Ethics in Tech: Smart Cities



Green Walking pedestrian symbol

Nassim Parvin, Associate Professor of Digital Media in Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication and Director of Design and Social Justice Studio

Nassim Parvin HeadshotWhen people discuss the benefits of smart cities—which use distributed web sensors to collect data for use in the management of resources in real-time—there is a classic scenario they bring up. If an ambulance is trying to bring a patient to the hospital, the city’s central command and control center can turn the lights green along the route so the patient can get there faster.

“In theory, that’s nice because we will be saving lives,” says Nassim Parvin, associate professor of Digital Media in Tech’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication and director of the Design and Social Justice Studio. “But there is so much beyond these simple engineering scenarios to consider.”

For example, what happens when the patient reaches the hospital? They might wait in a long line because this is the only hospital nearby. Maybe they won’t be able to pay their bill because they don’t have health insurance. In this case, the speed of the ambulance is not the problem.

“So why are we spending so much time and money to get our emergency vehicles more efficient, when what we really need is to address the inefficiencies of our healthcare system?” Parvin asks. There are other things to think about when considering the investment of a smart city, such as hacking and the cost of materials. “We lack a systemic way of thinking about where we actually need to invest our time and money in order to mitigate some of our problems,” Parvin says. She believes the solution might lie in bringing humanities, social sciences, and ethics to conversations surrounding technology.

“In the absence of substantive, ethical education, students see ethics as restrictive, or feel it’s not up to them to think about these long-term ethical questions. But engineering asks, ‘What technologies can make our life better?’ That’s essentially an ethical question. This kind of education will make our students better designers and engineers and lead to more meaningful and effective technical policy intervention.”