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PI Ayona Datta at the World Urban Forum 2020

Established in 2001, The World Urban Forum (WUF) seeks to address the pressing issues of rapid urbanization and its impact on communities, cities, economies, climate change and policies. WUF, convened by UN Habitat, is a high level and inclusive platform used to address challenges that are brought about by sustainable urbanisation. This year’s theme of #WUF10 is Cities of Opportunities: Connecting Culture and Innovation, in line with #SDG11 and #Innovate4Change.

As mentioned on their website, WUF aims to do the following:

  1. Raise awareness of sustainable urbanisation among stakeholders and constituencies, including the general public.
  2. Improving collective knowledge on sustainable urban development through open and inclusive debate, sharing of lessons
  3. Promote collaboration and cooperation between different stakeholders and constituencies engaged in the advancement and implementation of sustainable urbanisation
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Principal investigator, Prof. Ayona Datta was invited by UN-Habitat to speak at the fourth dialogue plenary session on “Frontier technologies and Innovation for Inclusive, Sustainable and Resilient Smart Cities”.

Some questions addressed during the plenary are as followed.

  1. What are frontier technologies and how do they relate to cities?
  2. How can technologies and innovation benefit small and medium-sized cities and cities in the Global South?
  3. What initiatives are required to close the digital divide?
  4. What are the risks related to frontier technologies vis-à-vis protection of human rights?
  5. Which technologies hold the most promise for achieving SDG11 and the New Urban Agenda?

At the aforementioned dialogue session, “Frontier technologies and Innovation for Inclusive, Sustainable and Resilient Smart Cities”, UN-Habitat’s new flagship programme Frontier technologies and innovation for inclusive, sustainable and resilient smart cities was launched at this session. As well as that, a global discussion that delved into the intersection between urban technologies, smart cities, inclusion and human rights was carried out. As part of the New Urban Agenda, which represents a shared vision for a better and more sustainable future, calls for an adoption of a smart-city approach that makes use of opportunities from digitalisation, clean energy and technologies.

Digital developments in technologies are playing an imperative role in shaping cities and lifestyles of city-dwellers. This includes, the internet of things, platform economies and tools for urban management as well as autonomous mobility. Over half of the world’s population is now connected to the internet. There also have been more mobile phone subscriptions than there are people. In order to mitigate threats such as rising inequalities, emissions and the endangerment of human rights, appropriate policies and regulations are required in regards to digital transformation and new technologies. These threats have been highlighted as frontier issues by The UN System-wide strategy on Sustainable Urban Development. Ayona addresses the assumption behind automatic empowerment through plain access to technology and the power dynamics at play.

“Technology is not neutral. The digital divide is a gender divide. Access is more than just numbers. It is about reducing barriers”, said Ayona, as she shared about the interconnectedness between physical, digital and social infrastructures. Bringing attention to how we think of smart cities as inclusive, when in reality, many women are excluded. She also elaborates on the need to go beyond networks and physical infrastructure in order to make technology accessible to all in reference to our project, Gendering the Smart City.

Gender inclusive smart cities understand the differences in the way the male and female population access digital space. “Access to technology is much more than just numbers.”, said Ayona. She elaborated that access to technology is not merely putting the technology in the hands of the poor but more importantly, how easy it is for them to access critical knowledge and information. Additionally, she adds that Smart cities need to work with marginalised communities such as women in poverty, in order to co-produce and co-create participatory and bottom-up solutions. Such examples of inclusive technologies include voice-based services (to support people with low levels of literacy) as well as gender inclusive surfaces that pay attention to visual design, language and navigation.

Our project team has been working on co-producing community platforms for low digital capacity basic mobile phones, as opposed to smartphones, which are staple to accessing smart city technologies and applications. Through using a feminist approach – one that considers how technology can be an exclusionary tool to those who have been historically, socially and politically left out, more inclusive, sustainable development can be achieved.