Equity in Smart Cities: The Myth of Neutrality
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There is an ideal that we can be neutral citizens in today’s society, but as responsible citizens we must engage in conversation to imagine and demand equitable, sustainable, and beautiful spaces today more than ever before. To do this, we have to recognize and address the myth of neutrality when we respond to the racialized structures, policies, and practices that produce and sustain racial inequities in our cities. Being neutral can hurt our capacity to fulfill our stewardship as thoughtful and creative people called to intervene and realize city spaces that affirms our human dignity.
At the University of San Francisco (USF), we are currently having dialogues about racial inequity within Jesuit universities. And we are continually coming to terms with understanding and confronting the act of complicity that can often be concealed by an adherence to the safe place of neutrality. This is challenging work for us to undertake. Yet it must be done across all platforms, fields, and disciplines toward social progression, led by conscious, courageous, and vulnerable leaders, to fulfill the promise of equity and social justice in our cities and communities.
Smart cities are an act of social justice
When faced with tough issues pertaining to our duty or responsibility to a ‘social contract’ with others in our community, I have noticed that people can assume an attitude of neutrality when faced with challenging dialogue or difficult conversation. This neutrality is often offered as a gesture of openness and concern for others with differing viewpoints or perspectives; a way to demonstrate capacity for ‘inclusion’ of diverse thoughts. When I think of our collective calling to create smarter spaces to live, learn, raise our families, be connected, and thrive as humans, I also think of the ways in which cities (including anchor institutions like universities and libraries) are spaces that can codify inequity and inequality.
Our cities are constructs most directly impacted by social structures of inequity; through policy, public opinion, and their ensuing patterns of poverty, migration and racism. Today’s thinkers, creators, developers and leaders cannot be neutral to this reality.
To the contrary, we must recall, recant, and reclaim the core belief and values that inform our individual and collective identities and opinions as thought leaders for the common good. We must recommit to caring deeply about people. There are essential dignity and justice frameworks that propel us forward and require us to do even better.
Smart city builders are stewards of human rights
A framework for social justice based upon human rights and the dignity of the whole person is important to ground the work of building smart cities. Smart cities as an ideological construct are aligned with the principles of Catholic Social Teaching that affirm and move society toward basic human rights including:
- The principle of Human dignity: a society can become a reality only when it is based on respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person;
- The principle of the Common Good: The sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily;
- The principal of Subsidiarity: protects people from abuses by higher-level social authority and calls on these same authorities to help individuals and intermediate groups to fulfill their duty;
- The principal of Solidarity: Unity in a particular way that focuses on the human person, the equality of all in dignity and rights, and the acceleration of interdependence between persons and peoples accompanied by equally intense efforts on the ethical-social plane.
Smart City builders everywhere should be leading discussions right now among your teams to address these four important questions:
- Are the pillars of social and economic privilege in the U.S. (i.e. historically white, male, heterosexual, Christian) providing protections and privileges to all residents? If not, then how do we challenge and resist neutrality in our conversation and dialogue when one’s proximity is further from our historically-informed privilege?
- When residents of our communities who do not feel secure or safe in our national climate, and are living in fear of social persecution or exclusionary public opinion, what is our responsibility for creating spaces of community-building? Can we create spaces of living and engagement that promote a sense of refuge and inclusion? What is our response?
- If there is historically informed images and messages about who possesses intellectual and moral superiority and personal worth, as planners and stewards of the future, how is our work informed by and reinforces these messages? Do they still exist?
- Do we recognize and account for historical structural inequity in our work? And if so, do we consider how to proactively privilege the future of Native American and African American youth and the growing Latino and Asian American children in our cities?
Smart Cities is a movement for social change and the common good
The parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us of the dilemma of neutrality as a point of reflection: do we do good work when it is convenient and remain neutral, or do we stand with courage and go out of our way to demonstrate care by taking action? The societal forces of exclusion, blame, and fear are inviting us to be fervently involved in better understanding structural inequity in our cities that has been codified through public policy and law.
We are in a time that requires us to reflect upon and be reminded of the moral compass that informs and guides our individual and collective engagement as thought leaders.
- We must critique and interrogate our bias and assumptions more than ever before and be willing to defend our intentions and beliefs. A re-commitment to the dignity and common good of all human beings is a necessity to do this work.
- We must develop and demonstrate concrete solutions that center our work toward alleviating injustice in our cities based upon gender, race, and class; thus, consequentially working against detrimental patterns and outcomes of residential segregation, policing, outmigration of communities of color, health disparities, environmental concerns and immigration.
- We must be on guard to work against neutrality. Our convictions and actions are the bedrock of who we are and what we do. More equitable and just cities require smart city builders to be conscious, critical, and deeply aware persons mindful of their interior beliefs and motivation.
We are not neutral beings.
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This article was originally published on September 8, 2020.
Update for April 20, 2021:
After the murder of George Floyd we wrote this article as a kind of blueprint, a beginning to a new way of working with equitable resilience in our cities and beyond. Now, as the trial of Derek Chauvin comes to a guilty verdict in Minneapolis and the whole country reflects on the legacy of that verdict, we have to remember another senseless murder – another young Black man, Daunte Wright, at the hands of law enforcement, just miles from the courthouse. Again, Minneapolis is all of us. We have protested, we have voted. We stood up, we spoke out, we have raged about the anti-Black racism. We have seen people come together, we can feel a shift in this country. But there is so much more to do. No equity, no resilience.
-Ron & Stewart
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