The ‘smart city’ concept appears to many as the prerogative of wealthy western societies. However, there are a number of SocialTech projects underway which show that this approach can also benefit areas in need of development.

Why should Smart Cities look up to Favelas for inspiration?

In most people’s imagination, the capitals of the world’s most powerful countries have a monopoly on the ‘smart city’ concept. However, all the arguments in favour of a smart city approach basically arise from the same idea: identifying a city’s problems and finding technology-based solutions to achieve the kind of future people want. It is therefore perfectly logical that such solutions are now more frequently being focused on the structural and urban spatial planning challenges posed by poverty and marginalisation.

By the same token, is also to be expected that, given the ongoing globalisation of the new digital economy, similar projects are taking hold in areas that were once more or less forgotten, i.e. in developing countries. For example, according to CNN, the rapid technological development in Nairobi now means that the Kenyan metropolis is the ‘smartest’ city on the continent of Africa, with some 17.3 million Internet users and close to 75.4% of the population equipped with a mobile device.

In the Brazilian city of São Paulo, 10% of the population live in ‘favelas’ – originally unplanned informal housing areas with low-income residents – beyond the reach of communication networks and unconnected to the main hubs of economic and political activity. All too often, these areas are still regarded as simply clusters serving the most basic needs, and it is an uphill struggle to achieve any proper inclusive urban planning. So the smart city concept is relevant here as a means of connecting the favelas to municipal policy, public services and communication networks, plus using the new information and communication technologies (ICTs) to provide tools for independent, community-based development. These are certainly difficult challenges to meet but the goals are by no means unachievable.


SocialTech working to bridge the urban divide

Brazil is one of the countries in South America which has been able to benefit from the digital revolution and the economic shake-up it has engendered. In 2005 President Dilma Roussef launched the Lei do bem (The ‘Good Law’) programme, designed to help bridge Brazil’s digital divide by providing tax breaks to encourage local manufacture of ICT equipment. In 2010 the Brazilian government adopted a National High-Speed Broadband Plan, which provided for a considerable expansion of digital telecommunications networks and measures to reduce the price of mass market electronic goods.

In 2012, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI), launched a programme to expand the use of computer tools and services in order to stimulate innovation and boost economic and social development in the country. This interventionist policy appears to have borne fruit. The OECD Digital Economy Outlook 2015 report reveals that Brazil’s policies for encouraging the use of digital technologies have resulted in close to 40 million households obtaining high-speed broadband coverage. Moreover, the Brazilian National Telecommunications Agency (ANATEL) reports a surge in the smartphone market. At end 2016, the number of customers was estimated at around 60.1 million.

Here is fertile ground for the Smart City. Consulting firm Markets & Markets, based in the Indian city of Pune, estimates that the value of the Smart Cities market is set to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 19.4%, i.e. from $312.03 billion in 2015 to reach $757.74 billion by 2020. Boosted by events with global reach, such as the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games last year, Smart City projects in major Brazilian cities, especially in Rio de Janeiro have been multiplying. However, the urban divide remains a major problem. São Paulo, the country’s economic capital, with 10 million inhabitants, shows all the signs of being a modern city. Its economy enjoys global reach, it is home to a number of international corporations, it boasts state-of-the-art public services and well-reputed universities. Nevertheless, it is also out in front when it comes to inequality, as its international influence benefits only some of its inhabitants. The rest of the population is expanding on the periphery, in the favelas, and cannot benefit from the new infrastructure. Consequently, São Paulo’s bipolarity makes it difficult for a unified smart city to emerge.

In fact the urban divide found in most major cities in Brazil is setting a real challenge for SocialTech providers and over the last few years initiatives such as the CDI project, which sets up community-run computer centres in the favelas in order to encourage entrepreneurship and technology innovation, have been on the rise. CDI founder Rodrigo Baggio believes that forging partnerships with innovative firms in the digital sector is a way to help rescue favela inhabitants from poverty and marginalisation. CDI projects are run on a local basis, with the aim of harnessing ICTs to serve the favelas.

Data crowdsourcing helping to make favelas visible

The social segregation that exists in large Brazilian cities is actually quite well illustrated in the way the territory is mapped. In this era of Google Earth, we are able to spot that even though they are densely populated areas, the favelas are often entirely missing from official maps. So mapping these areas properly, as a basis for applying the smart city approach, would seem to be the very first requirement. If you’re not on the map your existence is not recognised. Mapping the favelas is the only way to prove that they exist and only if they exist will they become a target for action, for ventures, enabling their potential to be developed. Putting favelas on the map will also help to give them some dignity, some political muscle. Obviously, an area which is discounted to the point where it does not even exist on official maps will find it hard to claim any political significance, to call for assistance and demand change, or to have any say in public policymaking.

So proper mapping of the favelas is the first step towards conferring urban status on them. Without map coordinates or a proper land register, there is little hope that basic infrastructure, communication networks or any other structures usually associated with a city will be developed there.

Back in 2015, Google Maps took up the task and has been sending cameramen to those areas with a view to incorporating the favelas. Mapping based on land registers has already been tried out in Africa, but this move by Google Maps is a first for the favelas. Today Google Street View lists some 26 favelas – a still small, but nevertheless growing number. Last year this initiative gave rise to Beyond the Map, an interactive programme which provides an immersive panoramic virtual tour of the favelas. The aim of the project is to give these neighbourhoods some visibility and, not least, to combat the long-term prejudice against them. The problem however is that the local people and their aspirations have not really been taken into account. Google has for instance named streets in some districts without consulting the local residents, which has caused some serious misunderstandings.

Seeing this problem, Paris-based Toolz has now developed the Smart Favela app, a community mapping tool which uses data crowdsourcing techniques. How it works is that favela inhabitants use their smartphones to list places and provide basic information on them – infrastructure, transport, etc. The data thus gathered makes the area visible and at the same time highlights the problems that residents face. In this way, modern technology is helping to turn the favelas into a space for effective community-oriented interaction in line with the local realities.

This participative data-production technique also for example enables women to geographically locate risky places, medical centres and police stations on an interactive map – a great help given that poverty, sometimes extreme poverty, is rife in the favelas, which makes them fertile ground for violence. This state of affairs disproportionately affects women, who are more vulnerable to sexual attacks. The victims are often alone, without support or access to the information they need. With this in mind, the UN WomenUNICEF and UN-Habitat organisations have set up a website that works as simply as an app, providing information on prevention, assistance and services to victims of violence in the favelas. So everything is now coming together to connect people to their favelas and improve their standard of living.

A more human, less technocentric vision of the Smart City

This bottom-up approach, run by and for favela residents, is arguably the most efficient and most viable approach to the ‘smart city’ in the long term. The first generation of technologies for boosting development have shown just how ineffective such measures can prove to be if they do not take into account particular circumstances, not least the inability of the poorest people to use the tools provided. Dan McQuillan, a Lecturer in Creative and Social Computing at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, argues that “the whole idea of monitoring, like mapping, should be approached with caution. Mapping and measurement were the original mechanisms of colonial control and projects that simply add visibility without agency risk reinforcing the status quo.‟  A ‘smart favela’ approach must therefore view a city as a social organisation in its own right, rather than just a collection of services. You need to take history, diversity, culture and the local ecosystem into account if you want to come up with a truly holistic plan. Which in turn means that we need to make the smart city less technocentric and more human.

In an interview with the French blog Demain la Ville, Franco-Colombian researcher Carlos Moreno stated that “the whole idea is to encourage citizens to play a part in local urbanisation […]. Technology can be highly relevant but I don’t believe in positivism as a transformation driver: you can be ultra-connected and still be a real social zombie. In my view, social links in cities are forged first and foremost through strong territorial identity and thus by accepting smart, respectful change in the urban landscape”.

But is the smart city approach able to address the challenges of an environment that is now under the spotlight? The townscape in question is also a web of structural problems and complex politics. For instance, the fact that government militia in effect control vital urban services such as water, some transportation links and electricity makes it much more difficult to pursue collaborative initiatives.

So rather than looking at economic and social issues in global terms, what is needed is a genuinely systemic approach to local issues in the favelas. This means that the smart city concept needs to be scaled down so as to support a more collaborative, community-based economy, placing its ‘smartness’ at the service of human endeavour and resilience.

By Théo Roux