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Making human agency the default in the connected world

April 21, 2021
Photo Credit: Erik Eastman


We are working with our friends at Helpful Places, Normative, and the Glia Foundation to catalyze a movement towards greater transparency around the use of technology in public spaces. Why? Because if we didn’t all pause to look carefully for technology in public spaces, it would be invisible to us. 

Traffic cameras, motion sensors, and CCTV are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to integrating our digital and physical environments. Cameras film us without consent as we walk into a marketplace, down a busy street, or even as we enter our own homes. Who keeps that footage and for how long? Do we have rights to see it? Who do we contact if we want to know more? Often, we are subconsciously aware of the technologies in our public spaces, but know very little about their actual purpose and use. 

The integration of technology in public spaces promises to greatly benefit communities. Some of the technologies that could soon be implemented include connected cameras that can provide de-identified real-time data to public health and safety officials to help manage public spaces. These technologies have the potential to improve quality of life, make public spaces more accessible, and increase public safety.

McKinsey estimates that smart technologies can improve the quality of life for city residents by between 10 to 30 percent across a range of social and environmental indicators. The most impactful benefits to urban communities include time saved in the healthcare system, reduced emergency response time, more efficient water consumption, and increased community connectedness. These benefits have the power to make meaningful changes in the lives of millions of people, considering that 55 percent of the global population lives in cities; a proportion that is projected to increase to 68 percent by 2050. 

However, implementing technologies in public spaces also poses risks; particularly when they collect personally identifiable information. A lack of transparency around the implementation of technology in public spaces could further accelerate the erosion of public trust. Adoption of technology needs to reflect a process of constant negotiation between those seeking to implement technologies and the communities they impact. 

For communities, the biggest risk is that the data collected in public spaces could be used to erode fundamental freedoms, invade privacy, and at worst, infringe upon human rights. To address this, cities need community engagement frameworks that open the door to public involvement in the implementation of technology in public spaces. These frameworks create the conditions for responsive governance, and crucially, give people the opportunity to express preferences, navigate trade-offs, and demand accountability. 

The use of technology in public spaces must start with implementing legible, consistent standards that communicate where technologies are present, what they are used for, and the types of data that they collect. We use similar communication standards in other domains everyday; from clean energy certifications to nutritional information to hazardous chemical warnings, and it is time to apply similar standards to the use of technology. 

Digital Public Square is working with Helpful Places - and great partners like Normative and the Glia Foundation - to create a movement towards embracing a new standard for transparency around technology in the public realm – Digital Trust for Places and Routines (DTPR). DTPR expresses a common taxonomy of technologies that may be used in public spaces. It seeks to communicate the ways that technologies are used, the types of data they collect, and who has access to the data in a way that is accessible to people who might encounter these technologies in their neighbourhood. DTPR is the groundwork we need to envision a digital world where human agency is the default. Digital Public Square is helping to advance this movement by building the framework to help cities engage people on the use of technology in public spaces and gather feedback on the legibility of the DTPR standard.

When it comes to data and technology, people will only have agency when we strengthen transparency, demonstrate accountability, and commit to community engagement. Our physical and digital worlds are intertwined and hard to separate. As those borders continue to blur, it's important for us to think about the relationship that we want between people and technology.

If this is exciting to you or something that you would like to implement in your community, reach out to us at or join our DTPR slack community here.

Written by Farhaan Ladhani