Bringing women’s voices into the “Smart City Just City” dialogue

Photo: Jakub Gorajek on Unsplash

What does a “smart city” look like from a gender perspective?  Is there a difference as to how women experience a city? Does technology help or hinder that experience? And how can technology be harnessed to purposefully address challenges of most concern to women? 

In recent years, governments and NGOs have progressed towards full gender equality, and United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5 (SDG 5) provides important, specific, and ambitious targets for achieving gender equality by 2030. While the goals and achievements of SDG 5 are important, we at IHC (International Housing Coalition) Global believe that to tackle the issues that face women around the world and truly close the gender equality gap, we must focus on the position of women vis-a-vis two of the most important global trends of our time: urbanization and the data revolution.

The challenges of urbanization are well-known. Over half the world’s populations live in cities. Experts anticipate this number will rise to 68% by 2050 and one billion city-dwellers will reside in informal slums, typically characterized by overcrowding, lack of clean water and sanitation, substandard housing, insecure tenure, and vulnerability to health risks and natural disasters. Without comprehensive and inclusive policies, cities are underprepared to address these considerable issues that frequently disproportionately affect women. Women often constitute the most vulnerable populations of cities, in terms of safety, health and family planning, and economic insecurity. Yet it sometimes seems that women are invisible in the urban planning process. IHC would like to help change that.

The data revolution is key to assessing and implementing effective policies to improve the lives of individuals and communities in cities. The New Urban Agenda (NUA), introduced by UN-Habitat at Habitat III and adopted by 167 UN member nation-states, asserts: “Big Data and the Internet of Things [IoT] allows city leaders to gain a more detailed, real time picture of what is happening within their city.” Major metropolises from Barcelona to Dubai, to Kigali and Baltimore, are embracing “Smart City” status, as they prioritize information and communications technology (ICT), IoT, and data collection to address urban challenges.

The link between urbanization and the data revolution may seem obvious. Yet although the data revolution can help address challenges and guide wise decision-making, it is easy to ignore some of the downsides, particularly those associated with smart technology. Moreover, there is a tendency to “fall in love” with the technology as an end in itself. But technology needs to be a tool to achieve purposeful policy aims.

This is not to say that there are not sophisticated and intelligent debates about how large amounts of data are gathered and smart technology is employed. But social impact assessments are critical. Smart technology, carelessly or haphazardly employed in cities can also exacerbate social inequality. As the NUA noted: “Research suggests that they (ICTS) are more likely to exacerbate than remedy existing inequalities, because whoever already wields power will have better access to, and control over, these technologies.”

In some cases, smart city investments have demonstrably harmed marginalized, urban populations. In India, Prime Minister Modi’s Smart Cities Mission aims to create 100 Smart Cities in India by 2020. But, the civil society organization Housing and Land Rights Network has identified forced evictions and home demolitions directly linked to the Smart City Mission. Numerous well-known international covenants condemn forced evictions as human rights violations.  In some cities in the United States, communities are wary that smart city surveillance technology designed to decrease neighborhood crime will increase discrimination, neighborhood decay, or predictive policing. In a recent research study conducted in West Baltimore on the benefits of smart technology investment for city livability, the West Baltimore residents, especially older residents, voiced concern about the large-scale data collection and where this data would go, under the assumption of reducing crime.

These examples allude to the tension between “smart cities” and “just cities.” Too often “smart cities” almost exclusively focus on technology to the detriment of marginalized communities and vulnerable populations. On the other hand, the human-centered focus of “just cities” often fails to consider how smart technologies might advance equitability and social justice. Our “Smart City. Just City” (SCJC) initiative, launched at the ninth World Urban Forum brings these two approaches to show that “technology” and “human centeredness” are not mutually exclusive. Instead, technology and digitalization can provide an opportunity to drive greater inclusion and equitable opportunities in cities, while at the same time continuing to drive greater efficiency. SCJC especially underlines why women, children, and members on the margins of society must be constantly present in considerations about the employment of smart technology in cities.

Specifically, women bring a perspective to key urban issues—such as safety—that can bridge some of the gaps between smart technology and social justice in cities. Research shows that investing in women has multiplying effects on global development. In her book, Invisible Women: Data bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez points to a failed heath initiative in South Africa. A Cape Town-based tech company created an app to help community health workers monitor HIV-positive patients. Although the app “fulfilled all the usability requirements…was easy to use [and] adaptable to local language,” it proved a flop. It was only once a woman designer was added to the team the company understood why. Men’s pockets comfortably fit a smart phone, whereas women’s clothing frequently do not have pockets or they are much too small to fit the phone. The female health workers instructed to use the phone needed to travel through unsafe areas to reach their work, so they concealed their valuables in their underwear. And it turned out the phone was “too big to fit in their bras.” The opportunity to monitor HIV-positive patients was lost when designers failed to integrate a gender lens.

The fact that the reason for the failure of the Cape Town health app was discovered once a female designer was added to the team points to an important trend in urban and tech design. It is individual women and female entrepreneurs who are leading the charge in tackling problems of gender inequality through technological innovations, such as crowdsourcing data and mobile apps. In India, the SafetiPin app promotes women’s safety by letting users rate streets and areas for safety criteria. Freedom of movement is not only a human right, it is also key to women’s economic empowerment. SafetiPin’s expansion to cities like Hanoi and Bogota is encouraging. HarassMap in Cairo allows women to report incidents of sexual harassment and violence and connects users with further informational and support resources.

Mobile apps and crowdsourcing initiatives clearly help promote gender equality and by extension, human rights when they allow women and communities to participate in urban planning. And often, the women who pioneer these innovations do so at great personal risk. But, like all activism and advocacy, progress can only be fully cemented when accompanied by policy change and intentional strategies to harness data and technology. The vision we have is that the tools of the Smart City are used to achieve the goals of the Just City. This will enable greater inclusion, safety, resilience and sustainability so that cities may flourish and provide opportunities for productive lives for all their residents.