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Communications of the ACM

Computing ethics

Who Benefits?

smart city, illustration

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I am the incoming editor of the Communications Computing Ethics column. I appreciate what previous column editors have done since this column's inception in 2008 and intend to follow their lead, creating a space where computing professionals can raise good questions about ethics emerging from our work. This does not guarantee good answers but should elicit good discussions, which are always encouraged in the pages of this magazine.

For my inaugural column, I begin with perhaps the oldest ethics-related question of all: Cui bono, which means "who benefits?" People are known to be self-interested, out to improve their own welfare. The larger society sets ethical boundaries on improving one's welfare. Forbidden are theft, fraud, nepotism, bribery, violence, and a host of other behaviors. Asking cui bono starts us down the path to ethical issues. This column uses the case of smart cities to illustrate the ethical dilemmas created by an otherwise innocuous-seeming issue.

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Smart Cities For Whom?

Ethical behavior is a professional requirement. ACM says computing professionals should contribute to society and human well-being (ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct General Ethical Principle 1.1). It is hoped that incentives do the job by giving computing professionals the means: by putting them on the cutting edge, by recognizing their innovations, by helping them to improve the lives of millions with technology.

Smart cities seem a good case in point. Smart cities use cutting-edge and innovative technology to improve livability for millions.a They promise:

  • Traffic cameras and sensors that automatically adjust traffic-light timing and toll collection to reduce congestion while conserving fuel;
  • Smart buildings with cameras and sensors that determine occupancy and adjust HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) and lighting to conserve energy;
  • Wi-Fi kiosks with local maps and points of interest to improve way-finding;
  • Compacting solar-powered, trash cans that signal when full to reduce collection, odors, and vermin; and
  • Self-driving vehicles to reduce congestion, parking space shortages, and fuel consumption.

Cui bono? In principle, everyone. But a closer look at the smart cities rhetoric shows the benefits focused on a subset of the total. Computing professionals produce hardware that is smaller, more powerful, and more energy efficient, as well as new and improved algorithms for data collection, handling, manipulation, analysis, and presentation. Tech companies benefit from new technology and expanded markets. Municipal officials benefit from their reputation for innovation. Property owners benefit from higher property values. Benefits abound for computing professionals, the tech industry, some municipal officials, and property owners. Yet the concept of smart cities is decontextualized and abstracted. None of these objectives is unethical, per se, but they do not touch on the interests of people who live in cities who are not computing professionals, tech companies, municipal officials, or property owners. Nor do they touch on the interests of rural residents (20% of the U.S.). One might say that is the way of the world, but the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct General Ethical Principle 1.1 also states, "When the interests of multiple groups conflict, the needs of those less advantaged should be given increased attention and priority."

West Baltimore includes poor neighborhoods. People in West Baltimore have expressed interest in smart cities. The interests of the less-advantaged conflicted with other interests. The less-advantaged do not believe that automatic traffic-light adjustments and smart buildings are a big win for them. Their neighborhoods have little congestion and do not need automatic traffic lights. Their aging housing stock needs much more basic attention than that provided by smart buildings. Their high-crime streets do not invite people to access Wi-Fi at a public kiosk. Compacting trashcans are outweighed by loss of trash-collector jobs, which they need. Self-driving cars are more attractive to people who have cars, and self-driving buses are ridiculous to people who hope to get a job as a bus driver and who depend on human drivers to keep order and deter crime aboard the bus.

Many who live in West Baltimore would not benefit from smart cities as currently conceived. In fact, they might lose. But that does not mean they cannot benefit from innovation. Many in West Baltimore want free Wi-Fi on buses where they spend hours each day riding to and from school and work.5 These residents would benefit from free or affordable Wi-Fi at home (and no fear of unexpected data charges) to do homework, apply for jobs, improve skills, pay bills, and otherwise participate in modern life. That way those who now allow neighbors to congregate outside of their apartments to share their Wi-Fi service would not have to ask their neighbors to disconnect when the service gets too slow. Many would benefit from video feeds from cameras and microphones that detect gunfire, with emphasis on community empowerment rather than surveillance. Are these smart-city objectives? They are difficult to find in promotional materials for smart cities.

This mismatch is not new. There should be no shock at it, as though it first arose with smart cities. In fact, it is nearly as old as the cui bono question, and we have had more than half a century to consider it. In 1963, the author James Baldwin famously called urban renewal "negro removal."b Jane Jacobs pointed out that early freeways were optimized for cars, and destroyed vibrant, resilient neighborhoods while creating dangerous downtowns that were deserted after 6 P.M.6 Housing projects intended to help the poor often concentrated poverty and limited social capital and upward mobility. The inner city is not a machine to engineer for maximum efficiency. It has always been difficult to bring technology to cities12 and to rural areas.10 Will smart cities repeat the failures of the past?

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Doing Better

Urban areas are complicated and sociotechnical. They are inherently emergent, never pinned down. They remind us of the importance of place.4,9 The strategic management of place focuses overwhelmingly on economic competitiveness, with livability taking a back seat.1 Urban areas bring together residents who have only their place in common. Urban boundaries are amorphous and often dynamic. They include parts or all of multiple cities, counties, and even states. Management is difficult in any place that porously encompasses residents, workers who commute in from other places, and temporary visitors.6 Yet urban planning is traditionally top down, with urban planners treated as apolitical technocrats who emphasize efficiency.3 New technologies in municipalities are often driven by municipal and tech company leaders without participation, oversight, or influence from residents.8 Urban informatics concerns data collection, manipulation, analysis, and presentation.7 Smart cities means collection of data to supply models that drive policymakers' decisions. Most urban residents are not policymakers.

It can be difficult to evaluate costs and benefits of smart cities technologies.

Civic engagement through town hall meetings and public comment periods is now augmented by social media, municipal websites, email, texting, Twitter, and so forth.2 Sometimes these help, but urban and rural residents of all ethnicities and social classes are still disconcerted by unanticipated policy changes and they distrust both computer models and government officials enough to mount active campaigns of resistance.11 Once again, cui bono? Policies that work for vendors may not work for residents. Policies that work for urban residents may not work for rural residents. Policies that work for one class of residents might not work for another. Civic engagement varies by race, culture, geography, and socioeconomic status. Poor residents who work multiple jobs, rely on buses, need childcare, and have poor connectivity might participate less. The diluted voices of far-flung rural residents are faint. Urban informatics that is successful only if people stay in touch with planners means that only those who stay in touch benefit.7

Smart cities projects need to continually and meaningfully connect with diverse residents. Computing professionals must understand the lived experiences of city and rural residents, asking hard questions. What decisions created the situation we are trying to improve? How did those decisions affect people's lives and opportunities? What constraints and incentives influenced these decisions? Do the processes current decision makers follow repeat the mistakes of the past? Most important, have we heard from all the relevant stakeholders about this? Do stakeholder interests align or conflict?

Mechanisms to coordinate across multiple cities, counties, and states are even more difficult than coordinating across silos in a single jurisdiction. Municipal budgets are tight and resource allocation fraught. Urban and rural officials and experts often lack technical skills. It can be difficult to evaluate costs and benefits of smart cities technologies. Computing professionals can help, but to understand who benefits they must look beyond the limited points of view of municipal officials and experts.

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Ethical Dilemmas

Smart cities must be livable cities—or else what is the point? Enabling multiple stakeholders to participate in smart cities discussions is a challenge. The disadvantaged and rural residents are often excluded and difficult to bring in, but addressing their needs spurs innovation and magnifies impact. Bringing them in can create inefficiency and slow down the process, making practicality a key challenge that must be overcome. The ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct obliges computer professionals to contribute to society and to human well-being, giving increased attention and priority to the less advantaged. The job is more difficult if the disadvantaged are excluded and the privileged included. And smart cities are just the beginning. The dream must be extended to rural places if technology is to improve quality of life and support the public good. Details may vary, but rural residents face many of the same challenges as those in the city: connectivity to support transport, work, study, play, economic development, and sustainability.

Computing professionals are expected to work toward justice.

Getting to both smart and livable cities and rural areas requires participatory strategies that empower multiple stakeholders in the integration of technologies into their communities. Higher-quality data, more democratic decision making, more equitable provision of services, and vibrant livable neighborhoods and rural areas might result. Effective engagement strategy requires working with local institutions, building trust, and co-design through which stakeholders become partners with computing professionals and others to design and implement smart-city technologies.

Computing professionals are expected to work toward justice. Definitions of justice vary (which is why there are courts). The ACM Code of Ethics requires attention to the needs of the disadvantaged. Equity, inclusion, and sustainability require participatory processes for technologies that reinforce the interests of people living in shared places. Co-designing enhances civic engagement and improves community resilience. It might not answer all the questions to ask, Cui bono? But it opens the door to justice.

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1. Audretsch, D.B. Everything in its Place: Entrepreneurship and the Strategic Management of Cities, Regions, and States. Oxford University Press, NY, 2015.

2. Criado, J.I., Sandoval-Almazan, R., and Gil-Garcia, J.R. Government innovation through social media. Government Information Quarterly 30, 4 (Apr. 2013), 319–326.

3. Dalton, L.C. Why the rational paradigm persists—The resistance of professional education and practice to alternative forms of planning. Journal of Planning Education and Research 5, 3 (1986), 147–153.

4. Florida, R.L. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life. Basic Books, New York, 2002.

5. GovEx. First things first: Laying the foundation for a smart city, 2018;

6. Jacobs, J. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, NY, 1961.

7. Kontokosta, C.E. Urban informatics in the science and practice of planning. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 1–14, 2018.

8. Mattern, S. Interfacing urban intelligence. Code and the City, 2016, 49–60.

9. Porter, M.E. Location, competition, and economic development: Local clusters in a global economy. Economic Development Quarterly 14, 1 (2000), 15–34.

10. Rogers, E.M. Diffusion of Innovations. Free Press, New York, 1962.

11. Scharfenberg, D. Computers can solve your problem. You may not like the answer. What happened when Boston Public Schools tried for equity with an algorithm. The Boston Globe (Sept. 21, 2018).

12. Urban Institute. The Struggle to Bring Technology to Cities. The Urban Institute, Washington, D.C., 1971.

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Susan J. Winter ( is Associate Dean for Research in the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, MD, USA.

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a. Recent examples of smart cities in Communications include: "Building a Smart City: Lessons from Barcelona":; "The New Smart Cities":; and "Smart Cities: Concepts, Architectures, Research Opportunities":

b. See

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