/ 9 October 2023

Amplifying the voice and visibility of gender to unlock inclusion in smart cities

Safrica Wc2010 Transport Brt Rea Vaya
Explicit examples of engendered environments include the public transport that women and young girls use every day to get to cities, which are male-dominated sectors. (Photo by PABALLO THEKISO / AFP)

This month is known as Urban October and its purpose is to promote participation, generate knowledge and involvement aimed at creating better cities. More than half the world’s population live in cities and towns, which are growing daily, according to UN-Habitat, the UN agency’s human settlements programme for sustainable urban development. 

Urban October is an opportunity for people around the world to join conversations about the challenges and opportunities created by the fast pace of change in cities and towns. Urban October begins on the first Monday of October every year as World Habitat Day, to reflect on the state of our urban environment and the basic right of all to adequate shelter, and ends with World Cities Day on 31 October. 

As we usher in Urban October, this article highlights the need to amplify the voice and visibility of gender to unlock inclusion in smart cities. 

Smart cities are a result of knowledge-intensive and creative strategies aimed at enhancing the socio-economic, ecological, logistics and competitive performance of urban areas.

The definitions of, and perspectives on, smart cities are diverse. Some definitions focus on hard infrastructure systems, such as fast internet connectivity, sensor installation in embedded environments and use of this data. Others put more value on soft infrastructure such as the quality of human and social capital, labour capital and governance. 

Smart cities are intended to promote the use of emerging technologies to revolutionise the way we live and interact, making it safer to live in cities and creating an environment where women and men can feel equally safe. 

Unfortunately, in most cities, women and young girls do not have a consistent experience. When viewed through gendered lenses, smart cities are often engulfed with socio-economic disparities where women usually lack decent employment chances coupled with violence, crime and insecurity. If this is the case, then smart cities are no different to other cities.

Cities have been structured based on the division of labour, reflecting traditional gender roles. UN-Habitat contends that the world was and is designed by and for men and such measures apply to dimensions beyond digital issues. Research on spatial and urban planning shows that 80% of urban areas is more suitable for heterosexual and non-disabled men to live in than anyone else. 

Urban layouts tend not to accommodate the needs and lives of women and minority groups. Research confirms that cities have always been male spaces, throughout humankind’s history, and this has led to the disregard of gender issues when designing modern smart cities and a masculine vision of the cities. 

Failure to address gender issues in urban spaces potentially exacerbates inequalities because gender is about roles and relationships, and differentials in power and access to resources. Disregarding gender issues does not make cities gender-neutral. Instead the gender biases of smart cities have led to environments that alienate women. 

Explicit examples of engendered environments include the public transport that women and young girls use every day to get to cities, which are male-dominated sectors. Furthermore, the technological changes through the integration of information communication technologies that are implemented to make cities smarter are also gendered.

Technology itself is gendered and socially constructed to be a masculine domain with fewer women than men working in the science, technology, engineering and maths fields. Technology is gendered not only because of men’s monopoly of technology, but also the way gender is embedded in technology itself.  

Violence against women and young girls in smart cities has increased exponentially in recent decades. They are victims of harassment, assault, kidnapping, robbery, human trafficking and femicide. Urban poverty has meant women and young girls might participate in risky sexual behaviour for economic survival, putting them at heightened risk of contracting HIV and other diseases. 

One in three people in smart cities live in slums, although conditions vary. Research confirms that women and girls often suffer the worst effects of slum life. This includes insecurity of tenure and gender-based violence exacerbated at home by stressful and overcrowded living conditions, and in public areas by poor security and eviction threats. 

On the whole, governments and policymakers are still responding inadequately to different gender needs in smart cities and, with time, this deepens the disadvantages for women and girls, denying them an equal voice to bring about improvements in their communities. 

Governments and policymakers need to emphasise the application of gender mainstreaming in urban planning to safeguard inclusion and equality for both women and men. Gender mainstreaming seeks to prevent discrimination based on sex, race, religious belief, disability, age and sexual orientation. It is based on the understanding that women and men perceive and experience the urban environment differently. 

Incorporating an awareness of gender differences in planning leads to gender-sensitive urban planning. Through gender mainstreaming, smart cities could be women-friendly. 

The experience of women and girls in smart cities is no different from that in regular cities, hence the call to amplify the voice and visibility of gender to unlock inclusion in smart cities. 

Hluma Luvo Ralane is a project co-ordinator at Africa-US Cities at the African Centre for the Study of the United States.