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Universal design in a divided world: The young architects building urban resilience through social inclusivity

CindyHuang4 October 2016

It’s hardly arguable that one of the most prevalent human activities is picking sides.  From ethnic conflicts down to people’s taste in music, the world finds itself divided – by nationalism, classism, other-isms or simply a difference of opinion.  And amid the Brexit aftershocks and cries over racial violence in the States, amid the broken trust and broken spirits flooding our news channels, where does the term “universal” stand?  How can we, in these circumstances, imagine a unified vision to take care of each other?

Although the built environment has a way of reinforcing social divisions, whether through gender-specific bathrooms or communities ghettoised by gentrification, it can also host spaces that inspire solidary over status, and spaces that actively embrace the most excluded people of our societies.  Today, pockets of planners and architects work to promote a less socially divided world, and some of them are doing it through universal design.

Universal design, defined

Often presumed as design for people with disabilities, universal design actually embraces a much broader definition.  It is “the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.”[1]  In other words, it tries to befriend as many as possible – selfish in a selfless way.  It assumes all people have disabilities to some extent;[2] just as we gain abilities with age, we also lose abilities – whatever “normal” is on this spectrum will always be trend-related and misguided.

The term was coined by Ronald L. Mace, an American architect who at age nine contracted polio, became a wheelchair user, and in his twenties had to be carried up and down the stairs at university.[3]  It was perhaps forecasted, then, that he would help institute the first accessibility building codes in the United States in 1973, which went on to influence national policies including the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.[4]  During this period he also founded what is now the Centre for Universal Design at New Carolina University.

His legacy not only etched a space of dialogue for disability discrimination but also raised the question of what constitutes social norms to a new height.  “Unfortunately,” Mace said in a speech, “designers in our society also mistakenly assume that everyone fits this definition of ‘normal.’ This just is not the case.”[5]

 

Young Ronald L. Mace (source); Mace later in life as an architect (source)

Young Ronald L. Mace (source); Mace later in life as an architect (source)

 

Mace’s work evolved from recognising people’s differences to harmonising them – from disability design (focused on the inclusion of one group) to universal design (embracing all individuals’ differences).  The strength in universal design is that it simply acknowledges human diversity.  With no technical guidelines, it serves as a new reference point for practitioners, informed by anthropological understanding – sort of like a social justice challenge.

 

No rules attached

Tar-Saeng Studio, an offshoot of the collective Openspace with whom I’m working in Bangkok as part of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme, is helping to grow universal design into Thai society.  Using participatory approaches channelled through the comforts of informality, they create spaces attentive to the often overlooked needs of elderly people and people with disabilities, who live on low-incomes or in poverty.  The studio is run by a small group of community architects who are in their mid-twenties to early thirties.  They represent a new generation of practitioners building urban resilience through inclusive design—both in product and process.

When I chatted with Tar-Saeng Studio founder Ploy Kasama Yamtree about universal design, I found it interesting that their work is largely dependent on the country’s institutional gaps.  “In Thailand, universal design is still linked to regulations, like the correct ratio for a ramp or handrail,” Ploy said, “But when you go into people’s bamboo houses, you see it’s not possible to have the 1:12 ratio because people just don’t have that type of space.”

Conveniently, building codes go unenforced in most remote or slum areas of Thailand, giving Ploy’s team creative freedom to shape genuinely usable spaces for those who need them.  “We go and figure out what we can do without following the rules,” she explained, “We are more interested in adaptive design.”

There’s a very human approach to all this.  Building codes unquestionably play a role in keeping our societies safe, but like with anything institutionalised they can be restrictive to the ever-changing contexts.  Tar-Saeng Studio chooses to carry out their work—safely and strategically—whether it adheres to the legal systems or not, for they do it to solve problems, not to abide by the confines that sustain problems.

And in the process they are making a point – “When we design and don’t follow building codes because it’s impossible to, it’s a statement we’re putting out there that these building codes need to change,” Ploy said.

Tar-Saeng Studio works with vulnerable populations to provide living environments suited to their needs. (Photo: Openspace)

Tar-Saeng Studio works with vulnerable populations to provide living environments suited to their needs. (Photo: Openspace)

 

Designing for Thai society

Before Tar-Saeng Studio was established, Openspace worked in some of Thailand’s poorest communities and noticed this widespread but untrodden issue.  In 2013, about 7.3 million people in Thailand lived below the poverty line, and another 6.7 million were at risk of falling below it.[6]  For these people, access to safe shelter is already a struggle.  Thailand is also the world’s third most rapidly aging country with more than 10 percent of people over 64 years old,[7] and it’s projected that by 2040 this number will jump to 25 percent—that’s one in every four people.[8]  And of the near 2 million people with disabilities,[9] almost 40 percent are above the age of 64.[10]   Adapting for an aging society in Thailand with increasing cases of disabilities is just smart planning, yet no one was doing it.

The first time Openspace actively applied universal design was in 2011, or as people here call it “flood year” – referring to the floods that caused 884 deaths and an estimated loss of 45.7 billion USD.[11]  In a riverside community in Pathum Thani province, elderly people felt uncatered for in the local amenities.  The goal was to create a space in which they can socialise, exercise, and spend time in.  More importantly, a space where they can connect with each other and lead healthier lives, and where the inherent vulnerabilities from unwanted isolation can dissipate over time.

Openspace worked side by side with the local people, like a true partnership.  Using low-cost materials like discarded bamboo and motorcycle tyres from nearby shops, they made an area consisting of benches at varying heights, a hanging garden, and an exercise station—it was modest, useful, beautiful.  The benches aimed to connect the elderly with the children; the hanging garden had attached platforms for stretching legs; the exercise station held removable weights made of stones stored in bamboo.  Everything served a purpose in bettering older people’s lives.  Equally as valuable were the skills gained and relationships reinforced within the community, and perhaps a proud sense of ownership to something they collectively brought to life.

A few months later came the floods during which the structures were destroyed.  Ploy heard that after the water subsided, the community rebuilt the space.  “It was really nice to hear,” she said.

Community members weaving a bench seat with recycled tyres for a socialising/exercising space for elderly people; the space being exhibited; the hanging garden on site of the community (Photos: Tar-Saeng Studio)

Community members weaving a bench seat with recycled tyres for a socialising/exercising space for elderly people; the space being exhibited; the hanging garden on site of the community (Photos: Tar-Saeng Studio)

 

Eager to pursue universal design with greater commitment, Openspace partnered with the Institute of Health Promotion for People with Disability, a government entity, on a four-month project involving seventeen people with disabilities living in underprivileged conditions.  Most of them were in rural housing unfit for accessibility building codes, and couldn’t afford the “standard” equipment for their needs.  This is the reality; affordability should be integral to accessibility but disability-focused design can be expensive, leaving out those who are poor.

Openspace visited the seventeen people across two provinces.  Case by case, they studied the clients’ health and living conditions then came up with low-cost design solutions, published in an illustrative book titled Differently-Abled Architecture.  It includes people with cerebral palsy, paraplegia, hemiplegia, deafness, blindness, and mobility difficulties from diabetes.

In one case, they created an “at-home playground” for an eight-year-old boy with cerebral palsy that allowed him to stretch different parts of his body and aid the development of his muscles and joints.  It was constructed from bamboo, rubber tyres and concrete.  Another project was a “DIY horizontal toilet” built into wooden floors, and beneath it sat a plastic bucket connected to pipes, a hose, and a water tap.  It was for a client who couldn’t sit up but was perfectly capable of moving around in his own ways; he just needed an environment suited to his methods of self-reliance.

These projects underscored the basis of universal design – understanding the concept of “normal” as shifting with the users, all of whom differ.

Ploy measuring the hand of an eight-year-old client with cerebral palsy; drawings of the “at-home playground” shown in Differently-Abled Architecture. (Photos: Openspace)

Ploy measuring the hand of an eight-year-old client with cerebral palsy; drawings of the “at-home playground” shown in Differently-Abled Architecture. (Photos: Openspace)

 

What Ploy grasped at the end of the four months was the dismally isolated nature of these cases.  These were just seventeen of 2 million people with disabilities in Thailand, who happened to be among the poorest populations, divorced from public assistance.  There was no space in which they can support each other, no platform on which they can be heard, and no signs of progress towards their inclusivity.

“I decided that in our next projects we wouldn’t do it the same way,” Ploy said, “Instead we will combine many cases.  A process of building together, and taking care of each other, would be better.”

 

“Lit Eyes”

At this point, in 2013, Ploy set up Tar-Saeng Studio, a private entity detached from government organisations—detached from politics, a precarious area of discussion in Thailand—aimed to mainstream universal design into Thai society.  The word tar saeng means “lit eyes” in Thai and “community” or “villages” in Laos, chosen to give familiarity to local people (whereas Openspace, a mishmash of English design jargon, means little to many).  Through Tar-Saeng Studio, Ploy would advocate for the inclusion of vulnerable populations to built environment practices.

But she also acknowledges it won’t be easy.  The concept of universal design is still alien to most, and when it does ring a bell to some it’s often perceived as an extra luxury, covered by extra costs, sacrificed from the “real” necessities.  Trying to convince poorer communities to embrace universal design principles has been tough.  Many say they simply don’t see the point; meanwhile Ploy would watch them struggle to move around their homes.

She realised it will take a lot more awareness raising before implementation can go full force, and decided to keep the message simple, which was, “Look, there are no rules.  It’s about knowing your own resources and adapting to your environment.”

Since then, Tar-Saeng Studio has undertaken a series of projects ranging from low-cost furniture making to hospital design.  Their outputs are always based on inclusive design principles, and their processes on participatory empowerment. They’ve also published and distributed books to institutions and the wider public, and held training workshops in small communities.  It is Ploy’s hope for Tar-Saeng to become a social enterprise one day, with income from private sector clients subsidising projects for poor communities.  “It’s very important to connect with people doing similar things from different sectors,” she mentioned, “You can’t really do this alone.”

Tar-Saeng Studio holding a community workshop in Ching Rai on universal design for public space. (Photo: Tar-Saeng Studio)

Tar-Saeng Studio holding a community workshop in Ching Rai on universal design for public space. (Photo: Tar-Saeng Studio)

 

What this means for urban resilience

The floods of 2011 brought great devastation across Thailand.  People lost their homes, they felt desperate, they wanted answers.  This triggered a well-needed public dialogue on urban resilience and climate change adaptation; like a newcomer experiencing culture shock, Thailand had struggled to cope with these new waves of events and adapt to a new language through which to understand them.  So this was a good step.

A city’s urban resilience is characterised by its social and physical capacity to take on different types of pressures, endure through them, and recover from them.[12]  Whether hit by an earthquake or economic recession, things like governance, ecosystem balance, physical infrastructure, social services, and community support networks, all determine how a city bounces back.  Conversations around urban resilience in Thailand, however, remain primarily on physical infrastructure, while social capacity—people’s knowledge, mental and physical health, and resourcefulness during a time of crisis—have remained more or less a faded backdrop.

Ploy’s decision to focus on universal design, she told me, has everything to do with building urban resilience in Thailand.  People are aging, losing abilities, living in poverty, and some need particular types of assistance.  The fluctuating climate is also adding to these stresses.  She said, “What we’re doing is planning for the future, for the environment that’s always changing.”  Tar-Saeng Studio is proving that building adaptive environments through participatory approaches can increase social capacity by minimising vulnerabilities and strengthening communities.  Their next goal is to demonstrate that these grassroots activities can be scaled-up to the regional and national levels.

It’s as if Mace predicted the volatile state of the world today and decided to send a note to the future.  In a 1998 speech he said, “I’m not sure it’s possible to create anything that’s universally usable…We use that term because it’s the most descriptive of what the goal is, [which is] something people can live with and afford.”[13]  What seemed like a vague statement then has become significant in today’s social practice.  I’ve noticed that Ploy rarely speaks about disability, elderly, or po-poor focused designs as independent from each other, but instead she talks about making environments inclusive to everyone.  Now I understand how she’s running with Mace’s words.  But it’s not that these things—disability, elderly, pro-poor focused designs—always go together either.  I guess universal design is like a head-to-toe winter outfit that you modify according to the weather that day.  You just need to check the forecast to make the best decision.

As Mace wrapped up his last speech, at a New York conference in 1998, he said, “We are all learning from each other in a wonderful way and need to continue what we have started here—communication and the exchange of ideas and experience.”  And eighteen years later, reading his words were a small group of young architects in a traditional Thai house, lying on the floor, scribbling away, planning for the future.

 

References:

[1] Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, 2012. What is Universal Design. [online] Available at: <http://universaldesign.ie/What-is-Universal-Design>
[2] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>
[3] Saxon, W., 1998. Ronald L. Mace, 58, Designer Of Buildings Accessible to All. [online] 12 July. Available at: <http://www.nytimes.com/1998/07/13/us/ronald-l-mace-58-designer-of-buildings-accessible-to-all.html?_r=0>
[4] Center for Universal Design (2008) About the Center: Ronald L. Mace. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmace.htm>
[5] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>
[6]
The World Bank, 2016. Thailand: Overview. [online] Washington: The World Bank Group. Available at: <http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/thailand/overview>
[7]
HelpAge International, 2014. Aging population in Thailand. [online] Available at: <http://ageingasia.org/ageing-population-thailand1/>
[8] The World Bank, 2016. Aging in Thailand – Addressing unmet health needs of the elderly. [online] 8 April. Available at: <http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2016/04/08/aging-in-thailand—addressing-unmet-health-needs-of-the-elderly-poor>
[9] International Labour Organization, 2009. Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Thailand [pdf fact sheet] International Labour Organization.
[10] Thongkuay, S., 2016. People with Disabilities – Thailand Country Profile [draft report 2016].
[11]
Impact Forecasting LLC, 2012. 2011 Thailand Floods Event Recap Report Impact Forecasting. Chicago: Aon Corporation, p.3.
[12] 100 Resilient Cities, 2016. What is Urban Resilience? [online] Available at: <http://100resilientcities.org/resilience>
[13] Mace, R. 1998, ‘A Perspective on Universal Design’, speech, New York, 19 June. Available at: <https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmacespeech.htm>


 Cindy Huang is an alumna of MSc UDP and a participant of the DPU/ACHR/CAN Young Professionals Programme, currently working on community-driven development projects with Openspace and the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights network in Thailand.

MILEAD Fellows: Exemplifying Feminist Leadership at the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women

AshleyHernandez6 April 2016

On March 16th, 2016, when I arrived at my first event for the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the United Nations headquarters in New York, I realized something very profound. As a social development practitioner, this is one of the few times I’ve experienced young African women as the primary narrators of issues affecting African women and girls in their countries and communities.

Moremi_pic_1

MILEAD Fellows after their panel for the 60th session of the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations

The Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa (Moremi Initiative) hosted the session entitled “Enhancing Young Women’s Voices for Women’s Empowerment and Sustainable Development: A Multi-generational Dialogue with Emerging African Women Leaders”. As the girls on the panel presented, the aim and the focus of the Moremi Initiative became clear to me. The organization “strives to engage, inspire and equip young women and girls to become the next generation of leading politicians, activists, social entrepreneurs and change agents”. This is achieved through the MILEAD fellowship (Moremi Initiative Leadership and Empowerment Development), which selects young women ages 19-25 from various African countries and the Diaspora to sharpen their leadership skills via trainings, mentorship, networking and resource mobilization. The twenty fellows showcase members of different cohorts from 2009-2015, and represent more than 15 countries attracting a wide audience including 2011 Nobel Prize Laureate, Leymah Gbowee who supports the organization and provides mentorship to the fellows.

While reflecting on this experience, I had a strong sense that an essential ingredient in successfully bolstering African women and girls as change agents is the organization’s emphasis on transformative, feminist leadership. So, I had to ask myself, “what defines this kind of leadership, anyway”? My definition is derived from authors like Srilatha Batliwala (Batliwala, 2010), who believe that it requires engagement with power, politics and values. I will now outline the ways in which I believe the Moremi Initiative cultivates this type of leadership.

Moremi_pic_3

MILEAD Fellows celebrating at the AWDF 15TH anniversary gala

 

  1. Moremi, Power and Politics

On the surface, Moremi Initiative may appear to be another leadership program. Yet, what makes it formidable is that it is not soliciting African women’s participation in predefined projects affecting them and their communities. Instead the organization acknowledges that African women and girls hold the solutions and must define and set their own agendas. To this end, Moremi Initiative equips fellows with the tools, resources and the space to negotiate their own narratives’ and set the agenda for social change in their regions, countries and communities. Fellows get connected to powerful institutions while being provided with a dynamic support network and training to chart their course as emerging leaders. With these new skills, fellows are able to effectively articulate and advocate for the issues that affect them, their peers and women and girls broadly. One of the fellows who spoke at the CSW event identified this as one of the most important components of the program. Elizabeth Jarvase from South Sudan explains, “After joining the Moremi Initiative, I have represented South Sudan more than three times internationally, simply because ‘Moremi’ gives young African women space to develop and grow; it creates opportunities, and it provides the tools and skills needed to focus and advocate for our different causes with passion and integrity”. One of my favorites moments at the panel entailed Elizabeth putting forth a discussion on the human rights abuses related to the current civil war in South Sudan. She then eloquently asked the audience to reflect on how we can use our knowledge, abilities and power to end the suffering of women and children in this crisis.

 

  1. Moremi, Politics and Value: embedding women’s empowerment in social justice

One of the aspects I revere the most about the Moremi Initiative is the way in which feminism is treated as an integral part of social justice work in Africa. After one of the MILEAD trainings, a fellow reflected, “I also got enlightened on the term feminism which interested me a lot because of its concepts. I also got to know that it is a very good term, and in my own understanding I have come to define feminism as having equal rights and opportunities between men and women” (Winnie, 2015). Many of the girls in the program come from diverse backgrounds and advocate for an array of issues ranging from youth empowerment to clean water, not all are overtly related to gender. Yet the choice to introduce and engage with definitions of feminism is both political and indicative of a value that upholds gender equity. I believe this is essential to achieving a type of leadership that places African women at the forefront of social change.

Moremi_pic_2

MILEAD Fellows with Moiyattu Banya, host and volunteer AWDF USA board member, celebrating at the AWDF 15TH anniversary gala.

 

  1. Moremi: creating resilient leadership and values through inter-generational mentoring

Another objective of the MILEAD program is to “build intra and inter-generational solidarity that cuts through borders”. I witnessed this while attending the 15th anniversary gala celebrating the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF), and it was magnetic to see the confluence of generations in the same space. Described as being “at the forefront of the African women’s movement, AWDF supports the work of African women’s organizations and activists throughout the continent” (Siyonbola, 2016). The organization boosts of a dynamic and pan-African network, which is why Moremi Initiative prioritizes bringing fellows into these spaces to ensure the building of bridges across generations. This not only maintains the legacy of African women’s leadership, but also engenders the emergence of fresh new ideas and issues from younger generations.

I want to conclude this reflection from a place rooted in my own personal history and experience. I am a non-African woman, raised in the United States. As an ally, I believe one of the best ways I can support the Moremi Initiative is nurture deeper relationships and leverage opportunities to grow, and acquire relevant knowledge and skills about Africa, women and girls. When all is said and done, for me it is important to always be conscious that this platform is ultimately about the voices and decision-making of African women and girls.

After all, this is what moved me most about the Moremi Initiative’s participation at the 60th session of CSW: many individuals, including allies, partner organizations and donors aided in getting the fellows to New York. Yet the stories heard in the room that morning — the topics of discussion — were all determined and articulated by bold, visionary, resilient and emerging young African women leaders.

More information on Moremi Initiative can be found on their website, and you can also check out their Facebook page.

 

References:

Batliwala, S. (2010) Feminist Leadership for Social Transformation: Clearing the Conceptual Cloud. Crea-Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action. Available at: https://www.justassociates.org/sites/justassociates.org/files/feminist-leadership-clearing-conceptual-cloud-srilatha-batliwala.pdf

Winnie, N. (2015) Winnienansumba. [Blog] World Press. Available at: https://winnienansumba.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/24/.

Siyonbola, O. (2016) Incredible Women Don’t Just Happen: AWDF’s 15th Anniversary. Applause Africa. Available at: http://applauseafrica.com/2016/03/18/incredible-women-dont-just-happen-awdfs-15th-anniversary/


Ashley Hernandez is an SDP graduate who is passionate about gender equity.  She is currently working with Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa and volunteered with the African Women’s Development Fund USA for their 15th Anniversary Gala. 

Breaking the Ice: how digital technologies are trickling down globally

AlejandroEcheverria Noriega3 March 2015

The past years have led to one of the most dramatic transformations in how we create, manage and deploy information. In fact, a large percentage of all the information generated throughout human history has taken place in the last five years.

This can be attributed to one thing: the rise of digital technologies, its accessibility, and dwindling implementation costs.

Yet changes have been so rapid, that it is difficult to see how the advent of digital technologies are changing our daily lives and what the future will look like in the next 10-20 years. One thing is for certain, these technologies aren’t going anywhere.

Image by the Beyond Access Initiative

Image by the Beyond Access Initiative

A Digital Revolution, not just in the ‘developed’ world

While much of the talk around this so called “digital revolution” has traditionally come from the developed world, we have started to see the unexpected: that digital technologies are also surging in the developing world.

From mobile micro-financing to platforms empowering voices and public discord through social media, digital technologies are no longer an exclusivity of the developed world.

Enablers of social mobilisation

These changes have come too fast and too soon in the eyes of many. As I was undertaking postgraduate studies at the DPU in 2010/11, I remember how commentators and analysts began to realise the power of digital technologies as major enablers of social mobilisation. And it was only a matter of time before these technologies played a greater part in major events such as the Arab Spring.

Markets were flooded with the tools for communities to effectively communicate, organise, do, deploy (and son on) and to reach out to the highly connected and globalised world. In essence, millions of voices now had channels through which to make their concerns heard.

Social movements like this might have been an easy sell. However, many people havesince questioned real use of these technologies when it comes to policy and building for a better future. Mainly because, as it goes, communities, cities and regions, need basic services to grow economically and socially, services such as water, roads, legal and political frameworks. Following this logic, infrastructure for digital technology comes as a low priority in many contexts.

Opening new channels for citizen engagement

As a technophile running a social media platform during the last three years to promote sustainable development, I have noticed that some digital technologies are already enabling communities in cities across the world.

Firstly, in the areas of policy and citizen engagement, we are experiencing direct lines of communication between citizens and authorities; most common practices are usually riddled with red tape processes wherever you are.

Citizens are voicing their concerns, they are more active than ever, better organised and participating in the public debate in real time like never before. So far I’ve seen grassroots projects from Copenhagen to Durban and from Lagos to Medellin that are bypassing traditional channels and actually achieving their goals; people reporting potholes through photo sharing platforms, crowdfunding for public space improvement, data sharing for traffic reduction, and so on.

Can everybody be connected?

Secondly, hardware has flooded the market, be it for the good or for the bad. It is not by coincidence that mobile phone manufactures and digital giants are trying to reach every single person on earth and have them connected within the next two decades – think of latest comments by Facebook and Google.

This may seem an overstatement, but look at the numbers and where the industry is growing: 14 out of the top 20 countries with the highest mobile phone penetration are so-called developing nations. Additionally, getting connected to the network is not the expensive endeavour it was in the 90s.

Telecommunications, mobile phone manufacturers and tech giants are deploying “off the grid” solutions to reach the furthest corners of the world. This is a game changer if you think of education, health checks, access to information and having a voice in the ever increasingly connected world.

Digital tools are not silver bullets

Thirdly, social media, Internet of Things, smart cities, the Mesh, etc, are being evangelised as the tools to end all the world’s maladies. But the truth of the matter is that they are buzzwords that get everyone excited without having full understanding of what they mean or do; at the moment they are just tools that enable and should be treated as such.

The Internet and web platforms won’t build the cities of the future, won’t solve social issues, and certainly won’t make the most pressing matters go away. They are excellent channels that act as enablers and policy makers, practitioners, businessmen and women, community leaders should understand that.

Here to stay

Digital technologies’ role in our daily lives will only continue to grow as demand increases, prices drop, and as their distribution channels expand to reach most of the world’s population. I don’t believe this trend will disappear as is clearly indicated by the ways in which governments, private enterprises and others are including these into their agendas.

Whatever angle, be it bottom-up or top down, developed or developing, Global South or Global North, city or region, digital technologies are here to stay.


Alejandro has been working for the past 3 years with This Big City, a online social media platform for the promotion of sustainable development in cities across the globe; to date he has helped over a dozen grassroot projects achieve scale. He works for the Mayor of London’s office on economic development issues through innovation and consults European cities on creating long term cultural visions for urban regeneration purposes as an independent professional. He also enjoys playing video games.

Alejandro graduated in Urban Development Planning from the DPU in 2011. Follow him on Twitter @thisbigcityes