Digital urban societies: Potentials and possibilities | Master′s Degree | DW | 14.12.2015
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Master's Degree

Digital urban societies: Potentials and possibilities

The digital revolution is transforming urban infrastructures and the way we live together - offering new models for civil society. At the Bonn discussion series "Zunkunftstadt" panelists looked at some new possibilities.

More than one hundred guests attended the discussion held at the end of November at the Forum Internationale Wissenschaft in Bonn (photo: DW Akademie/Charlotte Hauswedell).

More than one hundred guests attended the discussion held at the end of November at the Forum Internationale Wissenschaft in Bonn

The pervasiveness of digital technology and the development of new kinds of networks is opening up a wide range of possibilities for residents of urban areas, bringing new ways for them to participate and become active in their societies. Thanks to social media, grassroots movements like Occupy can develop a global reach, and with access to open data we're learning more about where were live as well as how we live.

At the fourth discussion round in the series "Zukunftstadt" (City of the Future) at the University of Bonn, Professor Bettina Schlüter, director of the school's Department for Digital Society, offered her views about the structural and sociocultural implications of digital urban societies, as well as their potential.

While the benefits of digital transformation on the urban landscape are many, ever-growing networks also raise questions about data security and who has authority over information, said Schlüter. Power structures are changing, and not always to society's benefit, she added. Regulation of the Internet leads to information control, she said, one of the greatest challenges of our time.

Holger Hank, head of DW Akademie's Digital Division, focused on the benefits of digital technology, especially for people living in countries with restrictions on information access. "Thanks to digital technology, for the first time people in these countries are able to access information, even if freedom of expression is limited and traditional media like newspapers, radio and television are under government control," he said.

This not only sparks innovation, said Hank, but also strengthens efforts to oppose control and censorship - especially in countries of the Global South where new approaches are needed to solve urgent problems.

Innovation supporting freedom of expression

Holger Hank, Prof. Bettina Schlüter and moderator Merjam Wakili (photo: DW Akademie/Nadine Wojcik).

Holger Hank, Prof. Bettina Schlüter and moderator Merjam Wakili

Hank pointed to a number of projects that show how digital technology can be used to strengthen free expression. The AfricanSkyCAM project in Kenya, for example, used drones to take the first photos ever published of the Dandora Dumpsite, Nairobi's largest garbage dump, which is usually off-limits to the public.

Another example, OpenDevCambodia, is a platform in Cambodia that specializes in visualizing and analyzing information available to the public. In Argentinia, the portal La Nación uncovered government corruption by using digital tools to pool masses of data that could be analyzed by journalists.

"Digital technology won't close the income gap or eradicate poverty," said Hank, "but it does make teamwork and communication much easier." Professor Schlüter agreed. "The unrestricted access to technology along with equal access for everyone can allow us to use digital technology to create an alternative public sphere which can move societies forward," she said, pointing to environmental protection groups as examples.

Fine-tuning approaches to development

Digital technology can create alternative public spheres, said Professor Schlüter (photo: DW Akademie/Charlotte Hauswedell).

"Digital technology can create alternative public spheres," said Professor Schlüter

The discussion, moderated by DW Akademie's Merjam Wakili, highlighted a number of factors that are critical in order for digital technology and networks to have a positive impact on societies.

The careful use of data plays an essential role. "It's crucial to be aware of one's own data and to know how to store and use it," Hank pointed out. "That's why media literacy is a key factor, especially in terms of media development."

Part of media literacy, added Schlüter, is an awareness of informational self-determination, or the protection of individuals against the unlimited collection, storage, use and disclosure of their personal data. Given the rapid pace of the ongoing digital revolution, she said, this is an issue that needs to be debated and developed further.

Holger Hank showed various projects from the South2South media dialogue (photo: DW Akademie/Charlotte Hauswedell).

Holger Hank showed various projects from the South2South media dialogue

In a video interview, Dickens Olewe, founder of the AfricanSkyCAM drone project, named factors that have led to the success of innovative digital projects in the Global South. "Digital technology has to be relevant to one's own society," he said. "If we look at the Global South, it doesn't make sense to copy projects developed in the West."
In 2014, Olewe and 13 other trailblazers took part in DW Akademie's South2South media dialogue. They developed a manifesto that focused on using digital technology to strengthen freedom of expression. Integrating traditional media with digital media is important in the development of successful digital projects, said Olewe, as is working together on site, whether in hubs, centers or workshops.

"Zukunftsstadt" (City of the Future) is the second round of discussions in the series "Die Welt im Wandel" (The Changing World) being held during the current 2015/2016 semester. The previous series, "Klima. Global. Digital" (Climate. Global. Digital), was held during this year's spring semester. The series' organizers are the University of Bonn's Forum Internationale Wissenschaft, the City of Bonn's Liason Office Internationale Wissenschaft, the German development agency GIZ and DW Akademie.

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