ZAHEER ALLAM *

The emergence of Big Data, accelerated through the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence, from the contemporary concept of Smart Cities coupled with that of the notion for Safe cities provides an array of unique opportunities for policing and governance. Their combined adoption is fuelled by an increasing perceived notion of conflicts that are prompted by a booming urbanisation rate. However, while the use of ‘smart’ and ‘safe’ technologies can provide desired positive outcomes, these concepts are driven mainly by ICT corporations looking at profit making, and cities are the terrain through which their businesses thrive.

Looking closely at smart policing models, an over reliance on data is known to ultimately impact on socio-economic and liveability dimensions of the urban fabric. Whether on the positive or negative will be geared on how the state regulates the use, ownership and storage of generated data. In practical terms, this can be challenging as while the financing of those solutions is often disparate; state, parastatal, councils, private developers, or a mix of those through PPP models, intellectual rights may be retained by third parties instead of the state.

How then do we ensure that the collected data from systems, initially geared towards the public good, is used in that fashion, instead of being exploited for economic gains by third parties? The emphasis on profit over service will lead to negatively impact urban liveability levels, and sadly this is seen to thrive from the (mis)use of concepts that are initially set up to provide the opposite. Jevon’s paradox? Maybe so…

This is quite a complex terrain to navigate as technological dimensions can be equally used as tools for profit making at the expense of the public good or even as an element of control and propaganda by the state itself. So how do we ensure inclusivity at the nexus between the safe and smart city? Who do we regulate: the private sector or the state? And in the latter, who regulates the state?

In view of new technological dimensions, their potential and emerging concerns, oversimplified and cryptic policy measures often favoured by regulatory bodies are not seen to work. The issue lies in the regulation of raw data, as its processing creates supplementary layers which can complicate intellectual property rights. So how do we effectively monitor (or ‘police’) the smart policing mechanisms in place?

Irrespective of who is financing, numerous questions arise from the combined adoption of Smart and Safe Cities in regard to data and its use by both the state and the private sector. As ease of procedure, the state may call for the establishment of a public regulatory body, that dwells into the issue of data rights in its own sense; regrouping at the same length the converging regulation issues with Artificial Intelligence. However, this may not be the right venture in absolute terms as this will be seen counter to the development of new technologies as strict limitations are put in place, and where only favoured technology/companies will flourish. In practice and to allow for growth and competition, general principles might suffice.

A neatly crafted set of rules can be made to apply for both the private and public sector on the use of data from Smart and Safe City concepts, and more so, if those fall in the public domain, impact on people, or is related to data collected without consent.

What does this mean for the local Mauritian context? As both the Smart and Safe city concepts are well on their way, where several projects are seen to be soon established and operational, discussions on those sensitive issues need to happen very soon.

Talking about this, sooner rather than later also presents an economic dimension in the form of harmonisation of protocols. As large corporations are sought to develop and implement technologies, they each function solely on their protocols and proprietary infrastructure, making it harder for local and smaller companies and start-ups to ‘plug’ into established systems to offer contextualised, smaller scaled, solutions; thus, accelerating creativity, innovation and digitalisation.

It is well known that a city is more than the sum of its parts, and disparate concepts –even if they are well intentioned and known to provide direct benefits to various stakeholders, must be seen from a multi-disciplinary perspective and seen from their ability to interact with other concepts and urban dimensions. Doing this will ensure inclusivity, both socially and economically, and render a cohesive urban fabric with increased liveability levels. But in order to do this, we need to first acknowledge the looming challenges and be ready to address them.

* PhD holder from Curtin University (Australia), MBA from Anglia Ruskin University (UK), Zaheer writes on, and explores, socio-politico economic tools for resilience and regeneration in an increasing urbanised world.