London Mid-Term Project Workshop: Digital Infrastructure & (Un)Safe Cities Report

On Wednesday 21st February we held our second workshop under the Disconnected Infrastructures & Violence against Women project: a multi-partner research initiative funded by the British Academy under their Global Challenges Research Fund in partnership with Safetipin, a social enterprise designing technology solutions to make cities safer for women, and Sakhi, a women’s resource centre in Kerala, India.

The workshop, entitled, ‘Digital Infrastructure and (Un)Safe Cities’ was an opportunity for: the project team and partners to share emerging findings and insights from the project; various scholars working in similar fields to present their work, and for us all to engage in discussions that unpack and unpick some of the main themes and concepts related to the Disconnected Infrastructures project and its broader objectives.


The morning session started with a presentation by Dr. Ayona Datta providing background on the project aims and methodologies and its broader objectives. She drew from recent literature on infrastructures – including Easterling’s ‘Extra-statecraft’ (2014) –  to present key concepts on the role of infrastructures in implicitly and explicitly regulating and mediating relations within the city. Further background on the project field-site of Kerala was shared – on the paradoxes of the state as one of high-performing indicators in areas such as literacy and gender equality yet also a site of high levels of domestic and public violence against women. Dr. Datta highlighted the importance of using innovative methodological and scalar mixes – combining the ‘intimate scale’ which involves looking closely at the daily lives of women experiencing disconnected infrastructures of the city and generating active knowledge and critical consciousness among communities regarding violence and safety; and also utilising ‘big data’ on mapping and infrastructure in cities.

This was followed by further insights from the project’s specific field-sites in low-income neighbourhoods in urban Kerala, provided by Project Coordinator, Ms. Rejitha Gopalakrishna Pillai, from partner organisation Sakhi. The presentation provided further context to the project’s fieldwork and identified some of the main contemporary socio-economic, political and demographic issues in urban Kerala as well as flagging up some potential methodological challenges. Here the distinctions in perceptions and attitudes toward public and domestic violence among low-income communities in Kerala were highlighted.

Co-Investigator, Dr. Don Slater also shared emerging findings, and concomitant questions, from a software ethnography conducted in Delhi. The findings raised the importance of unpacking what we mean by ‘safety’ the distinctions between perceptions and lived experiences of safety, and who is involved in defining the parameters of safety in cities.

The team presentations were enriched with a series of insightful presentations covering various regions and from multiple disciplinary and methodological approaches on themes connected with the project: violence against women, urban and digital infrastructures and their intersections.

  • Cathy McIlwane – Thinking about VAWG across borders: reflections from Brazilian migrants in London

Professor Cathy McIlwane, from Kings College London shared findings from a project tracing transnational continuities and differences between experiences of violence among Brazilian migrants in London and residents of a favela community in Rio de Janiero. The study looked at whether participants used support services targeting communities affected by gender-based violence and the outcomes. The findings showed that violence can be presented as a continuity of experience rather than hierarchy and supports existing evidence on the intersection of gender-based violence with other forms of urban violence, in the Brazilian context. Both the migrants in London and residents in Rio de Janiero experienced various forms of violence. The presentation also highlighted some of the methodological challenges involved in accessing research participants and conducting research among communities and individuals surviving and experiencing violence.

  • Colette Harris – The use of participatory gender analysis for violence reduction in Kaduna city, Nigeria

Dr. Colette Harris from SOAS, presented findings from a study in Kaduna, in north-western Nigeria on the role of gender in shaping linkages between conflict, religion and sectarian violence. Dr. Harris presented findings from a local conflict resolution project held in a city mainly divided between Muslim and Christian communities. The project involved innovative approaches to unpacking perceptions of gender roles among local religious communities and highlighted the influence of religion in shaping gendered norms and attitudes toward violence. Overall the presentation highlighted the importance of intersectional considerations in researching gender-based violence in local contexts.

  • Juan Miguel Kanai – Digital infrastructures of LGBTT+ visibility in urban Brazil

Dr. Juan Miguel Kanai from the University of Sheffield presented on both the negative and positive aspects of LGBTTT+ visibility in online spaces in Brazil. Dr. Kanai highlighted dissonances in the Brazilian context regarding LGBTTT+ identities – between inclusive policies and the “epidemic” of homophobic and transphobic violence and rampant state and social discrimination against trans-women and travestiwomen. This is set against a broader dissonance between global development goals such as the SDGs to protectall women from violence while neglecting to mention the vulnerability of non-binary and trans-women communities. While digital infrastructures can host sites of online violence, evidence from Brazil shows that they can also provide crucial platforms for distributing information, providing security alerts and other creative forms of protecting LGBTT+ communities from violence – both offline and online.

  • Vanesa Castan Broto – Transformational aspects of urban energy landscapes

Dr. Vanesa Castan Broto from the University of Sheffield looked at ‘smart urbanism’ and presented findings from a study investigating whether the ‘smart city’ approach can transform environmental sustainability and social justice. The study compares ‘smart’ approaches to urban energy infrastructure across three case studies in Mozambique, India and China. The findings show a mix of both top-down and bottom-up approaches.  In Hong Kong, progressive smart city objectives jarred with restrictive state ideology and urban developments are predominantly top-down; Bangalore represents high levels of bottom-up experimentation, but these remain in ‘enclosed spaces’ and in Maputo, top-down smart city objectives largely failed to yet materialise though there is potential for bottom-up ‘off-grid’ innovations in infrastructure.


The second session was organised into three broad thematic areas of discussion – eliciting important debates and insights into the themes of our project. The main themes were: digital infrastructure and smart cities; violence against women and un/safe cities and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) and urban infrastructures – though by no means were they discrete and they intersected with each other in multiple ways. Thanks to the valuable contributions of all the workshop participants, a rich discussion took place ranging from broader contextual and conceptual issues on digital and urban infrastructures, as well as methodological approaches and ethical concerns when undertaking research on gender-based violence and incorporating digital forms of data collection. The main points of the discussion are summarised below:

The discussion was started by trying to unpack what we mean by smart cities in the context of the project and more broadly. The genealogy of ‘smart’ in relation to cities itself is both ambiguous and contentious. As Dr. Ayona Datta said: “the power of the ‘smart city’ is in its ambiguity.” By avoiding specific definitions and criteria, the smart city agenda also evades responsibility and stringent terms of accountability. Dr. Vanesa Castan Broto spoke of the ‘urban fantasies’ that can persist in imaginings of the smart city.

Co-Investigator Dr. Don Slater highlighted the instrumental aspect of ‘smart city’ approaches which focuses on the ‘technological fix’.  The use of technology in post-colonial contexts such as India’s is championed as a ‘neutral’ and accountable source and form of governance against a context of and corrupt governance.  The turn toward technology as a medium of governance – to help construct nationhood and edge out of ‘periphery’ through technology toward a vision of corruption-free governance has foregrounded smart city approaches. Other interpretations of the smart city that emerged in the discussion were related to the role of interoperable systems that create both open transparency and increased opacity within city infrastructures.

The discussion then turned to the role of safety in contemporary ‘smart cities’ in India – how it is subjectively experienced by men and women. Under the ‘smart city’ framework safety has become synonymous with surveillance rather than the safety experienced in the daily lives of urban residents. The instrumental use of technology in smart cities is directed primarily toward this surveillance effort and this also emerges in the findings from the software ethnography on differing interpretations and lenses on safety.  The slippage – or disconnect – between perceptions and praxis of safety is an important conceptual dynamic to be aware of.  Dr. Slater also discussed the role of infrastructure in signalling safety for example whether a path is lighted or not will signal its level of safety but can able create ‘safety’ where it was not present before.

The role of Safetipin in using crowdsourcing methods to identify parameters of safety in the city was also discussed. Dr. Slater highlighted how the app comes out of a longer tradition of safety audits and incorporates feminist activist strategies to raise awareness, generate collective action and highlight infrastructural deficits to policy-makers. Safetipin founder and project partner, Dr. Kalpana Viswanath highlighted the app’s role as a tool for citizen-led accountability. The app can be used not only to crowdsource and map data on city infrastructures and places of safety and violence experienced in the everyday lives of women, but also as a campaigning tool – where citizens can approach the state with evidence of infrastructural deficits in terms of providing a safe environment in the city.

For the project, the Safetipin app provides a site of research and a means for further understanding of disconnected infrastructures, how data can be mapped and defined and the differences between professionally coded and publicly crowdsourced data. The need to be aware of the usage and circulation of the data was also highlighted in the discussion: where we need to be aware of the social usage of data and be attentive to the different contexts within which it circulates – both digital and non-digital mediums. Dr. Broto spoke of the series of disconnects between smart cities approaches, policymakers and communities themselves. Her presentation illustrated a mix of top-down and bottom-up approaches to smart cities using heterogenous social technologies and reflected on how they interact with people in everyday life.

The discussion then turned to place-making at micro-scale and how this can have incremental but important collective impacts in the community. For example, a place-making project can involve local students either from schools as part of community-based learning and active pedagogical projects. Such projects can also draw upon local architecture and design university students to enable participatory efforts in urban place-making within existing infrastructures.

The methodological concerns of researching VAWG and un/safe cities were discussed by Dr. Datta and Dr. Colette Harris, who spoke of research challenges in the field where experiences of intense and extreme violence are shared by participants but existing infrastructures of support and safety – such as psycho-social services – are limited. In such cases, the importance of signposting to local NGO services and organisations was highlighted, though this option is not available in all contexts. The reflexive impact on researchers themselves is also mentioned.

The importance in avoiding the re-traumatising of victims and the disproportionate focus on FGM and rape as a weapon of war among global organisations was also flagged by discussants, including Dr. Harris. The workshop participants shared experiences of yielding data on experiences of gender-based violence in the process of gathering data on other topics, such as access to services and infrastructure, indicating that focusing on the topic of violence directly and explicitly can potentially create a barrier for researchers and their respondents.

Dr. Kalpana Viswanath and Ms. Rejitha G.P. raised the importance of maintaining sensitivities to the participants’ situation in facing risks of violence in their daily lives. Researchers should reflexively engage in the impact they are having on the participants as well as on themselves. Violence itself – in structural, bodily and symbolic forms – is not necessarily ‘seen’ among the research participants themselves across different contexts.  Professor Cathy McIlwane shared experiences from her project where violence in its direct and indirect forms was so deeply embedded in the daily lives of her participants that they did not necessarily see it as such. The use of online and digital methods in research can also show the distinctions along different class groups, generating certain modes of sample bias.

This idea of the interactions between citizens, technology and digital spaces and gendered identities is also invoked in Dr. Juan Miguel Kanai’s presentation on queer identities and spaces of online violence in Brazil – an area not touched upon in the Disconnected Infrastructures project but important to be aware of. The tensions between opening up binary conceptions of gender – as highlighted in Dr. Kanai’s presentation – and protecting highly vulnerable individuals and communities within unsafe contexts was also invoked in the discussions. There is a need to pay attention to the local context and how local perceptions of gender – illustrated in Dr. Harris’ presentation on communities in Nigeria –  play out in order to avoid exacerbating existing vulnerabilities and locally-embedded strategies. Overall, taking a context-sensitive, reflexive and where possibly participatory approach to researching communities at risk of gender-based violence was highlighted in the discussion.

Please explore the mid-term London, UK workshop Wakelet story here.

Watch our video interviews with workshop participants below:

By Dr Nabeela Ahmed, Project Postdoctoral Research Associate, Urban Futures Research Group, Department of Geography, King’s College London

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