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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