Surbhi Agrawal is an architect, urban designer and Master in City Planning candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) at MIT. She is also a part of the Senseable City Lab. Agrawal’s work lies at the intersection of urban planning and digital technologies in cities. Her work poses key questions about urban digitization, digital equity, and citizen rights and democracy. She considers how cities can build their internal capacity to deal with emerging digital technologies and to develop these technologies as tools for cities to engage the urban realm.
QUESTION 1: What technology or technologies are the focus of your research, teaching, and action?
My work considers three major layers of digital equity within cities. Each layer is informed by my research around digitalization and cities in the Civic Data Design Lab and the Senseable City Lab at MIT, as well as in the Netherlands at the Responsible Sensing Lab. The first layer I consider in my work is the infrastructure level, one that establishes connectivity and networks. The second layer is the sensing infrastructure, one built on top of the infrastructure level to collect data. The third layer is data collection as a process, one with different management protocols and ownership statuses.
In 2021, I joined MIT and started working on questions of digital equities in the Civic Data Design Lab. I worked on a community-based Wi-Fi Internet project in Nairobi, which informed the first layer of digital infrastructure I’m considering in my research. However, my research with digitalization and cities truly began in 2018, at the Responsible Sensing Lab, where I explored how to operationalize issues of democracy, privacy, data minimization, and transparency for the city of Amsterdam as the government contemplated implementing more surveillance systems. This experience informs the second layer of my research. Now, at the Senseable City Lab, I engage the third layer—data collection. Through each layer, I aim to underscore that work with sensing technologies and data collection must include access to digital connectivity and a consideration for data collection tools that are more community centric. Or, at the very least, these measures must induce a level of public understanding that gives citizens access and ownership of data that is transparent in its availability and means of collection.
My work is still very investigative and addresses how these layers inform two central research questions: How has the [internet] market shifted and what new infrastructure has been put in place? And how, based on these shifts, can the application of technology as a tool and as infrastructure create a meaningful shift in capacity from both a physical network and local empowerment perspective?
QUESTION 2: What are the ways in which these technologies are and could be used to advance the public interest?
Technology is ultimately a tool for problem solving. Urban problems are inherently informed by problems of equity —from housing to environmental pollution— and we need to frame digital technologies as tools rather than definitive solutions to address these ongoing issues. Technologies are not ends in themselves. Ultimately, this is the framing I turn to when I consider my work with technology in the public interest. Once you think of them as tools,you start thinking about how to empower people with those [digital] tools and not make them end products themselves. I think Internet access should become a utility, like electricity or housing, because digital connection is increasingly central in our world.
I'm currently working on Internet access in informal settlements. For example, in 2016, there was a nationwide telecom revolution in India; a telecom conglomerate set up 4G connectivity and they completely shifted pricing models for internet connectivity. Suddenly, everyone in India, for $2.00 a month, had a GB of internet access a day and unlimited calling on their phones. In the seven years since then, people in informal settlements and underserved areas of India have access to cellular. Now the question is what barriers exist when connectivity and devices are more readily available. Ultimately, it's a human capability question. Digital literacy does not equate to gaps in other forms of education and access to labor, to mobility, and more. Now that this technology is present, the public interest in this work lies within the systemic problems underpinning the technology’s effectiveness in informal and underserved settings. You still need the capabilities, but technology serves as a bridge to this plethora of knowledge and information and opportunities. Digital connectivity helps you get around a lot of limitations that sometimes physical infrastructure brings. Technology is never just a technology challenge.
QUESTION 3: What more could be done to ensure that these technologies are designed, used, or regulated to better address the needs of those at the margins of society?
I think local government has an interesting role to play in this landscape. Many local governments are increasingly addressing how to build internal capacity to have robust policy frameworks. For instance, in the Netherlands, they operate at the European scale with a GDPR, or General Data Protection Regulation, and then at Amsterdam's local scale they have a set of values called the other values. The GDPR is a set of rules, and the third value is more a value framework, which really sort of embeds ideas of democracy: privacy and transparency in urban digitization questions. NGOs are also interesting because they conduct extensive work on the ground to promote literacy and transparency around digital issues. And finally, I think urban planners, people in urban governments, have a responsibility to keep up with these technological innovations and adapt to them. Cities can streamline digital development pipelines, make guidelines and rules for data collection, and encourage greater accessibility to data. In my own work, I turn to communication and public-centric tools that utilize data visualizations to help people understand what they're looking at, notably when it comes to crowd-sourced sensing and environmental air quality data, as well as Internet infrastructure. Technology in the public interest places people at the center of technological tools used to better their lived experience in cities and beyond.