For smart cities to work, they need to be ‘neutral and objective’

12 May 2021

Image: Dr Larissa Suzuki

Award-winning computer scientist Dr Larissa Suzuki discusses what is needed to create successful, inclusive smart cities.

While part of the discussion around digital transformation centres around remote working and cloud-based tech, the development of smart cities is also a hot topic, with many countries making conscious investments in this area.

For example, 2019 saw a series of big investments that aimed to make Singapore the first ‘smart city state’. And earlier this year, Paris-headquartered venture capital firm Eurazeo launched its second Smart City fund, raising €80m to invest in international start-ups in areas such as energy, mobility, proptech and logistics.

The development of smart cities can bring many benefits to society, but deployment of the tech involved requires careful thought and consideration.

One woman who is particularly passionate about the implementation of smart city technology is Dr Larissa Suzuki, a computer scientist and engineer.

‘Smart cities should encompass the entire population and respect data licences, regulation and privacy laws’
– DR LARISSA SUZUKI

Suzuki is the data practice lead for Google Cloud in the UK and Ireland, and a recent winner in the 2021 FDM Everywoman in Technology Awards. She also works as an honorary associate professor at University College London and her PhD thesis was used to design smart city platforms for more than 40 EU cities.

“As an academic, I see that the idea of what constitutes a smart city is currently moving towards a design approach that predominantly relies on ICT deployments that follow a top-down approach,” she told Siliconrepublic.com.

“There are potentially several problems with this. If we create and distribute smart things without ensuring that they’re actually relevant to, and usable by everyone, then at best we would be inconveniencing a large portion of the population.”

She said that adding machine learning techniques to design services that don’t account for the full sociocultural, economic or political spectrums could result in a more biased society.

We’ve already seen evidence of AI bias across a number of different areas of tech, from image databases used to train AI, to the impact that could have in voice-tech and healthcare.

Suzuki said given the rapid pace of technological innovation, neutrality is a fundamental component of data and its surrounding processes.

Support Silicon Republic

“Data and services in smart cities must be neutral and objective when reporting information about the city environment. They should encompass the entire population and respect data licences, regulation and privacy laws,” she said.

“In a similar fashion, the digital services and the backbone technology – including algorithms – should be free from any ideology or influence in their conception, operation, integration and dissemination.”

The potential issue of bias in smart city governance was highlighted in a research paper earlier this year. It found that, while decision-making in smart cities increasingly relies on resident-reported data and data-driven methods to improve the efficiency of the city, disparities in reporting behaviour reinforces inequality and implicit biases in smart cities.

“Understanding the changes and impacts that directly or indirectly result from the design of digital services in smart cities is important. If people can better comprehend these services, they can plan the appropriate strategies to manage any risks and extract the full potential that disruptive technologies can deliver,” Suzuki explained.

“Ensuring service neutrality and fairness in smart city design can enable the creation of fairer, accessible, safer, more secure cities. As we continue the rapid pace of innovation, these cities can, therefore, avoid becoming exploited as a commodity.”

Making women more visible

Outside of her work on smart cities, Suzuki is also a passionate advocate for women in computing. She said one of the key reasons for women not entering the tech workforce is due to a lack of role models.

‘Great tech women pioneers have been all but erased from history, and that needs to change’
– LARISSA SUZUKI

“Though women in computing have been pivotal in the creation of amazing modern technology, their story is not one that’s often told nor celebrated. On the contrary, instead, great tech women pioneers have been all but erased from history, and that needs to change,” she said.

“We need both women and men joining the tech workforce. However, for girls it is more difficult to make that choice. How can they aspire to become the next Grace Hopper or Barbara Liskov if they never heard of women excelling in tech?”

She said that when she was at university, she had never heard of Ada Lovelace, Radia Perlman or Hedy Lamarr. But she’s optimistic about the amazing women doing astonishing work in computer science – even if, as she said, there are still not enough women in this area.

We must make them visible to inspire the generations to come. Their groundbreaking work can serve as an inspiration to both girls and boys alike.”

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com