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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  People  /  Academic Staff  /  Ayona Datta

Professor Ayona Datta



The City Inside Out

Editor: Urban Geography

Editorial board member:

AntipodeDialogues in Human GeographyDigital Geography and SocietySociety and Space and Territory, Politics and Governance


My broad research interests are in postcolonial urbanism, smart cities, gender citizenship and regional futures.  My research is set in the ethos of co-production with grassroots communities using digital/mapping, visual and participatory research methods to develop and build gendered capacity in the digital and urban margins. In the last 5 years, I have received funding from European Research Council (Advanced Grant), AHRC, ESRC, British Academy and Swiss National Science Foundation to pursue groundbreaking research on digital urban transformations in the global south and their impacts on everyday social, material and gendered geographies. I have been frontline Editor of Urban Geography since 2017 and am on editorial boards of several journals: Antipode, Dialogues in Human Geography, Digital Geography and Society, EPD: Society and Space and Territory, Politics and Governance. I was also sub-panel member in the UK Research Excellence Framework 2021 (REF) representing Geography as Unit of Assessment. I received the Busk Medal from Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in 2019, and was nominated as the Geography Section President by the British Science Association in 2023.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture (Delhi) and a MPhil in Environmental Design (Cantab) funded by the Overseas Development Administration (ODA) and Cambridge Commonwealth Scholarship. I practised as an architect in New Delhi for a year and as RIBA chartered architect in London for three years, after which I left professional practice to pursue a PhD.

I worked on my PhD in Environmental Design and Planning in Arizona State University (ASU) from 2000-2003. I was placed on the Dean's list (GPA 4.0) and awarded the King Medal from the Architectural Research Centers Consortium upon graduation. During my time in ASU, I worked as a Graduate Research Associate in the Center for Architecture and Environmental Design.

This was followed by Lectureships in the Department of Architecture at Queen’s University Belfast (2003-2005), the Cities Programme in London School of Economics (2005-2012) and Senior Lectureship in Department of Geography, University of Leeds (2012-2016). I moved to King’s College London as Reader (subsequently Professor) in Urban Futures in 2016. While at King’s, I was Chair of the Urban Futures research domain and Convenor of the MA/MSc Sustainable Cities degree programme. I joined UCL as Professor of Human Geography in September 2019.

I am author of ‘The Illegal City: Space, law and gender in a Delhi squatter settlement (2012 Ashgate), co-editor of 'Data Power in Action: Urban data politics in times of crisis' (2023 Bristol University Press), ‘Mega-urbanization in the global South: Fast cities and new urban utopias of the postcolonial state (2017 Routledge) and ‘Translocal Geographies: Spaces, places, connections (2011 Ashgate). For my contributions to understanding of smart cities, I received the Busk Medal from Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in 2019.

I follow a strong ethos of co-production with societal partners shaping several public facing outputs such as films, exhibitions, podcasts and a rap song. I have a strong media presence, engaging through regular blogs, podcasts and op-eds the ConversationUK, Guardian and openDemocracy. I am regularly invited to international lectures and keynotes including invitations to speak at several themed UN meetings in Geneva and New York.

Nehru Place

Photo Credit: Rohit Madan

Crosscutting themes of my research are:

Regional Futures: In 2020, I was awarded the EUROPEAN RESEARCH COUNCIL (ERC) ADVANCED GRANT to initiate a new five-year research project on the dynamics of digitalisation-as-urbanisation in the global south. This project will conduct the first comprehensive South-South investigation of the transition to automated planning processes in metropolitan regions, and its impacts on regional urbanisation.

Smart Cities and Digital Urbanism: I am known internationally for pioneering theoretical and empirical work on India’s smart cities and the ‘digital turn’ in urban studies. This has attracted ESRC NEWTON funds (PI) titled ‘Learning from Small Cities’, AHRC GCRF funds (PI) titled ‘Learning from the Utopian City’, BRITISH ACADEMY GCRF funds titled 'Digitising the Periphery: Co-Producing a Toolkit for Digital Democracy and Inclusive Urbanisation' and SNSF funded (CoI) titled 'Smart Cities: Provincializing the global urban age in India and South Africa'.

Feminist Urban Futures: I have received international recognition as one of the few scholars working on feminist urban futures in the global south pioneering an original research agenda linking digital geographies, urban infrastructures and Violence Against Women (VAW). This has attracted BRITISH ACADEMY GCRF funding (PI) titled ‘Disconnected Infrastructures and VAW’ and AHRC GCRF NETWORK GRANT (PI) titled ‘Gendering the Smart city’. This work has used creative practices and co-production (of films, hip-hop music video, exhibitions and Storymaps) as a tool for empowerment of marginal social actors and has also transformed the work of NGOs and activists in India.

Postdoctoral researchers

The following postdoctoral researchers currently, or have recently, worked with me:

Fenna Hoefsloot

Mariana Reyes Carranza

Nabeela Ahmed

Tom Cowan

Sheema Fatima

Philip Nicholson

Srilata Sircar

Funded Research (recent)

All my publications can be downloaded from IRIS here.


Picture Credit: Lee Regan

My work has high translatability into policy/industry and public/lay knowledge and has gained international recognition through invited presentations in United Nations headquarters in Geneva and New York. I have garnered major impact by building and consolidating international research networks across stakeholders in global policy, third sector, creative industries and grassroots organisations, delivering cutting-edge scholarship and impactful research towards fulfilling SDGs #5 (gender equality) and #11 (sustainable cities and communities).

A key impact of my work has been in the curation and co-production of knowledge through long-term involvement with participants in low-income settlements and partnerships with NGOs and grassroots organisations in the global south. My work has transformed marginal lives and the methods of NGO partners by including gendered local knowledge within digital platforms and data commons from which they are usually excluded. In 2018, I co-produced a hip-hop music video (called ‘Khadar Girls’) with research participants, which was reported in all major national newspapers. I co-curated this work into an exhibition titled #AanaJaana [#ComingGoing] in Delhi’s Mandi House Metro station throughout January 2019, that was developed later into an online storymap. Its research method ‘WhatsApp diaries’ has informed NGO practices in building digital capacities of youth. The song and exhibition were used by a national newschannel to produce a film for the 2019 Delhi election agenda around gender safety in public spaces and a gender-sensitive Delhi masterplan.

During the COVID19 pandemic, I have been working with sound artists and women in low income neighbourhoods in Delhi to facilitate online podcast training workshops leading to the production of 4 Community Podcasts written and recorded by these women. I have also worked with animation artists to produce an animation video highlighting the struggles faced by marginal communities in India during the crisis.

Since 2019, I have been mentor with CARA (the Council for At-Risk Academics), an NGO which provides research support to academics at risk across the world. In this role I support two academics in Syrian Universities, to conduct their research and provide training to publish in international journals.

Invited presentations in the United Nations.

  • Nov 2021 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Inter-sessional Panel on 'Sustainable urban development in the post #COVID19 world' 17-19 November 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland.
  • Dec 2020 Virtual forum on “Digital Transformation of Cities and Communities, UN-Habitat and ITU, Geneva.
  • Feb 2020 UN-Habitat World Urban Forum 10 plenary panel on 'Frontier Technologies', Abu Dhabi.
  • May 2018 Plenary Speaker in the UN ECOSOC Integration section in New York.
  • May 2016 Plenary Speaker in the UNCTAD CSTD 19 annual meeting in Geneva.

In 2016, I was cited in UN World Cities Report and my Conversation article was agenda contributor in World Economic Forum.

My research has been documented several times in the national and international media (newspapers and radio), including BBC Radio, Guardian, South China Morning Post, Economic Times,  Hindustan Times, and mentions in LA Times, Reuters, Times of India, FirstPost, Quint, Dainik Jagran, and Times Higher Education.

Recent and upcoming keynotes

I deliver several invited lectures/keynotes/plenaries each year to national, international and academic and policy audiences.

Please check out my website here for recent and upcoming keynotes.

Recent Op-eds

I am regularly invited to write op-eds for national and international media and learned societies. Please click here for list of my op-eds

Recent Films/Exhibition/Podcasts

  • Nov 2021  Curated public exhibition in the Building Centre, London. Titled: ‘Learning from Small Cities’, 12 November to 10 December 2021. Funded by ESRC-Newton.
  • Dec 2019  Curated public exhibition in collaboration with Safetipin in Khoj Studios, New Delhi . Title: 'Disconnected Infrastructures and Violence Against Women', and funded by British Academy.
  • 8 March 2019 Podcast interview on ‘Smart Cities’ produced by Royal Geographical Society (RGS-IBG) #AsktheGeographer
  • March 2019 AHRC (PI) funded and co-produced ‘Khadar ki Ladkiyan’ music video was curated inside a bioscope and showcased in the 2019 The International Association of Women in Radio & Television (IAWRT) Film Festival in Delhi from 5-7 March 2019, Delhi.
  • January 2019 Co-produced ‘Khadar ki Ladkiyan’ 3min hip-hop music video with participants in Madanpur Khadar. YouTube: [10k + views in July 2019]
  • January 2019 Curated #AanaJaana [#ComingGoing] exhibition in Delhi’s Mandi House Metro station as part of their ‘Art in the Metro’ initiative.
  • March 2017 In conversation with Mathew Gandy and Simon Marvin on ‘Habitat and Living in Plural Cities’ British Academy film
  • March 2017 Curated Museum of London exhibition on ‘City Now, City Futures’.
  • 2013 ‘City bypassed’ and ‘City forgotten’ – two films that depict different faces of development urbanization and communal politics in Maharashtra.

My teaching is always research-led at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels using innovative visual and interdisciplinary approaches of digital co-learning, film-making and co-production with students, thus delivering high student satisfaction. My work has fed directly into UK Geography curriculum, by authoring a Higher Education Academy (HEA) resource ‘Negotiating differences: A resource for enhancing learning and capacity building in fieldwork’, which has been adopted by geography departments for use in their field work preparation. Recently I have recorded a podcast on smart cities for Royal Geographic Society in their #AskTheGeographer series, geared towards Geography School teachers.

I am external examiner on Masters Programmes in Dept of Geography, London School of Economics (LSE). I have also externally examined several PhDs in UK and internationally.

Undergraduate modules taught

Digital Geographies (Convenor)

Thinking Geographically

Development Geography

Geographies of Infrastructure

Postgraduate modules (MSc Urban Studies)

Cities, Space and Power

Urban Imaginations


Please contact me if you are interested in pursuing a PhD in the following themes:

  • Smart cities and regional futures
  • Politics of urbanisation
  • ‘Digital turn’ in postcolonial urbanism
  • Cities, infrastructures and gender politics
  • Gender citizenship and digital lives in the urban margins