Dumb Phones, Smart Kids—Emerging Impacts on Cities

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Dumb Phones, Smart Kids—Emerging Impacts on Cities

This post is a response to a group blogging event organized by Meeting of the Minds and Tumml.

Citizens in the developing world, and especially the young, are increasingly connected to narrow band mobile phones, and these devices, as limited as they are, are having a seismic impact on political, economic and social life in cities.   This blog responds to a group blogging prompt “How is technology impacting social and economic divisions in cities?”.  It builds on an earlier post which describes the emergence of activist youth making use of mobile platforms.

Bumpiness Ahead:  Demographics and Technology

They may not be disruptive now, but population shifts in cities and the proliferation of mobile phones are making for interesting times.  Two parallel changes—one known as the “youth bulge” and the other the “mobile miracle”—have set the stage for change.  The youth bulge refers to a ballooning of a new generation of urban citizens thanks to improvements in control over communicable diseases.  The bulge is working its way through the population pyramid, especially in the developing world.  At the same time, the mobile miracle—the explosion of hand-held devices and computer technologies—has brought cheap phones into communities, as well as fresh challenges and striking new opportunities for youth  to cross over traditional divides in cities.

Today, the young (ages 15 to 24) number more than 1.2 billion, and more than 80 percent live in developing countries.  Despite their growing number, youth are largely excluded from participation in the decision-making process, leaving them socially and politically marginalized.  Moreover, the young are often viewed as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.  For example, while young people in the Arab States comprise approximately one-third of the region’s population, they are often excluded from decision-making on issues that directly affect their lives, such as lack of education, high unemployment and poverty.

Mobile phones have become the most ubiquitous form of modern ICTs.

The logic that drives internet use among the young is accelerated by the emergence of low cost cell phone devices.  Mobile phones have become the most ubiquitous form of modern ICTs.  According to a recent World Bank report, three-quarters of the world’s population has access to a mobile phone.  Dubbed the “mobile miracle,” the developing world is now “more mobile” than the developed world.  Of the nearly six billion mobile-cellular subscriptions, penetration in the developing world has reached nearly 80 percent.  Mobile subscriptions in low and middle income countries rose by more than 1,500 percent between 2000 and 2010, from 4 to 72 per 100 inhabitants. Combined with a young population, increasing income and decreasing mobile prices, the mobile revolution is contributing to social, economic and political transformation, particularly in cities.

Making Do with Narrow Band

The limitations of both physical access and the cost of broadband have led to the development of innovative “narrowband” mobile communications applications tailored for users in developing countries.  Low-end phone capabilities such as text messaging and simple internet access is facilitating scaled-down versions of social networking, pay-as-you go mobile data access and web searching. In essence, mobile phones are now providing new avenues for increasing numbers of citizens in the developing world to access the benefits of broadband internet. In many ways, the development of narrowband functionalities and mobile platforms can be seen as a commercial response to the growing youth mobile market.

Nearly five trillion text messages were sent worldwide in 2010.

Young people in the developing world have worked around the limitations of broadband access by developing  “stripped down” applications  such as Facebook Zero, Renren (in China), Opera Mini, Mixit, and Gmail SMS.  Text messaging (SMS) is one of the most popular types of mobile phone usage in developing countries.  Nearly five trillion text messages were sent worldwide in 2010, with mobile owners reporting a much higher percentage of usage for text messaging than other mobile functions.

Local Governments Venture Out

Though most are slow to act, local governments are beginning to listen to youth via ICTs.  As a large part of the population, youth benefit from general ICT-enabled services being implemented by local governments, such as permit applications, sales licenses, and other administrative measures.  Increasingly, platforms such as Huduma in Kenya offer mobile-based communication avenues for citizens to voice, SMS or email complaints about service needs or comments that go directly to authorities and service providers.  Similar platforms and services exist in Peru.

In Surabaya, “Broadband Centers” are located in strategic locations across the city.  “Business Development Centers” equipped with high speed internet and ICT equipment are being set up in each of Kigali’s three districts as part of a national initiative to develop ICT usage.

Leaders can’t just promise things and disappear.

ICTs are breaking the traditional codes between youth and government. Cheap and ubiquitous cell phones and social media create a daily bond among young citizens and between youth groups and leaders.  This phenomenon was non-existent as recently as a decade ago; it represents a potentially momentous change in government-youth relationships.  As a veteran youth leader from Kigali noted “A few years ago, a leader would usually go down to the field one day and go back to the same place only one year later. And in between there would be no way to reach him or make him accountable.  Now the bond with social media is reaffirmed on a daily basis.  Leaders can’t just promise things and disappear.”  The increased volume of traffic puts pressure on governments that is increasingly difficult to ignore.

ICTs can also improve the quality and quantity of user-generated information in a way that transforms how public officials and local government bureaucrats understand the needs of youth.  Conversely, youth groups are more aware of the limitations and possibilities of local governments in providing services.  User-generated content among youth is a key ingredient to this process.  In Uganda, a UNICEF supported program run by local youth organizations entitled Ureport has created a platform for strengthening communication and dialogue around core development issues through SMS and the radio. With over 89,000 Ugandans signed up and participating as of March 2012, young “social monitors” are sent regular polls, gather data on community services and issues, and receive useful facts for action and advocacy – providing the “pulse” of Ugandan youth.

Needed:  Social Capital Old and Young

The relative advantage of young people who have grown up with modern devices has created a “youth-local government ICT gap.”  Experience with eGovernment services in the past has demonstrated that factors such as technological and human capacity, financial sustainability and bureaucratic resistance can limit the adoption of ICT programs and reduce their long-term impact.  The Executive Director of MAP Kibera, a young leader from Kenya, observed “the reality is that most people in government are not very strong ICT users, this is something youth do better.  We encourage them to blog in and respond, but a lot of them still believe in the traditional form of governance, setting meetings and sitting down together.  We are trying to change this.”

We plan to connect city officials to citizens on a Facebook Page.

Young leaders in Sri Lanka are training municipal officials in computer skills and creating new ICT platforms for citizen-government local interaction. This is part of a broader UN-HABITAT supported youth-led training and education program in Kandy City entitled YES – City of Youth. Through the course of project implementation, the ICT capacity gap among local officials emerged as a major barrier to overall progress that needed to be addressed: “One major barrier we have is communicating with city officials who like paper and face-to-face interactions. To change this situation, we started training City Council staff on Internet, email, local language ICT and Facebook. We plan to connect city officials to citizens on a Facebook Page.”

However, there is still a need for ICT skill-building among youth, particularly to enable them to move beyond simpler mobile phone platforms and into more robust systems based on the internet.  Fostering these skills needs to go in tandem with infrastructure to support broadband capacity everywhere.  As these skill sets expand and grow among youth, there will inevitably be a deeper and more pervasive impact on local government.

National government leaders are setting the example for engaging directly with citizens (especially youth) through ICTs, although this trend has not been institutionalized.  Several case interviews (Kigali, Tanzania, Gaza, Kenya, South Africa) illustrate ICT activity at the national level where leaders are using Twitter accounts, blogs, SMSs and websites to engage with their citizens, who by default end up being mostly youth. These instances come to light partly from frustration among young people whose voices are ignored or unheard by elder leaders at the local level (a sentiment echoed by all youth interviewed to date).

At the same time, the evidence suggests great potential for fostering youth leadership at the local level, partly through the use of ICT.  Many cases point to an emerging trend of young leadership in developing countries that offers an opportunity for the increased use of ICTs for governance and positive engagement with youth. Young leaders in government are the lowest hanging fruit in terms of adopting ICTs to improve local governance for youth.  For instance, in Rwanda and Tanzania, it is the younger leaders and city officials that are using ICT tools to reach out and speak directly to youthful constituents using their own vernacular language. They can be identified as key champions in taking forward ICT-enabled urban governance for youth.

The increase in younger people occupying positions of power has contributed to a change in mindsets.  The cases suggest that youth are encouraged toward civic action by the presence of strong role models.  Also, informants feel that the wider community has begun to view youth differently, seeing them as leaders and change-makers.  Young people are increasingly regarded as innovative, fast, and result-oriented.  This is a key opportunity that can advance broader youth-focused change.   Furthermore, as the major segment of the population, avid users of mobile platforms and innovators of new technology, it seems evident that youth will be at the forefront of the move to ICT-enabled governance.  As the youth of today and their future children take up new, faster, more connected technologies, cities will need to turn over a new leaf in their engagement with youth.  Sometimes the best way for cities to impact the poor is to start near the bottom, making use of the most basic technologies for now, and then look to upgrade as prices fall and better devices become more widespread.

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