Unicef & Arm:

Working to Improve the Lives of Children in Cities

By Matt Loose

Arm, the semiconductor intellectual property supplier, and Unicef have been working with technology since 2015 to transform the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children.

Their Wearables for Good Challenge aimed to demonstrate how wearable and sensor technology can be used to solve some of the most pressing challenges facing children. The two organisations are now collaborating to improve the lives of children in cities around the world.

We invited Blair Palmer, Innovation Partnerships Officer from Unicef, and Dominic Vergine, Head of Sustainability & Corporate Responsibility, Arm, to discuss the partnership and what needs to be done to ensure technology is designed and delivered to meet the needs of the very poorest communities in the world’s most rapidly growing cities.

Blair Palmer, Innovation Partnerships Officer, Unicef: Cities are centres of the greatest human challenges and opportunities. By 2050, over 66% of the global population will live in cities, and 92% of this urban growth is expected to occur in low to middle income countries. Amid this unprecedented and transformational urbanisation, there is a growing need to address emerging challenges and tap into new opportunities to support the most vulnerable children in some of the poorest countries around the world.

Dominic Vergine, Head of Sustainability & Corporate Responsibility, Arm: We wanted to challenge the perception of a smart city as being Seoul or Barcelona, looking instead at the mega cities in emerging economies and at their poorer communities.

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Companies and governments who are developing technologies need guidance on how to design products, services, and platforms to support the equity and welfare of young people.
Blair Palmer, Unicef

BP: Technology is increasingly embedded into the physical infrastructure, operational systems and networks, individual interactions and socio-economic institutions that make up today’s cities. Companies and governments who are developing technologies need guidance on how to design products, services, and platforms to support the equity and welfare of young people - Unicef is uniquely positioned to provide this insight.

DV: Poorer communities must not be forgotten in the development of the smart city. Ensuring the children in low income families are kept safe, healthy, and in education is vital for the sustainability of the city as well as for the individual children.

BP: Current estimates suggest 300 million children live in urban slums, where living conditions are at their worst and opportunities for individual and community growth are severely limited. While local governments must ultimately provide the essential planning policies, services and infrastructure required for any city, we’ve identified a need and an opportunity to harness the potential of collaborative, cross-sector innovations to develop new products and processes to support rapid urbanisation.

DV: While technology has enormous potential, it is not really meeting the needs of those most vulnerable. A major reason for working with Unicef on technology in cities was to highlight to other tech companies the commercial and social opportunities that are not being developed today. The potential for accurate data to transform health services and for information access to improve education is enormous, but issues such as air quality and safety in informal settlements can also be helped by technology solutions.

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A major reason for working with Unicef on the technology in cities was to highlight to other tech companies the commercial and social opportunities that are not being developed today.
Dominic Vergine, Arm

BP: Most technology users and developers are not thinking of the underserved as they develop the next shiny new thing. We also want to make these markets known - so that technology users and developers of these opportunities make things that people want and need.

There is a need to avoid a 'one size fits all approach' - i.e. when designing technological innovations for cities, attention to contextual constraints is vital. A smart city technology that might have great success in a city like Singapore (where the infrastructure, political climate, cultural tone, and socio-economic reality provide a supportive foundation for high tech interventions) is unlikely to succeed in an informal settlement situated in a rapidly urbanizing mid-size city.

DV: We need to show technology companies that there is a viable business opportunity in these markets that it is not just about philanthropy, and the smart city will only be successful if it works for the many and not just the few.

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Most technology users and developers are not thinking of the underserved as they develop the next shiny new thing.
Blair Palmer, Unicef

BP: The public and private sectors need to understand that markets do exist that are able to deploy technologies for the next billion. The Unicef Office of Innovation specifically looks to form partnerships around frontier technologies (like drones and UAVs, blockchain, 21st century skills, urban technologies, new banking tools, wearables and sensors, or 3D-Printing) that exist at the intersection of $100 billion business markets and 1 billion person needs. Our aim is to identify how they can grow and scale profitably and inclusively, to benefit both business and poorer communities.

DV: Technology is currently designed for the privileged rather than thinking about new markets and the challenges they present. We’ll know we are making progress when we see technology specifically designed for the people who really need it rather than the wealthiest billion.

BP: It’s unlikely that there will be a single moment in time that marks successful innovation for children in rapidly urbanising environments - many of the changes we hope to see require long-term investments in infrastructure (both connectivity and built environment), education, skilling, and overall capacity building. What we do know is that as access to affordable services, infrastructure and opportunities extends to poor urban communities - whether through internet access and hardware that support multi-modal learning tools, or commuter ride sharing services, or smart water metering platforms - will be a key indicator that we are starting to get this right.

About the author

Matt Loose

@matt_loose

Matt is a Director in the London office. A seasoned sustainability professional he helps major global companies advance their sustainability performance.