A multidisciplinary research project funded by British Academy and Accademia dei Lincei

More and more municipalities are nowadays embracing digital technologies to rebrand themselves as smart cities or smart villages. By leveraging digital innovation and creativity, these initiatives promise to boost local economies, enhance accessibility and improve the quality of life of residents. On the other hand, there is increasing evidence that the benefits of these initiatives are unlikely to spread evenly across different geographic areas and social groups due to ongoing digital and socio-economic divides. Furthermore, it has been suggested that smart cities and smart villages may even exacerbate existing inequalities, because of biases in their design and limitations in the related regulatory frameworks.

With this in mind, in April 2022, a group of researchers based in Italy and the UK has launched “Mapping inequalities in Smart Places”, a research project founded by British Academy and Accademia dei Lincei as part of their UK-Italy Knowledge Frontiers Symposium. The project is led by myself, Dr Paolo Gerli (UnityLab, Edinburgh Napier University), Dr Mara Ferreri (Politecnico di Torino), Dr Cristiana Lauri (Università di Macerata – European University Institute), Dr Marta Regalia (Università degli Studi di Milano) and Dr Andrew Williams (Saint Andrews University).

The team of “Mapping inequalities in smart places” posing with 3D-printed objects from Palestra Digitale in Modena (Italy)

The aim of this research is to explore how digital and socio-economic inequalities are conceived and tackled in the implementation of smart cities and smart villages, applying an interdisciplinary and place-based approach. To do so, the project team has been conducting a systematic literature review investigating the intersection between legal, political, digital and geographical dimensions affecting inequalities in the context of smart places. Furthermore, empirical data are being collected through 2 focus groups with experts of smart places and 2 field visits in Italy and Scotland, focusing on the following issues:

  • the extent to which local administrators are aware and perceptive of inequalities in the context of smart places;
  • how these inequalities are being measured and monitored;
  • what place-based mechanisms are used to manage the trade-offs between equality and efficiency in the implementation of smart places;
  • the extent to which communities are involved in place-based efforts to address inequalities in smart places

By engaging with experts of smart places across Italy and Scotland, the project has also the ambition to create a space for reflection and knowledge exchange where local stakeholders at different geographic scales can discuss the impact of inequalities on smart places and share the mechanisms that can be adopted to address such inequalities when designing and implementing these initiatives.

In September 2022 we completed the first field work, with a trip to Modena, a middle-sized city in Italy. During our visit, we had a chance to meet with representatives of the public, private and third sectors who have been involved in local smart city initiatives. The field trip was a unique opportunity to observe how the concept and practice of smart city are being developed locally, to reflect on the challenges that digital transformation poses for local communities and to discuss how we can make smart places fairer and more inclusive. We look forward to further investigating these issues through our focus groups and second field trip, that are planned for Autumn/Winter 2022/2023.

If you want to learn more about this project (or you are interested in taking part to our focus groups), please feel free to contact me at p.gerli@napier.ac.uk. More updates will also be shared via Twitter and LinkedIN, with a online event being planned for Spring/Summer 2023 to share the results of our research. Stay tuned!

A view of Torre della Ghirlandina in Modena, where the data collection for “Mapping inequalities in smart places” has taken off in September 2022.

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