World Urban Forum 2020, Abu Dhabi

From 10-13 February 2020, I was invited by UN-Habitat to speak at the Dialogues 4: Frontier Technologies plenary session and two other side events organised by UK GCRF and IHC Global.

Brief excerpt of my Dialogues talk below.

I am arguing today that we need to rethink the role of technology in the urban age. The Smart city must become people centred, technology must serve the citizens and not city governments. Technology must become a tool for citizens to ask questions of policy makers, making institutions and city governments answerable and accountable to them.

I present three aspects of democratising technology to create a people centred smart city.

  1. Access to technology is much more than numbers. It means not just giving technology in the hands of the poor, but more importantly also removing the barriers to accessing critical knowledge and information through technology. Not all SDG indicators disaggregate phone ownership or network coverage by sex. Also while SDG indicators count ownership of mobile phones, it is ‘possession’ that is the real indicator of empowerment. Ownership counts how many women own a personal mobile phone. Possession acknowledges that even if a woman might not own a personal phone, she might still have access to it and be enabled to use to for her needs. Here gender power dynamics between private and public, digital and analogue, home and the city is crucial to understanding gendered possession of technology.
  2. Connected infrastructures – digital, physical, and social infrastructures are connected in the politics of gendered possession. This is because social inequalities in the physical realm can spill over into the digital realm and lack of access to digital space can transform very real and material relationships in public space. Eg. For women in low-income neighbourhoods, exclusion from the urban public spaces is a combination of poor public transport, lack of regular access to water and sanitation, and gender power dynamics in the home that restricts their access to material and digital spaces.
  3. Visibility. The smart city should make the narratives and struggles of the urban poor visible and centre stage in urban transformations. Most often slums, squatter settlements and low-income neighbourhoods are absent from city maps, even google maps which show them as blank spaces. We recently conducted a community editathon through which we created a Wikipedia page of a low-income community in Delhi’s outskirts. This is part of an ongoing initiative to increase digital presence to those who have been left out of smart city visions by their voices and narratives part of the city’s digital footprint.
  4. A gender inclusive technology would serve the interests of the urban poor by recognising their barriers to empowerment and finding bottom up solutions.
    1. Use voice enabled services. A large number of those with low literacy are unable to use the text interfaces of the mobile phone. Using VES would increase their chances of accessing government welfare schemes and utility services, which are now largely online, as well as engaging equally in the digital public sphere.
    2. Create gender inclusive interfaces. In case of low digital literacy it is important to pay attention to visual design with icons, colour schemes, accessible language and ease of navigation such as minimal hyperlinks.
    3. Co-produce community platforms for basic mobile phones. Most often apps are created with the smartphone user as the target market and benefits IT companies, but these not only require large amounts of space they are also incompatible with basic phones. An inclusive mobile app can be loaded onto a low-tech phone models, and can operate in low-income neighbourhoods where network connectivity may be weak.

Finally, a smart city should enable a right to urban technology – this right means acknowledging how the politics of access, possession, and visibility are enmeshed across digital, physical and social spaces. It means providing access to technology in resource poor neighbourhoods that develops critical thinking and knowledge, that enables women and other marginal groups to make the right choices and decisions, but also that opens the possibility of participating equally in the urban public sphere. It means working with marginal communities and poor urban women to co-produce truly participatory and bottom-up solutions.

Links to live tweets during my talks

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