November 1, 2021

Fall 2021 Research Clinic on Cities, Digitalization, and Ethics

The Digital Asia Hub hosted a Research Clinic on cities as part of the Ethics of Digitalization initiative, in collaboration with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, the Global Network of Internet & Society Centers, and under the patronage of the Federal President of Germany Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The Clinic brought together a global cohort of 13 early career scholars and took place virtually in October 2021. 

This Research Clinic  examined the ethics of digitization with a focus on cities as key sites of enquiry. Participants were encouraged to bring a critical lens to challenges related to the proliferation of digital and networked technologies, exploring the multiple imaginaries and narratives behind the so-called “Smart City”, and discover entry points to embed ethical principles by (re)design. With participants from many places across the globe, the Clinic is inspired by a spirit of interdisciplinary collaboration, mutual learning, and open exchange.

Students had the opportunity to use their skills and diverse academic backgrounds to inform perspectives on building and designing networked cities, while developing vital translational skills for different audiences and interdisciplinary problem-solving.  As part of the final outputs of the Clinic, the cohort participated in a scenario in which they were tasked to design ‘city bid’ books to build digital cities of the future. Divided into two teams, the cohort selected Bangkok, Thailand, and Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati, as their sites for their city bids to articulate for a more ethical and inclusive digital city.  The cohort selected these two regions because they represented key ethical challenges facing urban planners such as climate change and rising sea levels, equitable access, rising inequality and digital divide, and personal privacy, to name a few. They worked alongside a number of subject matter experts and mentors to think through key issues.                    

Responding to participants on their initial city bid plans, Katherine Daniell, Professor, 3A Institute, School of Cybernetics & Fenner School of Environment and Society, College of Science, remarked “you had a beautiful collection of thinking about those definitions, about ethics, about governance, about inequality, about many of the social concept…and the group on Tarawa brought a strong focus on a lot of the environmental concepts around flooding and resilience…I love the fact that they talks about that idea of why the city, why not kind of multi level governance where you could talk about, from the individual to the group to the suburb to the, to the island”. Andres Lombana, Assistant Prof. Pontifica Universidad Javeriana, who also led a workshop on participatory design process, added “I really love the idea of connecting the process of digitization to environmental justice or environmental management”. 

Speaking after the final presentations from the cohort on 28 October, Prem Chandavarkar,  Managing Director of CnT Architects, and Former Executive Director of Srishti School of Art Design & Technology in Bangalore, India, gave his final remarks, “I commend the work done because the question of what is an ethical city is actually quite new. Urban planning and urban management is oriented towards what is a good city or what is a proper city. And it’s only recently recognized that that’s not equal to the question of what is an ethical city.  In a short period of time the comprehensiveness and the sophistication of presentations (from the cohort) on this question was a really great starting point”. 

Over the three-weeks of sessions and co-working the Clinic helped foster a space described by some members of the cohort as “intensely rewarding…memorable…mindful and thoughtful…enlightening”. Some of the takeaways and learnings from this multidisciplinary exercise highlighted by the students included “the importance of participatory design in a city…critically examining the city and its hidden infrastructure…Interrogate the notion of ‘ethics’ more carefully in the context of technology deployment”. 

The Digital Asia Hub
The Digital Asia Hub is an independent, non-profit Internet and society research think tank based in Hong Kong. Incubated by The Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and a diverse group of academic, civil society, and private sector partners, the Hub provides a non-partisan, open, and collaborative platform for research, knowledge sharing and capacity building related to Internet and Society issues with focus on digital Asia. The Hub also contributes as a node of the Global Network of Internet & Society Centers (NoC).

The Ethics of Digitalization Project
Led by the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG), the Berkman Klein Center, and the Digital Asia Hub, and in collaboration with the Global Network of Internet & Society Centers (NoC), the “The Ethics of Digitalisation: From Principles to Practice” project advances dialogue and action at the intersection of science, politics, digital economy, and civil society.