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Singapore Policy Journal

Topic / Science, Technology and Data

[Reading Group] Collective Summary #1: Do Citizens Dream of Smart Cities?

The following is one of four collective summaries published by the Singapore Policy Journal’s reading group on Digital Technology. Each collective summary is a product of the topics discussed and the various research directions of the members of the reading group. The reading group comprises various individuals from multiple backgrounds, providing a multidisciplinary approach to digital technology.

As technology advances onwards at breakneck speeds, citizens and governments alike are left wondering just what awaits us in this brave new world. What benefits can digital technology bring? What issues must be resolved before such a future is accepted? Exactly what stands in the way of realizing a positive view of governance in smart cities? The Singapore Policy Journal’s reading group discussed precisely these issues in their first session, picking apart the various facets of digital technology and addressing the importance of proper policy in tackling this new domain. This is the first of four collective summaries following the reading group’s program.

“Technology can’t solve human flaws.”

A recurring theme that was discussed was the role technology should play in relation to human-centric problems. Digital technologies are not flawless, and they bring myriad issues should we accept them unquestioningly. For example, when accounting for issues such as algorithmic bias, how much should society allow algorithms to control our lives? Real world bias is often reflected within algorithms, either intentionally through deliberate choices made by programmers, or unintentionally through the choice of inputs in machine learning processes. These create ethical dilemmas in certain use cases, such as when law enforcement rely on facial recognition software or tracking software. Compounding these challenges are issues of individual rights to privacy and the difficulties in finding an acceptable middle ground in the perceived tension between security and privacy. Furthermore, technology has an inherent bias towards those unable to access it.

Increasingly in Singapore, there are also generational and socioeconomic gaps that limit how much one can benefit from such digital technologies. Even though the United Nations Human Rights Council affirmed the Right to Internet Access in 2016 to allow for the freedom of expression and opinion, individuals may not have the technological literacy or economic conditions to fully participate in digital societies. The dominance of English as the global norm in digital societies also intensifies intergenerational differences in language and familiarity with technology, which limits the capacity for such technologies to truly benefit the whole of society. The role of governments in correcting these inequalities here is crucial.

Technology is created and controlled by people, and people are flawed. The recurring emphasis on the ethics of design, use, and regulation of digital technologies has deeply impressed on the reading group the importance of a more human-centric approach to digital technologies. The regulation of technology should not be simply a goal in and of itself, but always in service of larger goals relating to society-building and policymaking, which are fundamentally human issues. This brings us nicely to the next overarching point.

Technological issues are not just about technology. They are interdisciplinary issues.”

Digital solutions in public administration, the uses of open-source data, the importance of privacy and surveillance in assuring a stable society, the economic benefits of digital smart grids, and the difficulties in regulating technology firms. These issues show just how multi-faceted the considerations of digital technologies and their impacts on both government and society are. The effects of digital technologies often bleed across boundaries to affect civil discourse, intensify inequalities, and necessitate policy trade-offs.

One might argue that technologists and technocrats should be left to handle such issues, but the modern pervasiveness and democratization of information has made every individual a “digital citizen.” Digital and information domains are not just concepts. Instead, they are integral to the daily functions and activities of any citizen living in a networked society, and it is thus the duty and responsibility of citizens to be meaningful and informed participants in such discussions on digital policy. Because technology has ingrained itself so deeply into daily life, it is practically inconceivable for citizens to imagine a world where they are disconnected from digital networks. Technology has gained such a foothold in nearly every aspect of society that even its indirect effects must be taken into account.

“Fake news” laws have been passed to curb the rising tide of misinformation, but concerns have also been raised over their effects on free speech and the freedom of expression. Cambridge Analytica revealed that it was possible to influence offline behavior through online psychological targeting. Digital footprints and open-source information are creating a global market for surveillance capitalism, where personal data can be exploited for both political and commercial gain. Laws and regulations focused only on the technical aspects are inadequate for managing the full spectrum of effects digital technologies have on society. Likewise, a focus on any singular domain of expertise may unintentionally silo assessments of how digital technologies affect society, preventing comprehensive policy planning. Multiple perspectives are therefore needed to effectively craft policy options.

Technology is an opportunity as well as an inevitability.”

Digital technologies are now integral for driving continued innovation in developed economies. Singapore must embrace this wave of change for both the public and private sectors in order to maintain its relevance. However, “plugging in” has its drawbacks as Singapore contends with the vulnerabilities created by these emergent technologies. Be it the reliance on “commercial-off-the-shelf” digital solutions in the economy, or the ever-growing need for cybersecurity and IT specialists, there is global pressure for governments and companies alike to adopt digital technologies despite its disruptive effects.

The emphasis on productivity and innovation in modern markets is creating economic pressure to move into digital industries, which could threaten livelihoods. Global divides in technological literacy, coupled with the looming threats of structural unemployment and opportunities for abuse given information asymmetries, raises questions over just how beneficial a digital smart city will be for its people. At the crux of this issue is a very human-centric question. How will we decide the extent to which we embrace digital technology, while ensuring that our society manages the costs that come with its attendant disruption?

Throughout its history, Singapore has always tried to wrestle with change and the trade-offs that come with it: for example, the struggle to modernize while retaining our cultural roots, and to balance immediate gain for the current generation and long-term policies for the next. Digital technologies have entrenched themselves firmly into our national conversations, but the ubiquity of information and connective systems frequently outpaces, and indeed can often defy, the implementation of policy. Singapore’s government and society will have to focus their efforts on keeping pace with such developments.

Digital technologies are here to stay. Digital Governance is, therefore, mandatory.”

Lastly, we need to take a step back and see the bigger picture. At the heart of the reading group’s discussion was the acceptance of digital technologies as the future. Digital governance therefore becomes an imperative to help design and administrate new digital societies in an effective, fair, and just manner. Smart cities and digital economies are likely to be pursued regardless, given global pressures and the powers of authority digital technologies afford the modern state.

Risk is inherent to any society, digital or not. The difficulty is therefore not how to eliminate risks in digital technologies, but how to properly assess them to effectively implement digital solutions. How best can we use data to advance a freer, more open, and more just society, while ensuring that the state’s security and other needs are adequately met? Governance in digital spaces requires new thinking, as the Westphalian system is increasingly incompatible with the Fifth Domain. Digital governance at both domestic and international levels is thus an imminent requirement to thrive in the modern era.

With opportunity comes vulnerabilities, and as Singapore grows more interconnected, its threat surface area also increases. Private and public sectors must share information and adhere to digital laws to ensure a robust cybersecurity environment and prevent the exploitation of vulnerabilities by malicious actors. The wider public must also be aware of the limits of cybersecurity, while understanding their role as digital citizens within a wider digital ecosystem. Digital governance is not just the responsibility of government, but all of society.

“Digital technologies create uncertainty in an already complex world.” 

To summarize the reading group’s initial findings, it is crucial to consider digital technologies as an interconnected subject with interdependent parts—focusing excessively on one aspect runs the risk of being blindsided by the effects of other facets. Deep literacy in both the policymaking and technical domains becomes the prerequisite for effective digital governance, as well as mustering the required political will for change and managing international contestation over technological standards or breakthroughs. Attention to the emergent effects of digital technologies in both public and private sectors hence becomes increasingly pivotal as they become more pervasive. Such issues must be studied in-depth, and the reading group will continue to delve further into them in subsequent sessions.