How technology can better the lives of the less privileged residents of megacities
By Daneesh Shahar
For centuries, cities have been beacons of hope for the disenfranchised. Newly freed African Americans flocked to New York City in the late 1820s following the abolition of slavery, and millions from all over Europe migrated to Britain’s manufacturing cities during the Industrial Revolution in hopes of riding the wave of prosperity.
These cities were important economic drivers and served as backdrops for intellectual and cultural movements like the Enlightenment and the Harlem Renaissance. Megacities today are not too different from industrial London and 1820s New York in the people they attract and the opportunities they offer. But much like their earlier counterparts, they are fraught with socio-economic problems.
A megacity is defined as an urban agglomeration with over ten million inhabitants (UN DESA). The problems megacities face are not unique; however, the sheer scale of their populations exacerbates them to a Dickensian degree. Dilapidated neighborhoods, crime, and poor sanitation are only a few of the symptoms caused by overpopulation, and strained infrastructure and resources. Enter technology.
Shenzhen, a Chinese megacity with over 12 million residents, is leading the way in tech-driven urban management. It has installed cameras in every public space, from parks and highways to the airport, capturing an estimated 700 million data points per day (Asia Times). The data informs ways to manage crowded stations better, keep traffic bottlenecks to a minimum, and quell criminal activity. In an almost Jetsons-inspired move, the city has even commissioned plans for drone highways, relegating future self-driving cars to underground tunnels.
Shenzhen is shaping up to be an ideal home for futurists, but tech can’t be credited for all of the city’s success. In 1980, the city was promoted to a special economic zone, granting it the ability to form preferential policies relating to taxation, land use, and business autonomy to attract foreign investment. Eight years later, it was declared a ‘separate city’ by Beijing, meaning it could implement policies that deviated from the national plan at the time.
A different megacity
It comes as no surprise that capital and political freedom make the building of a well-managed megacity much easier. But what if this were not the case and a city is without tech solutions? The growth of megacities is trending to underdeveloped and developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America; these megacities typically face the same problems without possessing the same means of finding solutions (Euromonitor).
Even more troubling is that fact that megacities are not always the best performing cities economically. It turns out that cramming millions of people in an area designed for a population half its size doesn’t bode well for infrastructure maintenance and logistical efficiency. Traffic congestion is synonymous with cities like Mumbai and Jakarta; commuting, transporting raw or finished goods, and finding space for manufacturing are all negatively impacted by logistical inefficiencies. The outcome of this severe congestion is businesses opting to relocate their factories and offices to fast-growing, more efficient middleweight cities, where the populations are between 150,000 and ten million.
According to a McKinsey report, middleweight cities like those in West Bengal in India and Foshan in China are part of a 440-city cohort that will drive half of the global GDP between 2015 and 2025. This situation leaves many megacities with the troubling prospect of having to host massive populations without being supported by rapid economic growth, leaving their hopeful residents with much to be desired.
Sadly, the bleak predictions made by scholars and futurists in the early 2000s about the quasi-dystopian conditions of future megacities are turning into reality. Wealth disparity in these urban areas is aggravated by the automation of low-skilled labor jobs and an increase in high-skilled roles, leading places like Lagos to raze entire neighborhoods in favor of luxury waterfront high-rises.
Nowhere is the wealth gap more apparent than Mumbai, where the ultra-rich live in multimillion-dollar skyscraper homes while the majority of the city’s residents are left dwelling in slums. Life is imitating art in how our megacities reflect the tragedies portrayed in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner; the rich escape into their lavish penthouses above the clouds and the poor are forced to live on the crime-infested city surface.
Connectivity as a way forward
Fortunately, there is hope for the less privileged megacity. Technology can help these cities improve–maybe not in the grandiose ways it has in Shenzhen–but in more modest forms that empower the residents. The most immediate benefit technology can bring to the other megacities is connectivity.
In Nairobi, the mass adoption of M-Pesa–a mobile-based banking service launched by Vodafone in 2007–revolutionized how Kenyans interacted with money. The service, which is compatible with the most basic mobile phone, enables peer-to-peer money transfers, deposits, withdrawals, and even micro-financing through loans. It gave individuals who didn’t have access to banks the financial independence to run a business from their homes, receive payment for informal work, and pay for virtually any good or service. By 2015, 18 million Kenyans had an account on the payment service, with M-Pesa managing 20% of the country’s GDP. The experiment is a testament to how transformative technology can be for cities like Nairobi.
But technology can go much further to aid the underprivileged in megacities. The natural next step in connectivity, after SMS-enabled services, is Internet-based connectivity. Internet access presents a plethora of opportunities in education, business, and community-building. In the most impoverished areas of the Tambora slum in Jakarta, Dharavi slum in Mumbai, and Orangi Town in Karachi, connectivity can be a way to grow local marketplaces and coordinate community-led initiatives.
In 2017, researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay installed 30 Google beacons, or WiFi hotspots, in marketplaces throughout Dharavi–the largest slum in Mumbai with over one million residents. The beacons advertised the goods available in nearby shops to help those with mobile devices better understand what was being sold in the area.
Beyond this function, shopkeepers used the Internet for WhatsApp, Google searches, and video chats. Although it wasn’t stated whether the beacons led to an increase in sales for the shop vendors, it was clear that the utility the Internet provided was beyond what the researchers had intended.
Google’s beacon project is a pilot test of the effectiveness of connecting urban settlers to the Internet. This program, if proven viable, could help Google onboard more users for its services and thus more consumers of its ads. Presumably recognizing the user growth potential of mass urban connectivity for their platform, Facebook has launched their version of a free internet program titled ‘Facebook Connectivity.’
Likewise, Jio, a subsidiary of the Reliance conglomerate in India, offers extremely affordable mobile plans, which led to them signing on 252 million subscribers in two years. Although not born out of altruism, the positive effects of these mass urban internet connectivity projects cannot be understated.
That said, getting the most marginalized residents of megacities online is only one step toward greater economic equity.
Internet access for the underprivileged in megacities has the promise of becoming the great equalizer, but simply being connected isn’t enough. The user’s capabilities play a major role in how they engage with the Internet, so illiteracy, for example, could severely dampen the benefits this access could bring.
Social norms and other systemic barriers could also lead to exclusionary digital growth in megacities; for example, even with access to a smartphone, a woman is 12% to 14% less likely than a man to use the Internet (Pathways Commission). Understanding the conditions needed for a holistic engagement with the Internet leads us to recognize that more has to be done to better position the less-privileged for success.
Former World Bank President Jim Yong Kim once said, “[We] must continue to connect everyone and leave no one behind because the cost of lost opportunities is enormous. But for digital dividends to be widely shared among all parts of society, countries also need to improve their business climate, invest in people’s education and health, and promote good governance.”
Ultimately, bettering the lives of the less privileged cannot be wholly achieved by technology. Even with the increased equity that the Internet promises, the circumstances that constrain the disadvantaged will continue to exist. Technology alone doesn’t offer the solution because a singular solution doesn’t exist. What it takes is a conscious and persistent effort from governments, startups, NGOs, large corporations and the people themselves, all collaborating and unified by the goal of turning their megacity into a place for everyone.
Daneesh is Jumpstart’s Journalist in Residence.