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

Professor Ayona Datta




The City Inside Out

Editor: Urban Geography

Trustee: IJURR Foundation

Editorial board member:

Antipode, Digital Geography and Society, Dialogues in Human Geography and Society and Space


My broad research interests are in postcolonial urbanism, smart cities, gender citizenship and regional futures.  In particular, I am interested in how cities transform themselves through utopian urban visions of the future and their impacts on everyday social, material and gendered geographies. I use interdisciplinary approaches from architecture, planning, feminist and urban geography, combining qualitative, digital/mapping, visual and participatory research methods to examine urbanisation and urban development as experiments in urban ‘futuring’. Currently, I am sub-panel member in the UK Research Excellence Framework 2021 (REF) representing Geography as Unit of Assessment. I am Co-editor of Urban Geography and on editorial boards of Antipode, Dialogues in Human Geography, Digital Geography and Society and EPD:Society and Space. For my contributions to understanding of smart cities through fieldwork I received the Busk Medal from Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in 2019.

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 ‘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 through fieldwork I received the Busk Medal from Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in 2019.

I am a publicly engaged scholar with a strong media presence, engaging through regular blogs, podcasts and op-eds the ConversationUK, Guardian and openDemocracy as well as producer/director of two films ‘City Bypassed’ and ‘City Forgotten’. I am regularly invited to international lectures and keynotes including invitations to speak at several themed UN meetings in Geneva and New York.


Crosscutting themes of my research are:

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) in urban India. This work has opened up important new research horizons around a gendered right to urban technology from the urban peripheries. 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. On the basis of this work, I was invited to present in a high-level policy roundtable organised by Indian National Institute of Urban Affairs to feedback into policy on urban governance.

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 work has opened up important new research horizons in conceptualising speed and time in postcolonial urban futures. 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'. This led to several publications in international refereed journals as well as op-eds and podcasts, numerous keynotes and significant recognition in international policy through presentations in the United Nations in Geneva and New York.

Regional Futures: I was awarded the EUROPEAN RESEARCH COUNCIL (ERC) ADVANCED GRANT in 2020 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. It will conduct research in peri-urban municipalities of three rapidly growing metropolitan regions where municipal digitalisation is directed towards strategic regional planning. These municipalities face major challenges with transforming paper-based colonial and postcolonial bureaucracies into automated planning processes within highly unequal contexts, and therefore represent the wider experience of digitalisation-as-urbanisation in the global south.

Postdoctoral researchers

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

Nabeela Ahmed

Tom Cowan

Sheema Fatima

Philip Nicholson

Srilata Sircar


Funded Research (recent)

All my publications can be downloaded from IRIS here.

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 (through editathons and a Wikipedia page) 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.

My work has gained significant recognition in international policy through several invited presentations in the United Nations.  In 2017, I was invited to speak in the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in New York and in 2016, in the UN Commission for Science Technology and Development (CSTD) in Geneva, which informed the UN Steering Group report.  In 2016, I was cited in UN World Cities Report and my Conversation article was agenda contributor in World Economic Forum. IN 2019, I was invited to speak at the UN-Habitat World Urban Forum plenary panel on 'Frontier Technologies' and in 2020 in the UN-Habitat panel on 'Digital Transformations of Cities'

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.

Selected Op-eds

Datta, A. (2021) Fast Urbanism: Between Speed, Time and Urban Futures, Transient Cities Blog. DOI:

Datta, A. (2021) Gendering COVID19 in India. Geography Directions Blog.

Datta, A. (2020) Survival infrastructures under COVID19 in India. Geography Directions Blog.
Datta, A (Sept 2019) Why Smart City projects may not be enough to hold back Jalandhar’s youth. Citizen Matters.

Datta, A (March 2019) ‘Khadar ki Ladkiyan’: A hip hop music video co-produced with young women in Delhi’s urban peripheries. Guftugu: Indian Writers’ Collective, Vol. 3

Datta, A (1 February 2019) Indian women from the outskirts of Delhi are taking selfies to claim their right to the city. The Conversation UK.[Republished in Scroll.In, Quartz, Firstpost]

Datta, A, Ahmed, N. and Tripathi, R. (26 Oct 2018) #MeToo has arrived in India, and it’s changing how technology is used to fight injustice. The Conversation UK. [Republished in Scroll.In, Quartz]

Datta, A (9 June 2016) Three big challenges for smart cities and how to solve them. The Conversation.

Datta, A (27 January 2016) Will India’s experiment with smart cities tackle poverty or make it worse? The Conversation. [Republished in Scroll.In, Quartz]

Datta, A (22nd May 2015) ‘Smartness Inc.’ openDemocracy digital commons

Datta, A (17th April 2014) ‘India’s smart city craze: Big, green and doomed from the start?’ Guardian.

Datta, A. (7th Jan 2014)   ‘Why Student Fieldtrips make an Impact’, Guardian Higher Education blog.


Selected Films/Exhibition/Podcasts

8 March 2019 Podcast 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 Stories’ documentaries screened as part of ‘People Build Better Cities’ international travelling exhibition across nine cities

2013 ‘City bypassed’ and ‘City forgotten’ – two films that depict different faces of development urbanization and communal politics in Maharashtra.

Datta, A (2013) City forgotten: India’s mega-urbanization and the fate of its towns. Film 15 mins

Datta, A (2013) City bypassed: The casualties of Mumbai’s urban renewal. Film 13 mins

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