DSF – Digital Access as a Human Right in Cities

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    Project Manager :
    Bushra Ebadi


    The impacts of accelerated digitization and rapid transformation of economies and societies, particularly in growing metropolitan areas, are difficult to understand and track. Even more difficult is knowing how to direct the progression away from harmful and towards more positive outcomes. A key concern is the multiple digital divides that are rapidly emerging and changing. Lack of access to information and communication technologies and the skills and social conditions that facilitate their effective use, limits access to both online and offline services, tools and opportunities. Understanding these divides and how they are changing, is necessary to mitigate inequities.

    Conceptions of urban digital access have evolved as our understanding of digital divides have expanded to include factors beyond internet connectivity, such as social determinants, digital skills and literacy, human rights, and structural inequities. Some jurisdictions are starting to incorporate a human rights-based approach to digital transformation, but face limitations in implementing this into practices.


    The primary stakeholder for this project includes city administration, policymakers, and officials. Insights derived from this research will be used to develop recommendations on actions and approaches cities can take to address deepening divides and inequities resulting from rapid urban digital transformation, including Smart City strategies. The project will attempt to engage with policymakers and/or civil society in 5-6 cities, including Barcelona, Johannesburg, Mexico City, Riga, Singapore, and Toronto, where possible, to gather insights and inform the development of the white paper. Other key stakeholders include local civil society, grassroots organizations, and community groups, as well as networks and coalitions that work on digital rights, access, inclusion, justice, and transformation, especially at the municipal level. Multilateral organizations, such as UN-Habitat, ITU, OECD, and UNESCO may also benefit from the insights gathered and presented as part of this project, and may help inform further areas of work and research for organizations whose mandates encompass the key issue areas of the paper. The paper will be disseminated through the networks of the Digital Future Society Think Tank, UNU-EGOV, as well as the SDG 11 Council.


    A partnership between UNU-EGOV and the Digital Future Society, this project aims to produce a white paper on urban digital divide(s) and digital access as a human right. The white paper will promote a deeper understanding of urban digital access, identify related urban challenges, and share best practices and examples that have been implemented in various cities around the world. The goal is to provide a sophisticated understanding of urban digital transformation and digital access, use case studies to examine potential interventions, and provide actionable recommendations for key stakeholders. 


    UNU expert on digital rights and justice from Research Line 3, leads the development and implementation of the research project using mixed methods research, including desk-based reviews, a survey, stakeholder interviews, and foresight. The research and drafting of the paper will take place from September 2022 to February 2023.


    The research resulted in a 20,000 word white paper containing recommendations on the approaches and actions local administrators, policymakers, and civil society could take to realize digital access, rights, and agency, and improve outcomes for urban dwellers, in alignment sustainable development goal 11 (SDG 11).

    The resulting white paper unpacks the many dimensions of urban digital access and includes case studies and insights from Barcelona, Johannesburg, Mexico City, Riga, Singapore, and Toronto to illustrate persisting digital divides and to explore measures taken to improve digital access. Overall, the paper recommends that local policymakers and administrators, as well as civil society actors adopt a multidimensional approach to digital access by incorporating human rights, intersectional, and systems approaches in order to meaningfully realize digital access and promote SDG11.

    • Bushra Ebadi
      Project Manager
    • Backhouse, Judy
    • Elisabete Simões
    • Lucille Tetley-Brown
      Junior Researcher