Analysis - Technological Developments

Sociology of the Machine

Smart societies and changing values - challenges for the Arab world
Tuesday، January 31، 2017
Sociology of the Machine

The world is rapidly investing in the vast possibilities offered by new technologies, such as building “smart cities” which base their infrastructure and administration entirely on advanced gadgetry. 

The Arab world has not been exempt from this trend; several major projects have been launched to make Arab metropoles “smart” or to build entirely new smart cities.

While these projects have an economic logic, the building of “smart cities” to be inhabited by “smart” residents has triggered a sociological debate around “smart societies” and how such technologies redefine society itself, social relationships and shared values. 

At the core of these issues are the political practices and values which remain in a state of crisis in the Arab world, and have not recovered yet from the shocks to its social structure as a result of the Arab Spring -- itself fundamentally linked to “smart” technology.

A global move towards smart investment

Smart cities are the most prominent manifestation and the most comprehensive application of the technological and communications revolution. They are creating a foundation for smart societies with advanced systems, based on connectivity and networking, for optimum utilization of the available resources.

The European Union’s Smart Society program views smart societies as the result of growing harmony between humans and technology, with the emergence of a hybrid system where social and technological aspects interact with material factors to build smarter societies. This phenomenon has been hugely boosted with the advent of the “internet of things”.

Smart technology generates annual revenue worth an average of USD 8.8 billion globally, which is expected to grow to USD 27.5 billion by 2023, according to Navigant Research. IHS, another technology consultancy, estimated the number of smart cities to be 21 worldwide in 2013, and predicted that number would rise to 88 by 2025. Market researcher Frost & Sullivan forecasts that by the same year, the market will be worth some USD 1.5 trillion, comprising eight key sectors: manufacturing, power supply, security, education, construction, healthcare, transportation and water. 

The transition towards smart cities has gained global attention, prompting initiatives such as the Smart Cities Mission, launched by India in 2015 with a budget of USD 15 billion to build 100 new smart cities. The transition has also spawned international projects such as the European Commission’s Smart Society Project, launched in 2013 to develop smart applications and systems, and other  initiatives launched by a group of global technology companies such as the Smarter Cities Challenge. This voluntary project, launched by IBM in 2010, has sent 800 technical experts to over 130 cities around the world to help guide and improve the efficiency of their systems, at an average cost of some USD 66 million. 

The Arab world has not been left out of this trend. Along with the growth of the market for smart technologies for local consumption, some governments have been adopting serious strategies for phasing in smart management applications and developing transportation, water, power and waste disposal systems that rely on smart technologies. 

The United Arab Emirates has been a regional pioneer in this regard, launching the Smart Dubai initiative in October 2013. This includes some 500 projects and smart services, including the USD 300 million, 150,000 km2 Silicon Park project, a 3D printing initiative and a slew of creative projects in telecommunications and data services. Another project is the smart palm trees on Dubai’s seafront, launched in 2016. They use solar power to provide the public with free internet access, allow people to charge electronic devices, take pictures, send emergency signals, and display advertisements and information from the municipality, around the clock. 

The UAE has also established Masdar City in the Abu Dhabi desert, which was designed to be a smart, environmentally friendly and sustainable city. It contains a vast solar power plant and a wind farm, as well as an integrated IT system that manages all aspects of the city’s infrastructure, along with an advanced transportation system. Cars are banned and residents use underground electric trains to get around. 

As part of Qatar National Vision 2030, it is developing plans to create a model for a smart city. The plans will be implemented in the Lusail and Msheireb areas of Doha, with a focus on creating a clean environment. 

Some North African governments have adopted similar systems. Morocco has floated plans to turn six of its major cities (Casablanca, Rabat, Tangiers, Fez, Ifrane and Marrakesh) into smart cities by 2026. It hopes to establish several new smart and sustainable cities that rely on solar and wind energy. Egypt too, recently announced the launch of the fourth generation of the Egyptian city, based on the smart city concept. It aims to implement the vision at its new administrative capital, in New El-Alamein and in eastern Port Said. 

Value systems for the smart society

While debates over the transition to smart cities tend to focus on the economic and technical aspects of the transformation, researchers have started discussing the emergence of a “smart society” as the next stage beyond the advent of smart cities. 

Human beings, after all, are the focus of such projects and play a key role in them. Major questions hang over whether cities that are technically and economically smart can necessarily create societies that are smart from a sociological and anthropological point of view. 

Despite the link between smart cities and smart societies, the two phrases are by no means synonymous. As the Global Forum on smart societies has noted, smart cities can provide the infrastructure and technical requirements for a society to be smart but are not necessarily sufficient to make them smart. The forum set out six main elements required in a smart society: broadband services, expanded human capacity, an innovation-based economy, digital equality, environmental sustainability and defending change. It argues that those elements are the basis for a system of values that can govern such societies. 

Many definitions use the prevalence of technical capacities approach to describe smart societies -- i.e. societies where various modern technologies and advanced systems are used effectively to change the daily lives of their citizens -- as defined by the Smart City Coalition in Japan. 

Other arguments define smart society as the final goal of these technological developments, arguing that technology is not the end goal of smart societies but rather that smart societies use technology to attain social goals based on the fundamental values of openness, integration and transparency. 

Esri, an American company working on smart geographic information systems, lays down other basic requirements for building a smart society. They include integration, information sharing and the use of open data to build trust between the citizen and the government. They also require analysis, supported by decision-making based on data and the use ofscientific forecasting methods, along with cooperation to link up databases in different institutions. 

The idea of “smart government” is another basic concept in this regard. An EU study in 2014 defined the concept as linking up government, private and civil society institutions in a framework of transparency and open data to support smart, environmentally friendly solutions. 

Leonidas G. Anthopoulos and Christopher G. Reddick presented a theoretical framework for smart government at the 25th World Wide Web Conference in Canada in April 2016. They consider it a new stage in the creation of smart cities, seeing it as a physical space where smart government practices can be exercised. 

Researcher Maritsa Vargas has also defined several elements of governance, including participatory decision-making and a transparent administration that underlines the importance of democratic values and effective citizen participation in the value system of the smart society. 

Within that context, Barcelona, which won the Global Smart City award in 2015, has implemented high standards of open government to improve transparency and accessibility. It has put in place a system for gathering geographical data from various localities, evaluating their capacities for dealing with emergencies or unexpected situations, and improving each area’s capacity to respond. 

Professor Michael Gurstein, director of Canada’s Center for Community Informatics Research, offers another vision emphasizing smart societies over smart cities. He argues that many researchers are trying to turn such cities into a string of neo-liberal markets. He offers several key concepts to help reap the advantages of smart technologies to empower citizens: 

1. Smart Community Planning: Supporting citizen involvement in the delivery of smart services via smart technologies, by using interactive maps to gather data on residents in remote areas, for example, in order to find the best areas to set up additional or alternative services.

2. Smart Community Governance: Providing a means for public scrutiny of municipal budgets including providing the funding for the training and support required for those with little education to review budgets and ensure that they are being spent appropriately and equitably among citizens.

3. Citizen engagement in smart societies: Online interaction on public affairs based on accessibility of government data in a way that takes into account the geographical distribution of residents. The input of citizens in various localities is gathered in a way that supports public participation in local planning and project design. 

4. Structure and resources: Citizens are able to notify authorities of problems with public services via smart systems that are able to gather their contributions from various areas. The system requires a decentralized administration  that can respond effectively to different situations and needs among different local communities, in the framework of supporting citizen participation in decision-making, priority setting and resource allocation. 

Challenges for smart transitions in the Arab world

While some Arab countries have started building smart cities in order to promote economic growth, raise living standards and promote sustainable development, those efforts have been hindered by serious obstacles. The concept of a smart society is not limited to technological applications but is also associated with the value system surrounding those technologies. 

Giving individuals the ability to communicate and participate creates a system of values and a public culture that is incompatible with the systems that dominate in more traditional or “non-smart” societies.

On top of the economic and technological challenges linked to the smart transition in the Arab world, particularly relating to access to the necessary capacities, a number of political challenges hinder the adoption of the values of a smart society: 

1. Monopoly of the elite over knowledge and power: Smart societies are based on the creation of vast databases that are gathered in a participatory manner through networking and technical connections. The data is gathered, processed and managed via smart city centers, which facilitate the linkages between government, social institutions and individuals, maximizing the utilization of resources and minimizing the risks, creating what one report by Siemens called “flexible cities”. 

These databases give enormous power to the bodies that own them, particularly government institutions. That creates the fear that they will be used to monitor and control citizens, contrary to the main goal for which such systems were set up. 

Those fears are in sync with observations by Frank Pasquale, Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, and researcher Jathan Sadowski at the University of Arizona. They co-wrote a 2015 paper called “The Spectrum of Control”, echoing a phrase used to denote a network of surveillance and domination which smart technologies give to an elite that controls the vast, through detailed databases gathered by such technologies. Such an elite becomes able not only to monitor the public but also to predict people’s actions through advanced analytics systems, meaning the residents of smart cities are constantly under control.  

2. Access to data and social power: Smart societies are linked to the concepts of open data and the right to access it, as well as other concepts concerning the availability of data to the citizen. Data forms a key element of power in a smart society, thanks to vast databases built on links and networks between different institutions and with the public. They are constantly refreshed, thanks to their flexibility and ability to carry out continuous automated updates. 

When individuals are deprived of such data, in a society dominated by smart gadgets, that not only prevents the involvement of citizens in solving public problems and tracking their behaviors. It also allows for rumors and arbitrary assessments to spread, accelerated by the links and networks offered by smart technologies. This poses a risk to smart cities that do not have the value systems of smart societies. 

3. Values of local communities: Implementing the values of openness, connectivity, citizen involvement, free expression and transparency may be inconsistent with the traditional systems that dominate in many traditional local Arab communities. These technologies cannot operate in isolation from the value systems where they took root. Their implementation means, in some way or another, the implementation of some measure of those values. 

It is of no use depending on smart networks to gather citizens’ suggestions for developing the water system in a mountain village governed by a local mayor who has family links to local residents, meaning they are unlikely to criticize his policies. 

This kind of issue has other ethical aspects when we look at social values more generally. That was the focus of serious debate at the first annual global conference on smart cities in North Africa, at Morocco’s Al Akhawayn University in July 2014, which dealt with the effects of smart city policies on local cultures. The debate, however, focused on the developmental and economic aspects of implementing such policies, to the exclusion of the cultural and ethical questions it poses. 

4. The digital gap: This is not only linked to the ability of individuals to obtain technology that allows them to interact with public bodies, but also to the presence and quality of communications infrastructure and telecommunications networks, the unbalanced development afflicting many Arab countries and the unbalanced levels of technical skill between citizens from different educational backgrounds. These and other vast disparities hinder the adoption of the values of a smart society, which is fundamentally based on digital equality. 

Finally, despite the Arab world’s moves to invest in smart technologies, primarily for economic development, such technologies must surely have a future impact. Technological integration gives individuals more power to manipulate their surroundings through a single device, giving them a growing feeling of being empowered and in control. 

Individuals who are able to monitor traffic and check on the contents of their refrigerators via their smartphones, express themselves on social media or use the internet to participate in training sessions taking place hundreds of miles away, cannot be prevented from learning how to analyze public budgets or the factors behind inflated commodity prices. 

Their views on policies that affect their interests and daily lives cannot be ignored. Neither can things be managed using traditional methods suited to managing closed societies, such as hegemonic state media, weak channels for participation or unbalanced development, or any of the other problems facing the Arab political environment. 

Keywords: MENATechnologyArabSmart