In rapidly growing urban centres across the majority world access to affordable housing continues to be a gordian knot in terms of policymaking that is still deeply intertwined with other social challenges. It is estimated that at least 25% of urbanites live in informal settlements, where in addition to a lack of basic social service provision, they often lack recognition, stability, and access to information. Despite the lack of state recognition of slum-dwellers' Right to the City, informal settlements represent a significant force within regional and even national economies, a reality that is further underscored by the implications of slum resettlement programmes.
Resettlement has been shown to bring about a range of social, economic, and psychological challenges for communities. Displaced individuals and families are susceptible to disruptions in their support networks, loss of their livelihoods, and increased poverty levels. LDE Global’s project “Right to information: working towards digital inclusion of the urban poor in India, Indonesia, and Kenya” builds on action research on digital inclusion and the right to the city of marginal urban groups.
This article contains an interview with Dr. Maartje van Eerd, project coordinator and Vera Safronova an Academic Assistant within the Urban Economics and Governance department at the IHS. The discussion revolves around their participation in a transformative five-day co-creation workshop titled "Working towards Digital Inclusion of the Urban Poor in India, Indonesia, and Kenya" held in Chennai, India. Hosted by Anna University and co-organized by the IHS in collaboration with the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus (LDE) research network, Nuvoni Centre for Innovation Research (Kenya), and Universitas Gadjah Mada, (Indonesia). The workshop aimed to co-produce knowledge with communities resettled in the Perumbakkam Resettlement Site, Chennai, exploring the potential of digital inclusion in alleviating some of the adverse consequences of resettlement- specifically lack of access to information
First of all, I think we are getting beyond this North-South binary, this is a bit of a misconception because we are all part of the same planet. - Dr. Maartje van Eerd
What were some of the main takeaways from Chennai?
M: You really need to listen and learn from each other and always be prepared to be flexible when it comes to identifying problems and potential solutions. We approached digital inclusion as one of many potential solutions to lessen information poverty and not the solution. It became very clear that we still need to carry out a deeper analysis when it comes to digital inclusion and access to information, to really understand the underlying inequalities that lead to people being excluded and understand what kinds of information these communities can benefit the most from. As researchers we must try to understand people that live in these settlements, not only based on research but also based on connection, this is something we did not only through directly speaking to affected people, but also through our methodology and the use of empathy mapping. It is not about imposing solutions, it is about exploring and involving affected communities in strategies and planning. One approach may work very well in one context and not at all in another, and the people with lived experience should be valued as participants in projects.
V: In Chennai we were engaging with governments, NGOs, and affected women from and at the Perumbakkam site. By engaging with the government and communities, as well as various international experts across disciplines - bringing people from Yogyakarta and Nairobi to Chennai- you can explore problems with due depth. Collaboration needs to be multifaceted to be meaningful, but you also need to be mindful of existing power relations among actors and the pre-existing conflicts amongst the parties that became partners for this project.
How can the collaborative approach of the workshop and these broader projects enhance research?
M: Chennai brought together the three projects on digital inclusion and access to information, each project is different, they combine different disciplines and approaches, they are being developed in different cities and each is in a different phase of completion. The idea was really to inspire each other and learn mutually, LDE Global really opens up doors in this regard not only by taking care of logistical and practical challenges -by engaging with both the government, by bringing all these international experts to Chennai and by engaging with communities to discuss the challenges and opportunities they face, this is how you can begin to explore innovative solutions. In Chennai it created the momentum to bring the government on board as well as to attract attention from the Vice Chancellor of the Anna University who was so impressed that he approved the establishment of a C4D Urban Living Lab that will focus on creating impact in the field of communication and digital inclusion through co-creation.
V: Working across disciplines meant that we were better equipped to observe people beyond subjects of a study and understand their needs and their expectations when it comes to the issues that we were exploring. The multifaceted nature of the participants in the workshop meant that as academics, we were being directly and consistently exposed to the perspectives of the government, and people with lived experience. In addition to collaborating with international partners, for us, it was also a great opportunity to work closely within the LDE Global umbrella and get to know the work of our colleagues and exchange expertise.
What are some of the misconceptions about digital inclusion and access to information that you are trying to tackle through this research?
M: First of all, I think we are getting beyond this North-South binary, this is a bit of a misconception because we are all part of the same planet. We talk about inclusion and exclusion, equality and inequality, and who has access versus who doesn’t. Within The Netherlands there are people that are included and excluded from access to information and the whole digital transformation process, you see the same mechanisms of exclusion in Rotterdam Zuid as you do elsewhere. Almost everyone has a device, even in informal settlements most people have a phone though they may lack some digital skills or be limited in terms of their application of these skills due to certain norms, but it is the same in The Netherlands, not everyone is digitally skilled. There is also this assumption that we are so far ahead, but that’s not true, where there are fewer regulations, people can design solutions more quickly and solve their problems more easily and that is what we see.
V: In researching the digital divide there is a concept of different levels of access, it can be purely physical, that is, having a device that allows you to access the internet and the idea is that in a community like Perumbakkam people mostly lack physical access and that in high income communities no one faces this barrier. This is not true, there are economically marginalised and vulnerable communities around the world, in the same way that people’s digital skills even within affluent communities, or a single household may be vastly different. So all of the issues that we are studying are very much global in nature.
How can access to information and digital inclusion positively impact resettled communities?
Digital inclusion allows vulnerable communities to transcend some of the norms and networks of their communities.- Vera Safronova
M: We see that the broader access to information –which digital inclusion is a component of- can create employment opportunities particularly for people that are resettled far away from centres for economic activities. Digital platforms can offer them access to their clients and and sell their products. More than that, we are looking into how access to information can help them to get support from the government -because in India there is a lot of government assistance for certain groups- whether that is access to pension funds, disability allowances, and other financial support that they may be entitled to but unaware of. It can also help them to find support agencies like NGO's that support them and can inform them about their rights when they have to deal with the consequences of being resettled.
V: Beyond the material improvements to the quality of life we also see that digital inclusion allows vulnerable communities to transcend some of the norms and networks of their communities. Physical interaction that is especially in this case limited by low mobility brings people in contact with like-minded individuals. However, when residents of Perumbakkam go online, they can interact with a wider range of people of different backgrounds, socio-economic status, with a different set of norms. Such interaction might serve as an input for a mindset shift that could change how residents of Perumbakkam appropriate the norms of their community
Overall, the ongoing research on the right to the city, access to information, and digital inclusion exemplified by the Chennai Experience highlights the importance of inclusive and collaborative approaches in addressing urban challenges. By involving affected communities, engaging with diverse stakeholders, and adopting a multidisciplinary perspective, the research aims to contribute to more equitable and sustainable urban development both locally and globally.