Smart Cities Require More than the Buenos Aires Declaration

Posted on 19th July 2018

On 30 May 2018, a round of applause ushered in the conclusion of the International Telecommunications Union’s first forum on “Artificial Intelligence and Internet of Things in Smart Sustainable Cities in Latin America,” where delegates came to celebrate the Buenos Aires Declaration.

A four-page document, the Declaration rightly acknowledges the transformative potential of artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) in enabling smarter and more sustainable cities, including the economic benefits that can be derived from distributed computing, machine and deep learning, and big data analytics. Indeed, an Accenture study found that disruptive technologies, particularly AI, can add “up to 1.0 percent to annual economic growth rates” across the five major Latin American economies. As such, the Declaration recommends several policies, including boosts to education, promoting smart devices, and combining AI and IoT, all of which it recommends be folded into one interoperable framework across the region.

If the Declaration’s recommended policies are implemented, they could dramatically improve living standards in urban areas. Already, 80% of the population in Latin America live in cities, but city planning is struggling to keep pace with rapid urbanisation and has not adapted to rising inequality or climate-change mitigation. Therefore, the Declaration’s call to introduce smart cities and AI offers a way for cities to deal with this growing problem, while also boosting health, education, and transport standards.

The Declaration calls for action around two axes: increasing the uptake of AI in smart cities and creating a regulatory ecosystem that fosters the future incorporation of AI. These are ambitious, but they create an opportunity for nations to coordinate their efforts and establish a necessary push for governments, nationally and locally, to investigate ways to reap the benefits of AI and IoT for smart and sustainable cities.

However, capitalising on the Declaration will not be an easy task. Firstly, creating a regulatory framework can only be achieved after the establishment of a healthy multistakeholder ecosystem, which fosters trust between the public and private sectors. Particularly, constructive conversations must be held on issues such as eliminating algorithmic bias, managing big data and its effect on privacy, data protection, liability, and the misuse of AI.  Currently, the regulatory ecosystem is fragmented, hindering efforts to adopt new technologies, and states continue to navigate the AI/IoT space without a meaningful framework.

Increasing public trust is necessary, since the uptake of AI in smart cities will face  widespread negative perception of the technology. A joint study by a Stanford expert and the director of Microsoft Research Labs found that while concerns over AI not living up to expectations were falling, fears over the impact of AI had tripled since the 1980s.

As such, and as the Declaration correctly suggests, the international community must seek to raise awareness about the role of AI and IoT in smart city development. The ITU’s “Forum on AI and IoT” and the “AI for Global Good Summit” are prime examples of these efforts — but insufficient. The Declaration is a valuable initiative, but capitalising on the Declaration’s call for action requires strongcommitment, including the construction of smart partnerships, an ecosystem of trust, as well as an organic and innovative communication strategy.

Local implementation, for example, of the Buenos Aires Declaration has attracted little momentum. Perhaps the commitment can be renewed at the UNESCO’s Latin America and Caribbean Open Sciences Forum, due to be held in Panama later this year.


Author: Hussein Abul-Enein, Public Policy Analyst, Access Partnership

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