IHC Global Hosts Urban Thinkers Campus on Smart Cities

Last week, IHC Global was thrilled to co-host its first Urban Thinkers Campus with the Red Dot Foundation on “The Impact and Promise of Smart Cities for the post-COVID-19 Era.”  The call to ensure smart cities are equitable and responsible is growing from all sectors.  The very public rise and fall of the Quayside smart city project in Toronto by Google sister company Sidewalk Labs attests to how tech companies and the private sector are now grappling with issues of data, privacy, and the needs and wants of local residents. Similarly, international non-governmental organizations, civil society, and grassroots organizations are embracing the potential of technology to advance equity goals.  Most recently, UN-Habitat made frontier technologies a flagship program of its campaign to advance Sustainable Development Goal 11 to create inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable cities.

Yet the question of how to operationalize inclusive smart city technology remains elusive. IHC Global has been at the forefront, identifying the potential of technology to drive equity and highlighting the all-too-frequent absence of equity considerations in the deployment of technology at the city level and with its Smart City Just City initiative, which it launched in 2018 as a multi-faceted public awareness campaign to “change the conversation.”  Now, because the COVID-19 pandemic has made equity issues in cities more visible than ever, we chose this as the framework for the UTC that we proposed to the World Urban Campaign.

The UN-Habitat World Urban Campaign platform, of which IHC Global is a lead partner provided the perfect space to explore the mandate while co-host Red Dot Foundation, which has made Indian cities demonstrably safer for women through crowdsource data and tech was the perfect partner

The UTC was moderated by IHC Global CEO Dr Judith Hermanson who also framed the discussion, describing the vision of Smart City. Just City and the urgent need for a reimagining of Smart Cities in order lessen inequality and increase equity.  The policies need to enable consideration of the needs of different subgroups within the population as a whole (elderly, youth, women, poor, etc.) as well as provide for an integrated deployment of technology using the test of what impact its deployment will have on equity goals.  For Smart Cities to be truly “smart,” they must also be Just and equitable.  The IHC Global Smart City Just City framework believes that when smart technology is used to advance equity and inclusion, emphasizing the participation of all its residents, it can lessen social divisions, increase economic opportunities, strengthen community capacity for resilience, and enhance shared prosperity.

Within the coming weeks, we will publish a paper of recommendations of how to operationalize inclusive technology and smart cities. In the meantime, we invite you to read about three themes that  that were discussed in a variety of ways through different lenses and experiences throughout the UTC and which underline why smart cities need an equity lens.  These issues drive the recommendations.  We invite you also to explore the panelist PowerPoints, and to watch the recordings below!

Vulnerable populations have different specific needs

Women and other vulnerable populations in cities face challenges particular to their living conditions. Covid-19 has brought these issues to the fore as millions around the world, particularly in the informal economy, have lost their jobs and are facing evictions due to economic lockdown. The urban poor, specially one billion slum dwellers around the world, are more susceptible to virus transmission as crowded conditions and lack of water and sanitation means they are unable to socially distance or practice handwashing.

The first session, “Creating People-Centered and Gender Responsive Smart Cities to Advance the New Urban Agenda,” with ElsaMarie d’Silva (Founder/CEO, Red Dot Foundation), Dr. Luisa Bravo (Founder/Chief Editor, Journal of Public Space), Dr. Ayona Datta (Professor, University College of London), Natalie R. Gill (Program and Policy Coordinator, IHC Global), Shivani Chaudhry (Executive Director, Housing and Land Rights Network, India) and Dr. Judith Hermanson as moderator highlighted key issues facing women and other vulnerable populations in cities.

During COVID-19, women have faced a shadow pandemic as domestic violence rates have increased around the world. Furthermore, Elsa and Shivani explained that in India, women have struggle to reach the services that could help them in these circumstances, due to a gender digital divide where they are less likely to access seemingly simple technology such as phones to connect them to city resources.  

Connection vs disconnection:

The idea of connection versus disconnection was a recurring theme throughout both days. From the slums of Indian cities to the favelas of Brazil, when residents are disconnected from physical and now technological infrastructure of a city, they are unable to access the resources that empower them. Ayona described marginalized urban dwellers as “the forgotten people which fall on the other side of digital and infrastructural divide.” She pointed out that this was especially evident during India’s lockdown as a vacuum of governance, coupled with the inability of migrant workers to access phones or telegram messages, impeded their ability to gain welfare support and relief supplies.

On the second day, during the discussion on “Inclusive Technology and Creative Partnerships for the City We Need,” Camila Jordan (Policymaker and Urban and Community Advocate, TETO Brasil) explained that in Brazil, the national census does not people living in informal settlements, therefore making it impossible for large numbers of urban poor to access benefits and services. Natalie emphasized that even when cities make technology convenient and widely available, such as the city of Baltimore’s interest in installing smart kiosks in low-income areas, women are less likely to use the technology. In the case of Baltimore, this was because women felt due to poor lighting and a high crime rate, they would not feel comfortable standing outside for long enough periods to use the kiosks.

Brian English (Development Director, Foundation for Puerto Rico) described how the economies and residents of poorer areas around the world have been more vulnerable to the effects of lockdown a lack of technology and technological skills has made it impossible for these areas to transition to online work. In Puerto Rico, where 43% of the population lives in poverty, only 9% of businesses have been able to operate online. Now, 58% of businesses have temporarily closed, 74% are unable to pay their employees, and 85% do not have a contingency plan.

Exclusion from smart city plans and initiatives:

As Chas Cadwell (Senior Fellow, Urban Institute) put it in his opening remarks: “Smart for Whom? Smart about What?” Smart cities are often designed in the silo of the technology world, from a top-down approach, and divorced from equity issues. Chas stated that ideally, smart city efforts should increase the voice and agency of the urban poor and shift the flow of city resources to addressing the most pressing urban issues. Similarly, Shivani underlined that of India’s extensive smart city efforts, only 2.3% of funds were for health and education and only 1% invested in health.

At worst, said Dr. Luisa Bravo, (Founder/Chief Editor, the Journal of Public Space), smart cities ignore the most vulnerable urban populations in their enthusiasm to embrace technological innovations. In Italy, while smart city efforts are underway, 3.5 million families still lack access to the internet. Luisa observed that smart cities, when considered only through the lens of capital and financial investment, neglect the human aspect of cities. Luisa explained: “Cities are urban environments, but they are primarily human environments.”

Elba Fuster Figuerola (Technical Expert, Smart Cities and Digitalization, United Nations Development Program Center for Technology, Innovation, and Sustainability) agreed, asserting that technological and innovative smart city solutions should help countries advance the Sustainable Development Goals. Above all, Elsa said, they must be considered as a public policy that will empower citizens through technology rather than impose technology upon them, by making visible their most pressing urban challenges and prioritizing citizen collaboration. Camila concluded: “No matter how advanced our technology may be…we can never escape from the normative and political task of deciding how to use it…and for that we need radical inclusion of people, deliberation, and dialogue to inspire justice.”