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Shakti? Heidi? Wonder Woman? – An intercultural superhero leads the way to smarter cities

Cities are only as smart as the average man on the street – and average woman. Yet planners and developers of "smart cities" often overlook women. That’s why the IAM Medialab is developing a virtual reality game that includes women from all cultures and all parts of the world in the process of designing smart cities. At the "Zürich meets Seoul" festival, an event will be held that aims to tap into the diversity of the audience and so generate an intercultural narrative.

By Claudia Sedioli, Lecturer for Professional Practice at the ZHAW Institute of Applied Media Studies IAM

The future is urban. All over the world, more and more people are moving to cities to live and work. Ideally, these cities will develop into "smart cities" in the process – because digitalisation has the potential to make urban life more comfortable and ecological while also increasing innovation and efficiency in business and public administration. To address these issues, many Swiss cities, including Zurich and Winterthur, have initiated a "smart city strategy".

Participation of female residents falls short
We have entered a decisive phase," says Professor Aleksandra Gnach, co-head of Media Linguistics with a focus on social media at IAM, the ZHAW Institute of Applied Media Studies. And one finding is already very clear: "The better we’re able to include the entire urban population – men and women – in city planning, the better the result." But Gnach says it has also become apparent that, "in planning ‘smart cities’, women are often overlooked – and so a great opportunity is lost".

The gender data gap
British journalist and feminist Caroline Criado Perez demonstrates in her book "Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men" (Penguin, 2019) that ignoring an entire group of the population is part of a larger problem: the gender data gap. Data collected across the entire spectrum of society typically reflect the experiences of men, not of women. And yet these data form the basis for continued research and future developments. The fact that they are then reproduced by algorithms further amplifies their one-sided nature. Many products we use on a daily basis – from painkillers to virtual assistants to air-conditioned offices and public transport – have been designed by men for men. This can have literally fatal effects on women. And society as a whole suffers.

Ideal cities for a male prototype
Cities, for instance, are often planned to meet the needs of the average man. Examples include making automobiles a priority – a decision that puts women as a group at a

disadvantage, as women all over the world are more likely to walk or use public transport. If it is decided that clearing the streets of snow is more important than clearing pavements, the risk of injury through a fall increases – for women. In her book, Criado Perez cites findings from a Swedish study: 79 per cent of pedestrian accidents occurred in winter, and 69 per cent of the injured were women.

The way cities are designed also tends to reflect a man’s world and accommodate his habits. While the average man considers his home to be a place of leisure, a place where he can relax and sleep, women have a very different way of living. Women are more likely to be active in unpaid work such as taking children to school, shopping for groceries or caring for relatives. Their work in the domestic sphere generates complex logistical demands that public transport isn’t designed to meet. The consequence? Public transport systems that were planned without considering these needs create a disadvantage for families in which both parents want to work at home as well as outside the home.

Universal narrative as a door opener
Although people in different parts of the world lead very different lives, it is possible to identify needs that all women share. The IAM MediaLab is therefore developing a virtual reality game to grant women access to this complex topic and to motivate them to participate in decision-making processes. "The great challenge is determining whether there are universal narratives and images that are valid regardless of a person’s cultural or religious background – that are valid both for the Chinese woman who moves from a rural region to a city and for the woman who has lived in New York City for years," Gnach says. One such universal narrative is the fictional character of a female superhero whose superhuman powers enable her to conquer all enemies. The role of this animated figure – a cross between Shakti, Heidi and Wonder Woman – is to encourage the international and interdisciplinary audience at the "Women and the City" event to create universal stories for a female hero. The event takes place at the beginning of October as part of the "A Festival of Two Cities" in Seoul.

Diversity as a disruptive element
At the "Women and the City" event, ZHAW researchers and an interdisciplinary team from Ewha Womans University will discuss how the game can be developed to address women and to tap into their potential when designing smart cities. Ewha Womans University is one of South Korea’s leading universities for urban planning and virtual reality, but the event in Seoul isn’t restricted to academics: politicians, students, urban planning specialists and game designers of both genders are invited. Gnach hopes that a broad spectrum of needs will become apparent at the event itself, which takes place within the framework of the "Zürich meets Seoul" festival. "We’re seeking the disruptive element that diversity can bring. In Seoul, we want to generate enthusiasm, and we want to work with new partners to discover ways of thinking that we wouldn’t come up with on our own."

Intercultural DNA and leadership in urban planning
The collaboration between IAM and Ewha Womans University is mutually beneficial: "South Korea is a leader in virtual reality. Seoul is already a very smart city, and Ewha is a leader in both areas," Gnach explains. "By contrast, IAM has a great deal of experience in storytelling, and Switzerland’s intercultural DNA, knowledge and experience help us to deal productively with cultural, linguistic and religious diversity." One of the project partners is Swissnex, Switzerland’s global network that promotes international networks in education, research and innovation and thus positions and strengthens Switzerland as a hub of innovation.

"Zürich meets Seoul – A Festival of Two Cities" is the fifth edition of a global series connecting Zurich with some of the most inspiring cities in the world. The weeklong festival takes place in Seoul from 28 September to 5 October 2019. The events showcase what Zurich has to offer in science, technology, art and lifestyle.

The Festival is organised by the City of Zurich, the Canton of Zurich and Zurich Tourism in cooperation with the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), the University of Zurich (UZH), the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK), the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) and the City of Winterthur as well as the Embassy of Switzerland in the Republic of Korea. In the project "Women and the City", the ZHAW is represented by Prof. Dr Aleksandra Gnach (project leader), Prof. Dr Daniel Perrin (Dean of the School of Applied Linguistics) and Prof. Dr Dirk Wilhelm (Dean of the School of Engineering).