A laborer at work in the smart city of Gandhinagar, India. Photo by: REUTERS / Amit Dave

BARCELONA — Smart cities around the world are failing to put people at the center of planning and are excluding marginalized groups.

The idea of smart cities — using information technology to improve quality of life and deliver more efficient and sustainable urban services to citizens — has not played out in practice, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, executive director at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, explained during the 10th session of the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi earlier this month.

“Many smart city concepts and projects tend to focus too much on the technology itself. … There is not enough [focus] on outcomes that we want to achieve for the people and for the betterment of their life.”

— Maimunah Mohd Sharif, executive director, U.N. Human Settlements Programme

“Unfortunately, I am sad to say that many smart city concepts and projects tend to focus too much on the technology itself,” she said. “There is not enough [focus] on outcomes that we want to achieve for the people and for the betterment of their life.”

Harnessed in the right way, technology and innovation hold great potential to contribute to sustainable development in cities, Sharif said.

But these forces can also widen social gaps as women are less likely than men to use digital technology and groups already at risk of marginalization, such as people with disabilities, are particularly negatively impacted, experts said.

Excluded from the conversation 

People with disabilities are less likely to be able to afford technology or engage with it, said Martine Abel-Williamson, treasurer at the World Blind Union, during a panel discussion. And mainstream technologies, such as mobile phones or self-service kiosks, often fail to take into account different disabilities since this group is not present during the design process.

Are there, for example, disaster risk reduction apps that show light warnings for deaf people during emergencies, or help services available plain language or pictorial explanations for people with learning disabilities, Williamson asked. E-connectivity and the lack of various power and energy sources can be an additional challenge in some countries.

Digitalization is creating many opportunities but people with disabilities “continue to face huge barriers stopping them from participating in society [and] these barriers are exacerbated by inaccessible physical, digital, cultural and social environments.”

Sharif called for a new definition on smart cities. Too often, these cities are full of skyscrapers, highways, and cars, which is exactly the type of urbanization that the New Urban Agenda — a guide on the global principles, policies, and standards for building and managing more sustainable cities — cautions against, she added.

Tools that could help smart cities achieve sustainable development in a more inclusive way are available for policymakers.

Public procurement policy is very important, said Williamson, and specifications on accessible technology should be included during public procurement processes. These policies set the expectations and criteria for how goods, services, and infrastructure will be developed and purchased and can therefore be an effective tool to promote the access of technology for disabled and older people, she suggested.

“Similarly to how cities at the moment procure ICT privacy and security, as part of procurement, we also want cities to include access to technology,” Williamson said.

Resources, such as the Smart Cities for All Toolkit, can also help in setting standards which is a vital step, said Williamson. These toolkits bring different stakeholders together and promote the business, human rights, and technological arguments for committing to inclusive policies. Williamson urged stakeholders to utilize existing tool kits and involve disabled people in how these are used in smart cities.

But “technology on its own is not the magic bullet,” she added, and people with disabilities also need to be able to access peer-to-peer support and enjoy their physical environment.

Power dynamics of technology

Another issue with technology is that it’s not neutral, despite popular belief that it is, said Ayona Datta, professor of human geography at University College of London and principal investigator on Gendering the Smart City research, during a panel discussion. There is an assumption that access to technology means automatic empowerment but this doesn’t recognize the power dynamics involved in terms of access, use and visibility, she explained.

There needs to be recognition that the way in which technology works in a digital space is a reflection of how relationships are in a city and a physical space, Datta said.

Gender inclusive smart cities understand that those kinds of relations play out, possibly even more pronouncedly, in digital spaces and there is a huge difference in the way the male and female population access the digital space. 

There is often a bias toward counting numbers, particularly around access to technology, Datta explained. But even if a woman owns a mobile phone, her access to that technology might be limited or dependent on another member of the household.

And “access to technology is much more than just numbers,” Datta said. It’s not just putting technology in the hands of the poor but, more importantly, making it easy for them to access critical knowledge and information through it.

Recognizing that physical, digital, and social infrastructures are connected is also important to create gender inclusive smart cities. Social infrastructures — the family, community, and neighborhood — play a critical role in deciding which technological and digital infrastructures are accessible, inclusive, and empowering, she explained.

Smart cities require working with marginalized communities, such as urban women living in poverty, to co-produce and co-create participatory and bottoms-up solutions, Datta said. Voice-based services to support people with low literacy levels or low digital capacity, or gender inclusive interfaces that give greater consideration to visual design, language, and navigation are examples of inclusive technologies.

Datta’s team has also been working on coproducing community platforms for use on basic mobile phones, which have low digital capacity, as opposed to smartphones, which are usually required to use smart city technologies and applications.  

A feminist approach — one that considers how technology can also be a tool of exclusion to those who have already been historically, socially, and politically left out — may not be a quick fix, but will lead to more inclusive, sustainable development, Datta suggested.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.