69 Urban digital divides: A threat to sustainable urbanisation

Therese Kenna, University College Cork, Ireland

Urbanisation and the rapid (yet uneven) diffusion and uptake of information and communications technologies (ICTs) are key processes defining the contemporary era. Not only are more people now living in cities than rural areas globally, but more people are connecting to cyberspace through new technologies such as smart phones, laptop computers, and other devices. For processes of urbanisation to be sustainable, urban policy needs to pay attention to the social, environmental and economic issues that are critical to achieving a sustainable future for cities. ICTs are one component in creating sustainable futures for cities, though current evidence suggests ICTs are creating unequal and thus unsustainable realities.

The pervasive diffusion of ICTs is highly uneven. ICTs are contributing to a growing divide both between urban areas and within them. However, the digital era was heralded as one which would have the ability to transcend inequalities. As Graham (2002, p.35) noted, Cyberspace has been “cast as a single, unitary and intrinsically unifying electronic space” with the power to overcome a variety of segmentations and inequalities in the ‘off-line’, urbanising world. However, the reality is very different with emerging evidence that ICTs are “serving to underpin and support processes and practices of intensifying urban polarisation” (Graham, 2002, p.35). Stephen Graham’s work highlights Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, as a prime example of the ways in which a rapidly urbanising city, investing significantly in high-tech industries, has seen a widening socio-spatial and now digital divide. Graham (2002) notes that an information technology park has also been constructed on the outskirts of Bangalore that has the full suite of technological activities and infrastructure, as well as international standard water, sanitation and waste disposal. There is also an upmarket residential development with high-end leisure facilities, which separates the high-tech workers and companies from the “prevailing poverty in the shanty towns which still house the bulk of the city’s in-migrant population (over 50 per cent of whom are illiterate)” (Graham, 2002, p.45). Similarly, in relation to San Francisco, Richard Florida (2014) notes how the city has become a site for the location of high-tech start-up firms (e.g. Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), yet it is also home to a ’68-acre homeless camp’. As a result of the growth and development of high-tech companies, there is a widening economic wedge between those in the high-tech industries and everybody else, such that there two key urban problems emerging: increasing economic inequality and worsening housing affordability. Urbanisation presents a series of challenges and uncertainties for the city, which is now compounded by the rapid diffusion of ICT, digital technologies and high-tech companies. As a result, the social, economic and environmental sustainability of the city is under threat.

In 2014, free Wi-Fi was introduced to the main inner city streets in Cork, Ireland (Source: Therese Kenna, 2014)

In 2014, free Wi-Fi was introduced to the main inner city streets in Cork, Ireland (Source: Therese Kenna, 2014)

Digital divides are not only occurring between global regions and between cities, but crucially, these divisions are now increasingly evident within cities. This inequality is felt most strongly in cities given the density of population and the concentration of activities, with hyper-connected people co-located with people whom have limited or no access to the internet or new technologies (Graham, 2002). By way of example, evidence from Cork, Ireland highlights the local disparities emerging from digital divides. Data from Ireland’s most recent census shows that urban areas have the highest disparities in terms of access to technology. In Cork, only 60% of households have access to broadband internet; with 30% of the households having no computer and no broadband internet access (Central Statistics Office, 2014). There is a spatial pattern to this lack of access, which correlates significantly with socio-economic deprivation in the city. That is, those areas of the city with a lower socio-economic profile are those less connected to the digital realm. While municipal governments are increasingly deploying free Wi-Fi to inner city areas (as is the case in Cork) as part of strategies for a ‘smart’ city, it also requires that people have devices to connect, such as smart phones, thus disadvantaging those without access or financial capital to engage. Age inequalities are exacerbated here too whereby some segments of the population do not have the technological literacies to participate in the digital era. As public services (e.g. job searching, banking, etc.) move into an increasingly on-line realm, those without access to technologies that enable access to such services are further disadvantaged. What becomes evident from a city like Cork is that ICTs are further widening gaps between sections of the population and reducing the life chances of many. This contributes to a strengthening of the processes of social polarisation at the local level within cities. ICTs work to exacerbate already established divisions, rather than transcend these inequalities, which poses a threat to sustainable urbanisation.

Other studies in this area internationally suggest that the composition of ICT users in the city is far from diverse. Work by Hampton et al. (2010) examined wireless internet use in a range of parks and plazas in North America, noted how their sample was young, single, well educated, and predominantly male. Importantly, results such as these suggest that social inequality in urban public spaces may increase with the addition of Wi-Fi and other forms of technology, and their users, who are exceptionally privileged in human, social and financial capital (Hampton et al., 2010, p.718). Essentially, those with high levels of social and financial capital are those accessing digital technologies and infrastructures in the city and thus other social groups are increasingly excluded.

The nature of ICT use within the city is also being seen to have implications for social sustainability. In particular, research suggests that while ICTs are increasing the number of people found in the city and in public spaces, the nature of encounters and social interactions between people has changed, whereby the withdrawal of people into the private realm of the internet and various forms of personal technology are reducing opportunities for meaningful engagement with others in the city (see Hampton & Gupta, 2008). Recent news coverage reported one such example using the photography of blogger Babycakes Romero, who has been chronicling the death of conversation due to technology. Essentially, ICTs are redefining the nature of engagement with others in the city. Engagement with others is potentially reduced by ICT use, thus meaningful encounters are being reduced. This presents a potential threat to social sustainability within the city.

Urban policy needs to take seriously the ways in which ICTs can exacerbate further the already ingrained inequalities and differences within cities and thus threaten efforts for sustainable urbanisation. As the process of urbanisation continues, and new technological innovations enter the market, it is necessary to take stock of the implications. Given the scale of population movement into cities globally, policy needs to attend to the social and spatial inequalities that are further enhanced through digital divides that can threaten attempts for sustainable urbanisation.


Central Statistics Office (2014) Cork city area profile 2011, accessed at: http://census.cso.ie/areaprofiles/areaprofile.aspx?Geog_Type=CTY&Geog_Code=17, on 20 September 2014.

Florida, R. (2014) Tech Culture and Rising Inequality: A Complex Relationship’, CityLab, 9 December 2014, accessed at: http://www.citylab.com/tech/2014/12/is-startup-urbanism-to-blame-for-rising-american-inequality/383558/, on 9 December 2014.

Graham, S. (2002) ‘Bridging Urban Digital Divides? Urban Polarisation and Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs)’ Urban Studies, 39(1), 33– 56.

Hampton, K. N., & Gupta, N. (2008). Community and social interaction in the Wireless city: Wi-Fi use in public and semi-public spaces, New Media & Society, 10(6), 831–850.

Hampton, K., Livio, O. and Sessions Goulet, L. (2010) ‘The social life of wireless urban spaces: internet use, social networks, and the public realm’, Journal of Communication, 60, 701-722.

Author Biography

Therese Kenna is a lecturer in urban geography at University College Cork, Ireland with research expertise in urban studies. Having worked on a range of research projects in Australian and European cities, Dr Kenna has developed a research programme on the inequalities, social divisions and exclusions in contemporary cities. Her work has been published in a range of international peer reviewed journals including Urban Policy and Research, Geographical Research, Irish Geography and Australian Geographer. Her work is also published in book chapters within recent collections such as Beyond Gated Communities (Routledge, 2015). She is currently on the executive board and management committee for an EU-funded COST action (TU1306) on the role of ICT and new technologies in the design and development of urban public spaces, and chairs the work package on ‘urban ethnography’.

Contact email: t.kenna@ucc.ie

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