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Donnerstag, 30.05.2024
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“The success of government technology is not dependent solely on bits and cables – infrastructure, internet speed, and ubiquitous connectivity. No vision of smartness or technological advancement is possible without public trust and political legitimacy,” writes Kris Hartley.

In February 2024, Hong Kong police announced plans to instal 615 new surveillance cameras in areas of the city with “high crime figures and high pedestrian flows.” The announcement also mentioned the possibility of equipping the cameras with artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities. This news follows a January 2024 announcement that 2,000   surveillance cameras would be installed around the city this year. According to an RTHK article, Deputy Chief Secretary Warner Cheuk “added that he understood some people had privacy concerns, but said many other places had more CCTV cameras than Hong Kong.”

Mr. Cheuk is correct that other places have invested heavily in camera surveillance. According to a 2023 report by Comparitech, the top three cities outside of China with the most surveillance cameras per square mile are Delhi (1,490), Seoul (618), and Singapore (387), with New York City (number five) having 321 and London (number seven) having 209.

The same study examined 39 major cities in mainland China, finding an average of 1,994 surveillance cameras per square mile, with the highest number in Shenzhen (7,462), Wuhan (6,488), and Shanghai (5,239). Chinese cities constitute the top-21 most camera-surveilled in the world.

Taking an estimate based on surveillance cameras per person, Hong Kong has roughly 52,000 for a total of 122 per square mile – far behind the mainland average of 1,994 across the 39 studied cities. Technology is clearly a driver of Hong Kong’s policy agenda, which at a high level is focused on harmonisation with mainland China. Indeed, many technology policy initiatives appear more benign than the installation of surveillance cameras – including the broad-reaching Smart City Blueprint, service integration with Guangdong province, and a commitment to daily citizen-experience issues like smart mobility.

These are heady times for government technology. The recent and noisy emergence of generative AI, particularly through publicly accessible applications like ChatGPT, is bringing both disruption and new opportunities to all corners of society. The focus of governments around the world, however, is not solely on control. Public sector organisations now interface with AI as both regulator and user, and AI is also being applied to smart city programmes.

The success of government technology is not dependent solely on bits and cables – infrastructure, internet speed, and ubiquitous connectivity. No vision of smartness or technological advancement is possible without public trust and political legitimacy. My recent study about public perceptions of smart city programmes in Hong Kong offers some insights into these complex dynamics.

In the study, I find that public support for smart cities depends in part on the government’s ability to effectively communicate about its use of and intentions for technology. In Hong Kong, the Covid-19 pandemic challenged the government’s effectiveness in nudging residents to comply with technology-based containment measures. With existing tensions over legislative proposals about criminal extradition and national security, the political legitimacy of any new policy initiative could be considered fragile.

In building support for AI-enabled smart cities and other government technology initiatives, the construction of policy narratives plays a crucial role. According to my study, a common pathway to political legitimacy is the technocratic narrative concerning expertise and scientific knowledge. The seemingly objective functionality of technology is understandably appealing, both to governments and much of the public, in the current era of uniquely tense political polarisation and weaponisation of scientific facts.

However, the long-held notion of technocratic impartiality is being challenged from two directions: the political right-wing by populist, anti-globalist, and nationalist movements, and the political left-wing by claims about racist and sexist bias embedded in institutions and public life. Even in contexts where such issues are not a central part of the political discourse, public scepticism borne of weakened state-society relations remains a shaky foundation on which to build credibility for government technology.

Furthermore, a common point of pushback from all sides of the political spectrum is the argument that smart city programmes are a top-down agenda that serves elite commercial and political interests. This critique calls into question the very process by which policies are made, who is consulted, and what political checks and balances ensure equity and fairness. A public communication strategy may highlight the convenience and efficiency of smart cities, but doubling down on technology is not an effective way to foster confidence in governance and policymaking more generally. This task requires only the gritty and toilsome work of strengthening public trust through meaningful exchanges and consultation, delivery on policy promises, and a commitment to transparency and accountability.

Finally, the challenge of communications addressed in my study highlights the importance of message comprehension. This issue is particularly salient in the context of technologically or scientifically complex policy issues. Covid-19 exposed some societal divides concerning belief in scientific fact or, at least, in the credibility of institutions using science as a policy input. Similar dynamics may emerge as AI and other technologies are more deeply integrated into official policymaking and monitoring capacities. Related messaging should be clear and understandable to everyone, including non-experts.

In the coming years and decades, Hong Kong’s smart cities adventures will be a lively interplay among dynamic and evolving technologies, often-mercurial public sentiments, and the government’s desire for control and stability. The smart cities imaginary is a promising narrative at face value – improved services, user convenience, operational efficiency, and opportunities to “modernise.” However, the story does not stop at technological innovation.

Public trust, political legitimacy, and open and inclusive communication are fundamental building blocks – as much for smart cities as for any other policy issue. In my study, I conclude by stating “the greatest challenges faced by smart cities and other techno-optimistic narratives in the coming decades will be as much political as technical.” As smartness is redefined in nuanced ways around sustainability, quality of life, and personal empowerment, Hong Kong should avoid being locked into an old-generation definition focused only on bits and cables. A smart city is whatever its citizens need and want it to be.

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Kris Hartley

Quelle/Source: Hong Kong Free Press, 30.09.2024

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