X Close

The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Breaking the Ice: how digital technologies are trickling down globally

By ucfuaec, on 3 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

Participatory Photography: Reflections on Practice

By Laura J Hirst, on 12 February 2015

Participatory photography workshop with Gonda self help disability group, Manyatta ward, Kisumu, Alexandre Apsan Frediani. May 2014

In 2014, in collaboration with international NGO Practical Action and the Kisumu Informal Settlement Network (a grassroots network involving representatives from informal traders collectives and neighbourhood planning associations), I joined students from the MSc Social Development Practice on a project looking at the role of neighbourhood planning in the city of Kisumu, Kenya.

People’s Plans into Practice

The focus of the research was to document learning around processes of participatory governance within informal settlements supported by a Practical Action initiative ‘People’s Plans into Practice’, which ran 2008-2012. During these years the programme aimed to improve the well-being, productivity and living conditions of poor people living in informal settlements in Kenya and the East African region.

Within a context of growing private development and regeneration, this research came up with recommendations to strengthen the capacity of neighbourhood planning associations and enhance participatory planning processes.

‘Critical Urban Learning’

We adopted participatory photography as part of a wider research methodology, which related to ‘critical urban learning’ in the module. This idea is defined by Colin McFarlane as ‘questioning and antagonizing existing urban knowledges and formulations, learning alternatives in participatory collectives and proposing alternative formulations’ [1].

In the field, we supported the students in using participatory photography with small groups of residents to explore institutional relationships and networks, aspects of diversity and processes of representation.

Participatory photography workshop with Gonda self help disability group, Manyatta ward, Kisumu, Alexandre Apsan Frediani. May 2014

Photography Exercises

We began by facilitating introductory workshops on basic camera use with a number of themes in mind, aimed at guiding the focus of the activities. These were: spaces and conditions of participation; participation of people with disabilities; housing rights; and the right to water.

The resulting photographs were used in focus group discussions and one-to-one interviews, to draw out personal and shared stories and experiences. We tried to move the conversation beyond assumptions about the surface content of images to explore the processes, practices and relationships behind them and communicate different individual and shared perspectives on living in the city. See some examples of the images captured below:

Gathering water for everyday use in Manyatta ward, Kisumu, Elizabeth Ochieng, workshop participant. May 2014.

Gathering water for everyday use in Manyatta ward, Kisumu by Elizabeth Ochieng, workshop participant. May 2014.

Opportunities for people with disabilities to earn a living in Manyatta ward, Kisumu, George Otieno. May 2014.

Opportunities for people with disabilities to earn a living in Manyatta ward, Kisumu by George Otieno. May 2014.

Informal spaces of participation in Nyalenda B, Kisumu, Joseph Otieno Odhiambo. May 2014.

Informal spaces of participation in Nyalenda B, Kisumu by Joseph Otieno Odhiambo. May 2014.

Accessibility challenges for children with disabilities living in Manyatta ward, Kisumu, Jane Ouma. May 2014.

Accessibility challenges for children with disabilities living in Manyatta ward, Kisumu by Jane Ouma. May 2014.


Using participatory photography during this project was an exciting, and to many of us, new way of working with research participants. It yielded rich information on everyday urban practices and gave visibility to challenges that might not otherwise have been revealed by using techniques such as standard interviews or focus groups.

It was clear to see how the visual immediacy of a photograph as a talking point often revealed nuanced emotions, values, and opinions. Many of us were particularly struck by the way that the process of taking photographs and telling stories changed the dynamic between researcher and participant. It helped participants to relax and open up and communicate in a fun and more dynamic way.

Making trade-offs

Our timeframe was just two weeks. As a result we had to make a trade-off between different levels of potential social transformation and empowerment that participatory research often promises.

Whilst the participatory photography workshops provided space and opportunities for participants to articulate their own existing knowledge and experiences and discuss aspirations, which were shared in the research outputs for broad advocacy use, time constraints meant there were limited opportunities for participants to participate in directing the research, or for using the photographs to directly advocate for their own positions themselves with city stakeholders.

A longer term engagement using participatory photography with a more explicit advocacy focus could go some way to address these issues. Future action research should therefore aim to work more closely with participants to devise collaborative digital storytelling campaigns that can be targeted to bring stories to the attention of local city authorities.


[1] Colin McFarlane, Learning the City: Knowledge and Translocal Assemblage (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).


Related Content:

Laura published a first post on this theme called Participatory Photography: a background on the DPU Blog in January 2015.

Laura Hirst has been working as the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Social Development Practice. She has recently left the DPU to join the DPU-ACHR-CAN intership programme in the Philippines where she will be working with community groups in Davao for the next 4-6 months.