Price scholars examine ‘digital transformation and urban society’ at Singapore event

April 28, 2018

Professor Eric Heikkila (Photo/Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities)

By Matthew Kredell

Four USC Price School of Public Policy faculty traveled to Singapore in March for a two-day workshop exploring the theme of digital transformation and urban society. The workshop was a collaboration between the Price School, through its Office of Global Engagement, and the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

“My faculty colleagues are global in stature, in that their expertise is recognized well beyond the U.S. borders,” said Eric Heikkila, director of the Office of Global Engagement. “This workshop provided them with a venue for reflection on some very deep and significant policy and societal issues. It was a great example of global engagement where we meet people from outside the U.S. who have shared interests but maybe different perspectives, enabling us to do an informal comparative analysis and help broaden our sense of what might be, by looking at what actually is in different places.”

Joining Heikkila in Singapore were professors Antonio Bento, Marlon Boarnet and Genevieve Giuliano, as well as Professor Bhaskar Krishnamachari from the USC Viterbi School and block chain entrepreneur Heidi Pease. The idea of the workshop originated from a visit to USC last year by the director of the Singapore center, Professor CHAN Heng Chee, who was previously the Singaporean Ambassador to the United States.

What will automation’s effect be on tomorrow’s jobs?

Professor Antonio Bento, back left (Photo/Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities)

Bento participated in a panel discussion on the ways that digital transformation will reshape the urban economy. While this advanced technological wave brings many potential benefits through empowering smart and sustainable cities and increasing productivity, his main takeaway was that smart technology will require public policies to continue to regulate externalities in cities and to mitigate the regressivity of automation that favors workers with more education and training.

“The potential for partnerships in big data with this center in Singapore is going to be quite important for handling urban environmental challenges in growing Asia,” Bento said.

Who owns your digital data?


Professor Heikkila (Photo/Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities)

Heikkila spoke on a panel, moderated by Bento, on the moral and ethical issues in using big data and its associated analytics.

“It was a fairly timely panel, just before the recent Facebook revelations,” said Heikkila, who also moderated a panel on challenges and benefits of new technology in financial markets. “I do think the issue of privacy and who owns one’s own data, information about one’s self, was a question many of the participants were addressing from different perspectives. This commodification of information about our digital selves really poses a lot of profound questions across the board.”

How have digital advances impacted housing?


Professor and Genevieve Giuliano (Photo/Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities)

Giuliano participated in a panel on how the built environment and housing are benefiting from the digital transformation. Planners have better access to data to more efficiently allocate public resources, understand city dynamics and track the progress of cities. Smart homes and cities could bring increased energy efficiency and security.

“There are many questions about whether information will be used mostly for good or mostly for evil, and about the public sector’s capacity to manage a digital city,” Giuliano said. “While there are many commonalities on how the digital transformation is unfolding in different parts of the world, there is also a big difference — the extent to which the public sector has access to private information.”

How can planners utilize big data apps?


Professor Marlon Boarnet (Photo/Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities)

Giuliano also moderated a panel featuring Boarnet on how big data has changed the face of transportation planning. Boarnet stressed that the location technology being used by smartphones, traffic apps such as Waze, and rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft, could be useful to planners.

“If you can evaluate, you can experiment,” Boarnet said. “Before big data and location-awareness technology, you couldn’t easily evaluate the traffic impacts of small changes. Now you can experiment, tailor projects to niches or times of day, because of the ubiquity of data.”

Boarnet also participated in a final discussion of takeaways from the event, which both sides plan to publish as a summary document. The organizers are discussing a second workshop next spring at USC.

“This is a great opportunity for colleagues at these two universities working on similar topics to identify key issues and see if it may lead to research collaboration down the road,” Boarnet said.

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