temperature sensing are among some of the new technologies that companies have partnered with cities to deploy in recent months. Smart city advocates insist that the crisis provides a key opportunity to digitally transform urban spaces for good. As the Silicon Valley “innovation firm” Strategy of Things notes, “The adoption of innovative smart city technologies such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and 5G, offers the potential for cities to respond to the pandemic more effectively and will be crucial in both curbing the spread of the virus and restarting our economy.”

But although people of color are the majority of residents in many cities and Black and Latinx people are disproportionately suffering from the COVID-19 disease and its economic fallout, race is notably absent from this conversation. Smart city initiatives are presented as “color blind,” claiming to monitor and assist all urban residents equally, yet these technologies too often enhance hyper-surveillance of communities of color. Most smart city efforts extract information from poor people, primarily people of color, to power technologies that target sites for business investment and often accelerate gentrification. Thus, these “free” public initiatives are paid for by data from communities of color while threatening the ability of those very same communities to remain part of the city. They determine whose information is collected for profit and who gets to maintain their privacy, while at the same time accelerating displacement.

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