Innovating for children in an urbanizing world

Creating technological innovations that improve the lives of vulnerable children in cities

Child sitting in Svay Pak Village
Fani Llaurado

By 2050, more than two-thirds of the global population will reside in cities, and 92 per cent of this urban growth will occur in low- to middle-income countries.

These trends represent a growing need to address emerging challenges and tap into new opportunities, especially as they relate to vulnerable children and youth.

UNICEF in partnership with ARM, has developed an urbanization handbook, that outlines opportunities for design, technology and social impact communities to work together to create technological innovations that improve the lives of vulnerable children in cities. It highlights the urgent need for innovation on behalf of children in the context of a rapidly urbanizing planet, and also offers guidance on specific approaches and principles, through the lens of UNICEF’s innovation priorities. The handbook identifies five focus areas where the most pressing challenges for children in urbanizing areas intersect with the greatest opportunities for technology-based solutions: infrastructure, transport, basic services, connectivity, violence and hazards.

Urban Tech Bets Research Front Cover

Tech Bets for an Urban World is a body of work carried out by UNICEF, ARM and Dalberg that identifies digital technologies that deliver positive social impact for children and their families in cities, while expanding markets and delivering financial returns for technology companies and investors. It details the following six big ‘tech bets’, which reflect a subset of digital technologies that can have enormous social impact for urban women and children.

  1. Blended learning: platforms that allow teachers to integrate online tools in classrooms for better engagement and learning outcomes. Using blended learning approaches can afford better quality education, improve gender equality and increase opportunities for decent work and economic growth for 500–600 million children worldwide in UNICEF programme countries so that they can learn basic skills and have a better chance of staying in school.
  2. Multi-modal skilling: services that mix online education with in-person mentoring to expand access to the skills that people need to get better jobs. At scale, multi-modal skilling could afford better quality education, improve gender equality and increase opportunities for decent work and economic growth for 60–120 million young people in UNICEF programme countries by providing them with the relevant skills they need to thrive and access jobs.
  3. Smart recruiting for the informal economy: platforms that connect individuals and employers with workers for one-off or short-term jobs, finding the most suitable candidates for customers and providing additional protection and security for workers. Smart recruiting for the informal economy can provide a level playing field for 0.8–1.2 billion men and women around the world, lowering unemployment and improving gender equality, decent work and economic growth.
  4. Commuter ride-sharing: car pooling services offered to workers by employers to ensure they get to work safely, reduce their impact on the environment and reduce time wasted travelling to work instead of spending time with their families. At scale, commuter ride-sharing could provide safer, more efficient and better quality transportation for 350 million people around the world, making progress towards gender equality, reduced inequalities, decent work and economic growth.
  5. Smart water metering: Internet of things networks of sensors and meters that monitor the flow and/or quality of water, ultimately improving accessing to clean, fairly-priced water. Smart water metering could expand access to and the affordability and quality of water for 2.5–3 billion people worldwide and decrease the financial burden felt by the world’s poorest. This increases access to clean water and sanitation, supports good health and well-being, and reduces inequalities.
  6. Emergency response: platforms that link people in urgent need to the full range of public and private emergency response services through one interface. At scale, emergency response tech innovations could reach 3–3.5 billion people, bridging gaps to critical emergency care, particularly around childbirth, substantially reducing pregnancy-related deaths, and thereby improving good health and well-being, while reducing inequalities.

In action

Case Study: Redesigning the Mongolian Ger to Help Solve a Health Crisis

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, is the coldest capital on Earth. It also has the most polluted air on the planet. A major contributing factor is a common practice among those living in traditional ger dwellings of burning raw coal to stay warm during the freezing cold winter months. The pollution problem has left Mongolia's children vulnerable to pneumonia, bronchitis and other chronic respiratory conditions, creating a public health crisis. Specialists within UNICEF's Office of Innovation and partners are working to redesign the traditional ger as one way to help address the issue. This video provides a close look at phase one of the project.



Case Study: Transforming plastic waste into building materials for classrooms 

UNICEF has set its sights on a bold objective: transform all plastic waste into building materials for classrooms. Conceptos Plasticos, a Colombian social enterprise, has developed a technique to make bricks out of non-PVC plastics that are cheaper, lighter and more durable than conventional bricks. Africa’s first recycled plastic classroom was built earlier this year in Gonzagueville. It was built in just five days – a stark contrast to the nine months and extensive training it takes to build a classroom using traditional construction methods. The lego-style plastic bricks were assembled into a classroom using only a hammer, with no prior training required. It also cost 40% less than traditional classrooms.



Gates Grand Challenges: Innovation for WASH in Urban Settings 

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEFArm, and The African Academy of Sciences (AAS) have recently launched the Grand Challenge on Innovation for WASH in Urban Settings which aims at seeking digital technology-based solutions that will make it easier to access safe, clean water and sanitation services for the urban poor. Ideal solutions may target individuals, families, communities, urban planners, service providers, WASH infrastructure, networks, and systems.