Digital divide still worrisome in Smart Cities

Covid-19 has abruptly disrupted business as usual in most countries and cities around the world, with governments and businesses now struggling to recover and build a stronger, more sustainable economy for the future. But before even thinking of introducing innovative systems and technologies, there is something more basic – and not simple at all – to do: close the digital divide.

It’s hard to imagine any Smart City without Smart Citizens, meaning there can’t be significant economic and societal development if people can’t connect to the Internet, can’t access remote learning or remote work programs, can’t take advantage of smart services, or participate in public life.

In Asia Pacific there are about 2.3 billion people using the Internet, more than the rest of the world put together, and the region has been pioneering key technologies such as mobile payments or artificial intelligence. However, if you give it a closer look, more than 2 billion people in Asia still are not online at all – including more than 200 million women who don’t even own a smartphone. Digital opportunities are not equally available: in Southeast Asia, seven big cities make up more than half the digital economy despite having just 15% of the population, and in Japan almost 60% of small or medium-sized businesses do not yet have an online presence, reports Nikkei Asian Review.

The picture is alarming in America as well. The US ranks 18th in global broadband adoption, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The digital divide freezes rural areas out, while in urban settlements it largely penalizes low-income and minority communities. About 60% of low-income residents in New Orleans lack access to the Internet at home, just to make an example.

Digital technologies adoption is highly fragmented in Europe. Despite being an acknowledged Smart City example, Barcelona in Spain has not closed the digital divide yet. Within the ’Barcelona Deal’, the city-wide agreement for post Covid-19 recovery, the local government is accelerating investments to grant extensive access to web-based and digital services as part of dignified living conditions and equal opportunities for anyone. Specific programs are meant to address students and young residents, women’s access to STEM, and the digital transformation of small businesses.

How to win the digital divide issue? “Public WiFi is top of mind,” said Kimberly Walker LaGrue, chief information officer for New Orleans, in a recent panel discussion titled Smart Disruptors: Reimagining American Cities.

Pervasive WiFi is indeed a pivotal application in Smart Cities, as it allows residents and visitors to access communication services, online applications and contents, also covering news, public health alerts and emergency-response services whenever needed. Pervasive WiFi is among the first steps to build a truly inclusive city, and also a more attractive and lively community.

As implementing a widespread broadband network might require significant investments, most cities decide to start with a pilot project, learn from it and then scale up. Gradual, true future-proof investment should favor standard-based technologies, that impose no limits to the integration of new or additional devices over time, and offer full interoperability and openness to build flexible and scalable urban mesh networks.


Want to learn more about our approach to interoperability, and why we endorse 6LoWPAN and open data models as real game-changers for Cities? Don’t miss our live webinar on July 9th 2020 starting at 10am (EDT), 3pm (BST), 4pm (CET), 6.30pm (IST).

Gaetano Calabrò, Chief Technology Officer at Paradox Engineering, and prof. Pablo Arboleya Arboleya from the Gijón Smart Cities Chair at University of Oviedo will discuss the benefits of 6LoWPAN and why interoperability matters in the Open City journey.

Register today and join us on July 9th!

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