Urbanization matters

“Hundreds of millions of children today live in urban slums, many without access to basic services. We must do more to reach all children in need, wherever they are excluded and left behind. Some might ask whether we can afford to do this, especially at a time of austerity. But if we overcome the barriers that have kept these children from the services that they need and that are theirs by right, then millions more will grow up healthy, attend school and live more productive lives. Can we afford not to do this?” Anthony Lake, Former Executive Director, UNICEF

Cities are centers of the greatest human challenges and opportunities. Today, cities are home to over 55% of the global population and generate more than 80% of our global GDP. The fastest growing cities are in Asia and Africa, and these are largely untapped and growing markets. Many who move to cities are spending more, but still lack access to the basic services, infrastructure, information, opportunity, and choice required to survive and thrive in the age of urbanization. By 2050, over 66% of the global population will reside in cities, and 92% of this urban growth is expected to occur in the Global South. Amidst this unprecedented and transformational urbanization, there is a growing need to address emerging challenges and tap into new opportunities, especially as they relate to vulnerable children and youth.

Download the Urbanization Handbook here.

Planning for an urban future.

Technology-based solutions can help bridge gaps and open doors–both online and on the ground– providing greater access to information, faster and more affordable communication, and expanded choices, all of which can directly contribute to safer, healthier, more equitable and inclusive conditions for children. Technology already affords widely accessible advantages ranging from instant access to crowd-sourced information, participatory engagement platforms, mobile financial services, and free messaging opportunities (WhatsApp, WeChat, etc.). These new ways of connecting people to information, to decision-makers, and to each other have especially huge potential for those at the margins, and particularly for young people.

Meanwhile, emerging “higher tech” innovations such as sensor-based and Internet of Things technologies (IoT), can equip cities and their partners with the abilities to measure, alert, understand, and respond to urban citizens’ needs. When deployed in the right way, emerging and existing technologies can be critical in shaping cities to be centers of liveability, productivity, opportunity, and growth for children and their communities. We know that cities are hubs of diversity, growth, and innovation, and they should provide boundless opportunities for young people to survive thrive, learn, participate, integrate and reach their full potential.

Harnessing the opportunities

The yet untapped potential of technology that we seek to explore lies mainly in its potential to support efforts that:

  1. Improve vulnerable children’s access to urban infrastructure and service
  2. Connect urban communities with the tools, services, and relationships they need to measure, alert, organize and respond to specific urban concerns
  3. Expand urban planning and policy processes to include vulnerable populations, especially youth
  4. Improve our sense of what specific problems exist where, and for whom
  5. Mitigate and prevent the negative impacts of urbanization on vulnerable urban populations

The way urbanization shapes our world will define the chances for individuals, communities, cities and entire regions to either thrive or collapse, making the task of guiding urban growth towards sustainability and equity a global imperative. Above all others, the lives and futures of children and youth will be defined by the shape that cities take. We want to encourage the idea that all of us–makers, engineers, do-gooders, executives, computer scientists, academics/ researchers, inventors, innovators–can come up with technological innovations that are not just nice to have, but that children in the most challenging urban settings need.

Innovation for Children in an Urbanizing World

UNICEF in partnership with ARM develops an urbanization handbook which outlines opportunities for design, technology, and social impact communities to work together in creating technological innovations that improve the lives of vulnerable children in cities. It highlights the urgent need for innovation on behalf of children in the context of a rapidly urbanising planet, and also offers guidance on specific approaches and principles–through the lens of UNICEF’s innovation priorities. The handbook identifies five focus areas where the most pressing challenges for children in urbanizing areas intersect with the greatest opportunities for technology-based solutions: Infrastructure, Transport, Basic Services, Connectivity, Violence, and Hazards.

Areas of focus: 

WASH Infrastructure in Slums

Worldwide, some of the highest under-five mortality rates occur in slum settings, where poor water supply and sanitation, overcrowding, and inaccessible health services put pneumonia and diarrhoeal disease ahead as some of the leading causes of death for children.

Rapidly urbanizing urban settings present a need for solutions that improve access to clean, affordable and reliable infrastructure, energy supplies and water sources. From nimble energy solutions like battery systems to low-tech water filtration technologies to clean and mobile well drilling equipment, many of these solutions already exist,  and there is great opportunity to scale and redesign them to be effective in challenging urban contexts. Technologies that help improve or strengthen water quality, accessibility, delivery, distribution, and awareness will support the most vulnerable children living in cities from survival through to resilience.

How might we design technologies that improve access to adequate infrastructure– especially that relate to water and sanitation and energy,–  and make infrastructure planning processes more inclusive?

How might we… 
– Monitor the functionality and quality of water supplies and distribution systems, and map trends in contamination or service failure across urban contexts?
– Develop low-cost water testing technologies to empower communities and households?
– Support innovative approaches to fresh water supply (rainwater harvesting, low-fi purification techniques, etc)?

Citizen Engagement for Youth in Cities

Young people and their allies are often deprived of the chance to act as active stakeholders and to have a voice in the public debate around how cities are governed, and what shape their cities will take. In addition to expanding public policy and planning conversations to be more inclusive and participatory, improving connectivity can open up opportunities for young people to hold governments accountable for the services they provide, and to improve design and delivery of services to respond better to the public’s priorities.

In Latin America, fewer than 1 in 10 poor households has an internet connection. In the Central African Republic, a single month of internet access costs more than 1.5 times the annual per capita income. Without connectivity, pathways to youth engagement and participation for vulnerable urban youth are severely limited.Children and youth in slums need ways to participate and engage with each other, their communities, and their governments. Participatory learning and action tools can empower children to share ideas, learn from each other’s experiences, form and express views and put them into action. Participatory learning approaches can also allow children and youth to assess and report their own levels of risk, vulnerability and response capacity.

How might we design technologies that enhance the visibility, voice, engagement and participation of marginalized youth, and improve access to information and skilling in urban settings?

How might we:
– Develop accurate and effective methodologies to assess gaps and disparities in demographic connectivity across urban areas?
– Advance online protection measures for young people (for privacy and identity protection) while improving connectivity infrastructure and resources in poor urban settings?
– Engage children in participatory learning tools to map and understand their priority concerns, and communicate those with decision makers?
– Create platforms for sharing lessons learned and highlighting issues for use in advocacy and awareness creation with relevant authorities/stakeholder?

Road Safety for children in cities

The World Health Organization estimates that road traffic injuries account for 1.3 million deaths annually – the leading single cause of death worldwide among people aged 15–29, and the second for those aged 5–14. Combined with prohibitively high transport costs, unsafe and inadequate roads prevent vulnerable urban children from surviving and having the chance at leading a full life.

Solutions are needed that directly empower children, youth, and their communities to access better transportation options and advance road safety improvements. In some cities, young people are already employing social networking tools and community websites to set up carpools, which increase accessibility, reduce vehicular traffic, and generally improve urban livability.

How might we design innovations that connect vulnerable populations with safe, reliable, clean and accessible transportation options to improve human mobility?

How might we leverage technology to:
– Create safer transportation options for women and children?
– Improve transportation options that accommodate children and families with disabilities?
– Map transportation routes that are viable in slum settings (i.e. where streets are often vehicle-inaccessible, and violence and topography can be prohibitive)?

Adequate education for children in cities

Challenging urban living conditions can fundamentally undermine educational foundations. By one estimate, more than 200 million children under 5 years of age in developing countries fail to reach their potential in cognitive development. These disadvantages are exacerbated greatly when access to education is absent, and children are left without the opportunity to learn, grow, and thrive.

Technology can intervene at different stages in the learning process, from providing ways to collect & map data on where education needs & disconnection from learning tools is greatest, to providing pathways to registration where it is needed to ensure access to public education, to delivering educational tools and material in accessible and sustainable ways. In urban areas, where ethnic minorities, migrants, refugees, and internally displaced populations are common, it is especially important that educational options are available for children who speak different languages, lack official registration, or have had their school interrupted.

How might we develop technologies that reduce equity gaps that stem from social and economic marginalization, strengthen health and education systems, and extend quality social services to marginalized children in urban settings? How can we innovate for healthy cities?

Access the handbook (below).