C. Technology in support of green and social values
Excessive techno-optimism can exacerbate social and economic inequalities in the city. For instance, the gap between citizens with many digital skills and those with few or none at all might grow. Cities should involve a multitude of social groups in the development of new technology and make it as accessible as possible. They must ensure that citizens can always go to a municipal office instead of being referred to a website and that they can communicate with the public administration by mail instead of digitally. ‘E-government’ makes life easier for many citizens, but not for all.
In some cities, the only way to apply for social housing and respond to housing offers is through a website. That puts house seekers with few or no digital skills at a disadvantage. In the Dutch city of Rotterdam, the ombudswoman has stood up for the digitally illiterate: “The government should be there for everyone: the poor, the rich, the young, the old, the digitally skilled and the non-digitally skilled. These people deserve to be helped.” Municipalities should take care that there are offline avenues to renting an affordable home.
In addition, cities should consider introducing a basic digital service, starting with the elderly and people with mental disabilities: they receive reliable home help if their computer freezes or if they get stuck filling in a digital form.
One-fifth of the adult population of Paris needs help to access online services. To promote digital inclusion, the city of Paris provides subsidies for the deployment of 'digital helpers', both professionals and trained volunteers. They help people who want to improve their digital skills, but also people who are unable to master these skills. When performing online acts on behalf of the latter group of people, the helpers inevitably become acquainted with personal data. In order to protect the confidentiality of this data, Paris has drawn up a 'Charter for the digital helper'.
Digitalisation may also lead to a divide in the labour market, between people with many technological or creative skills and people with fewer of these skills. The latter risk being condemned to badly-paid disposable jobs in the services sector, with few social protections and little control over their work. Municipalities should stand up for the rights of these working people; from the livelihoods of workers in the platform economy to the autonomy and dignity of employees whose work is increasingly controlled and assessed by computer systems. Even people in low-paid jobs are entitled to a certain degree of professional autonomy and to human intervention in the assessment of their work performance. Data never tells the whole truth.
A city that attracts many tech companies, or aims for them, has to be aware of the threats this may pose to social cohesion: from growing inequalities in income and wealth to soaring rents and house prices that drive the less well-off out of the city. Such a city needs to mobilise all instruments at its disposal, from housing and labour market policies to local taxes, in order to ensure that the city remains a place for all people, no matter their background.