At the global level, a very small percentage of development funding goes to urban spaces, yet hard-hitting issues impact many of the urban poor: lack of tenure, lack of legality of land, informal settlements, lack of birth registration and civil registration in general, waste disposal, clean water, politicizing of local authorities and more. Can new technologies be a solution for some of these issues?
Tuesday’s Technology Salon NYC offered a space to discuss some of the key challenges and good practice related to working with children, youth, and urban communities and explored the potential role of ICTs in addressing issues related to urban poverty.
According to UNICEF, who co-organized and hosted the Salon at their offices, half of the world’s people – including over one billion children – live in cities and towns. By 2030, it is projected that the majority of the world’s children will grow up in urban areas, yet infrastructure and services are not keeping pace with this urban population growth. (See UNICEF’s 2012 State of the World’s Children or Plan’s 2010 Because I am a Girl Report: Digital and Urban Frontiers).
We welcomed 3 experienced and engaging discussants to the Salon, who commented on the intersection of children, youth, urban environments and new technologies:
- Doris Gonzalez, Senior Program Manager Corporate Citizenship & Corporate Affairs at IBM Corporation who manages IBM’s grade 9-14 education model Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH), a program that maps work-based skills to the curriculum and provides mentors to students and teachers
- Ron Shiffman, a city planner with close to 50 years of experience providing architectural, planning, community economic development, and sustainable and organizational development assistance to community-based groups in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods; and the co-founder of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development [PICCED]
- Sheridan Bartlett, a researcher affiliated with the Children’s Environments Research Group at CUNY and the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, co-editor of the journal Environment and Urbanization, supporter of Slum Dwellers International, and researcher on the link between violence and living conditions as they affect young children.
Doris shared IBM’s experiences with technology education programs with children and youth in New York City, including the highly successful P-TECH program which prepares youth for jobs that require 21st century skills. Some of the key aims in the PTECH program are making technology accessible, engaging, relevant to children and youth, and connecting what kids are learning to the real world. Through the program, IBM and partners hope to turn out skilled employees who are on entry-level career tracks. They look at what jobs are hiring with AAS degrees, what skills are attached and how to map those skills back into curriculum. Helping children and youth acquire collaboration, communication, and problem solving skills is key to the approach, as are broad partnerships with various stakeholders including government, private sector, communities and youth themselves. The program has been lauded by President Obama and is in the process of being replicated in Chicago.
Ron highlighted that working on urban poverty is not new. His involvement began in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was elected and there was a thrust to address urban poverty. Many, including Ron, began to think about their role in abolishing (not just alleviating or reducing) poverty. ‘We thought as architects, as planners about how we could address the issues of urban poverty.’ Broader urban poverty initiatives grew from work done forming the first youth in action community based organizations (CBOs) in Bedford Sty, Harlem and the Lower East Side. Originally these programs were empowerment programs, not service delivery programs; however because they confronted power, they faced many challenges and eventually morphed into service delivery programs. Since then, this youth in action community based model has served other community based initiatives all over the world. Ron emphasized the importance of differentiating among the roles of CBOs, technical assistance providers, and intermediaries and the need to learn to better to support CBOs who are on the ground rather than supplanting their roles with NGOs and other intermediaries.
Sherry picked up where Ron left off, noting that she’d collaborated with a network of federations of the urban poor in 33 countries, looking at ways they’ve used technologies and how technology presents new challenges for communities.
A large percentage of the urban poor live illegally in non-formal settlements where they can’t vote and don’t have legal representation, she said. They want partnership with the local government and to make themselves visible. The first thing they do is to count themselves, document the land they live on, map every lane and garbage dump, every school (if schools exist), their incomes, livelihoods, and expenditures. This body of information can help them engage with local authorities. It’s an organizing tool that gives them a collective identity that can lead to a collective voice.
This process seems to be a natural fit for technology, in that it can allow for management and storing of information, she said. However, technology use can be incredibly complicated. Traditionally the process has been managed manually. The information comes in on paper, it is fed immediately back to community members, contested and corrected right there. The process is very participatory and very accurate, and includes everybody. Things that have been mapped or measured are validated. Boundaries are argued and joint agreement about the community reality and the priorities is reached right there.
Sherry noted that when technology is used to do this, participation becomes more restricted to a smaller, more technically savvy group rather than the entire community. It takes longer to get the information back to the community. Many urban poor are technology literate, but there are complexities. Sometimes youth want to go with technology and older leaders are more comfortable with the more manual, inclusive processes.
The complexity of urban environments was addressed by all three discussants. According to Sherry, many people still hold a development image of the ‘perfect village,’ contained, people sitting around a tree. But urban communities are very complex: Who owns what? There are landlords. Who represents whom? How do you create the space and the links with local authorities? Ron agreed, saying that cities and settlements tend to be far more pluralistic. Understanding the nature and differences among them, how to weave together and work together is critical. Doris noted that one organization cannot work on this alone, but that multiple partners need to be involved.
Process, product and participation:
- It’s important to work directly with community based organizations rather than surrogates (in the form of external NGOs). It’s critical to work on building the capacity of people and organizations on the ground, recognizing them as the core actors.
- The process by which people engage is just as important as the end product. If new technologies are involved, participation needs special attention to ensure no one is being marginalized and the data is interpreted by local people, and they play a role in gathering it and learning, sharing and discussing during the process.
- Digital data collection and fly-over mapping should not replace participatory processes of data collection and local interpretation. Bringing in more efficient processes via new technologies is possible, but it often means losing some of the richness and interpretation of the data. If you’re not including everyone in this process, you risk marginalizing people from the process.
- Every community, village or barrio has a different personality. No one size approach or model or technology fits all.
- It’s important to let people create solutions to their own challenges; set the right policies so that what is produced can be scaled (open/open source); and make sure things are hyper-local – yet help move the ideas and build networks of south-south collaboration so that people can connect.
- The technologies only make sense when they are done within a participatory framework or context. People get excited about technology and the idea of really iterating and trying things out very quickly. But this only makes sense if you have a bigger plan. If you go in and start playing around, without context and a long-term plan, you lose the community’s trust. You can’t drop in tech without context, but you also can’t come and create such a huge infrastructure that it’s impossible to implement. You need balance.
Children and youth:
- We shouldn’t forget protection and privacy issues, especially with children and with mapping. These need to be carefully built in and we need to be sure that information and maps are not misused by authorities.
- We can’t forget the young people and adolescents that we are working with – what do we want them to gain out of this? Critical thinking, problem solving skills? This is what will serve them. Educational systems need to address the pedagogy – if children are even in schools – where do you get that critical thinking? How do you create space for innovation? What is the role of tech in helping support this innovation? What is the role of mapping? Just accounting? Just quantifying? Or are you helping youth know their communities better? Helping them understand safety? What are we mapping for? Community self-knowledge or outside advocacy?
- We need to always ask: Who owns and manages technology? Technology is never neutral. It can both empower and disempower people and communities, and certain groups of people within communities.
- The technology is a tool. It’s not the technology that teaches, for example, it is teachers who teach. They use the tech to supplement what’s going on in the classroom.
- Rather than bring in ‘really cool’ things from the outside, we should know what tech already exists, what children, youth and communities are already using and build on that.
- The challenge always comes down to the cost. Even if an idea works in the US, will it work in other places? Can other places afford the technology that we are talking about? There are some very good projects, but they are impossible to replicate. We need to find feasible and sustainable ways that technology can help reduce costs while it improves the situation for the urban poor.
Engaging local and national governments and the private sector
- Bottom up is important, but it is not enough. The role of local authorities is critical in these processes but national authorities tend to cut local budgets meaning local authorities cannot respond to local needs. It’s important to work at every level – national policies should enable local authorities and mandate local authorities to work with local communities.
- Local authorities often need to be pushed to accept some of these new ideas and pulled forward. Often communities can be more technologically savvy than local authorities, which can turn the power dynamic upside down and be seen as threatening, or in some cases as an opportunity for engagement.
- Communities may need to learn to engage with local governments. Adversarial or advocacy techniques may be useful sometimes but they are not always the right way to go about engaging with the authorities.
- It’s useful for CBOs to work with both horizontal and vertical networks, and NGOs can play a role in helping this to happen, as long as the NGOs are not replacing or supplanting the CBOs.
- There needs to be support from the local city government, and an interest, a need, an expressed dedication to wanting to be involved or these kinds of initiatives will fail or fizzle out.
- There is a tendency to seek quick solutions, quick fixes, when we all know that creating change takes a long time and requires a long-term perspective and investment. The city of Medellin for example has done a good job of investing in connecting settlements to the city through infrastructure and access to technology. Long-term vision with participation from private, public and community engagement is critical.
- The quality of investment in poor areas needs to be as high as that in wealthier areas. Many interventions are low quality or limited when they are done in poor areas.
- Multiple partners and collaboration among them is necessary for these initiatives to move forward and to be successful. You need to bring everyone to the table and to have an existing funding structure and commitment from local and national governments and ministries, as well as local communities and CBOs, NGOs and the private sector.
- A role for the UN and INGOs can be to help ensure that the right channels are being opened for these projects, that the right partnerships are established, that systems and technologies are kept open and not locked into particular proprietary solutions.
Learning/sharing challenges, approaches and good practice:
- There is much to learn from how marginalized youth in communities have been engaged without technologies. Once they have the information, no matter how it was gathered – in the sand, by SMS, on the wall — then how can marginalized young people access and address local authorities with it? How can we help enable them to feel more empowered? What can we learn from past efforts that we can apply?
- There is a lack of exposure of those working in ICT to the urban space and vice versa. This reflects a need to break down the issues and opportunities and to think more deeply about the potential of technology as a part of the solution to urban poverty issues.
- We need to make a distinction between wonderful projects that some are doing, but that are very costly and have a high cost per participant; and programs that can be done in developing countries. Consider that 75 million youth are now unemployed. The more we learn about what others are doing, the more information we have on how to do it, the better.
- ICTs are a relatively new element in the urban space. It would be helpful to have a a follow-up report that focuses on how ICTs have been used to address specific issues with children, youth and communities in urban spaces and what specific challenges are posed when using ICTs in this space. What projects have been done or could be done? What are the challenges in implementing projects with refugee populations, undocumented populations, migrants, and other groups? We need to understand this better. We need a document or guide that explores these issues and suggests practical ways to move forward.
- Social media and new technologies can be used to spread information on successful case studies, to share our learning and challenges and good practice so that we can apply the best approaches.
A huge thanks to ICT Works, UNICEF, our discussants and participants for making this 2nd Technology Salon NYC a success!