Leveling the Playing Field: Can Digital Technologies Address Inequity in Cities?

The “app culture” is transforming the way cities in Asia function.
The “app culture” is transforming the way cities in Asia function.

By Bambang Susantono

Throughout Asia and the world, digital solutions are being found for urban problems. Policymakers and city leaders should ensure that the poor do not get left behind in this digital transformation of cities.

Digital technologies are being widely used all over the world to make cities more efficient and livable.  Many are implemented with varying levels of success. But proponents of digital technologies have also been accused of adopting digital solutions that favor the privileged and leave the most vulnerable people behind.  Can digital technologies be used to level the playing field in cities?

Digital solutions can help to make infrastructure more efficient.  In the case of water supply, digital technologies are used to prevent leaks, deliver water efficiently, monitor water quality, expand distribution, and improve tariff collection. This increased efficiency cuts costs and helps expand supply. In developing countries, where not all areas receive reliable water supply, efficiency is key to getting water to the most vulnerable and helping them to stay healthy. In Bangladesh, digital technologies and policy changes were used to turn around the Dhaka water supply and provide 24/7 service to those most in need.

Another promising area for digital technologies is urban mobility.  Digital platforms have helped proliferate ride-sharing and augmented mobility.  The urban poor and the underserved can now pool rides, share routes and gather timely information on transport options. This of course comes at the risk of disinvestments in public transport and an increase in carbon emissions. A holistic policy approach that incorporates ride shares in last and first mile trips to complement public transit is needed.  

This approach would also include support for e-vehicles and the encouragement of active modes such as cycling and walking.  Platforms that include bike sharing are growing and are being integrated in formal transit options offering commuters a wide array of intermodal choices to plan their trips.  In the People’s Republic of China the ride sharing app Didi enables users to integrate multimodal journeys including mass transit. The function is now available in 100 cities across the country.

Data analytics, another example, provides city leaders with the evidence they need to make decisions.  In many settings, especially in informal settlements, the poor and most vulnerable are not counted in formal census or surveys. Using big data, remote sensing, and other sources ensures that underserved pockets of vulnerability are fully considered in the planning process.  An innovative initiative, funded by ADB through the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction, enables informal settlement residents in Bandung, Indonesia to directly communicate their concerns to local government through a community-based platform that combines satellite imagery with digital maps and census data.

In another example, providing proof of land titles enables the poor in many developing country contexts to send their children to school, open a bank account, or acquire government services. Digital solutions are being used to efficiently and transparently document land rights. In the Indian state of Odisha, plans to identify and map land parcels and deliver land titles to one million slum dwellers are enabled using geographic information systems, drones and smart phones.

  Addressing inequity in Asia’s cities: there’s an app for that

In Kolkata, a social vulnerability audit of public spaces is being conducted through an app called Safetipin to evaluate public spaces to make them more inclusive and improve the city’s overall livability. This app, which enables the assessments of perceptions of urban safety in public spaces by women, makes communities and cities safer by providing safety-related information collected by users and by trained auditors. The audit is based on parameters including lighting, openness, visibility, crowd, security, walk-path, availability of public transport, gender diversity and feeling.

Digital technologies also promise to make cities more accessible for the elderly and the disabled.  Digital solutions and universal design principles are being used to provide the elderly and people with disabilities with access to services such as transit, libraries, public areas, parks and other leisure facilities. Some examples include apps to enable the visually impaired to navigate the city, audio cues on bus systems and transit stations, real-time directional information beacons via smartphones, and technology to instill calm for people with autism.

Finally, digital solutions are helping provide a platform to enable participation in decision making, help citizens access services and increase transparency and accountability. The most vulnerable are often limited in their accessibility and skills. To bridge the digital divide, the City of San Francisco spearheaded the San Francisco Digital Equity Initiative to help marginalized communities gain access and skills needed to leverage digital solutions and improve their quality of their life.

While digital solutions are not the answer to all challenges that are faced by cities, they can be successfully deployed to reduce inequity in cities.  Digital technologies are fundamentally changing approaches to the design of urban systems, but the governance and business models need to be aligned to ensure that all segments of the society gain from these technological applications.

To do this, cities must use policy tools to integrate non-technological solutions in projects to promote equity, and to ensure that the poor, disadvantaged, and vulnerable have the tools and channels they need to fully participate. Projects should also be monitored closely to ensure that developmental goals are being met.

Putting urban citizens at the center of solutions, technology-based and otherwise, is key to making sure that no one is left behind.