Learning in the digital age, smart cities, among the innovations taking centre stage at UNESCO Netexplo Forum


Taking place at UNESCO Headquarters from 17 through 19 April, this year’s Netexplo Forum will showcase emerging technologies and their contribution to people’s education and the growing urbanization of societies all over the globe.

Starting with the annual Innovation Forum on 17 April (9 am to 6 pm), Netexplo will present the trends that underlie 100 major projects representing the latest applications of technology and showcase ten of them, winners of Netexplo Awards. The winners were selected from more than 2,000 innovations identified by Netexplo Observatory’s network of 20 universities from all parts of the world.

The ten Netexplo Awards recognize:

AI Biodiversity Monitor (United Kingdom - Sethi Sarab): Developed by researchers at Imperial College London who have created a low-cost, solar-powered device to monitor biodiversity in rainforests. Tested in Borneo, the open-source system, collects data that will be used to build a kind of Shazam for species through machine learning, map the forest and track its evolution over time.

BioHybrid Robot (Japan - Shoji Takeuchi), One step closer to flesh and blood robots: Fusing technology and biology. A team at Tokyo University fitted lab-bred muscles from rat stem cells onto a mechanical skeleton to create a biohybrid robot that can move small objects. The tiny robot works like a human finger.

D-ID (Israel – Gil Perry), Protecting personal identity by digitally camouflaging photos: To ensure privacy and enable individuals to avoid being identified by face recognition, this startup’s technology modifies faces in photos and videos in a way that is undetectable to the human eye though it makes them unidentifiable by face recognition algorithms. D-ID offer their customers face recognition services like Apple’s Face ID, for example, without their “real” faces and identities entering the system.

FACTMATA (UK - Dhruv Ghulati), Disinformation, A fact-checking community driven by AI: Factmata provides a set of digital tools that volunteer fact checkers can use to rate and contextualize content. The long-term goal of the startup is to hand over the whole process to algorithms. Factmata intends to release a browser plug-in that certifies content and alerts readers when they are exposed to disinformation.

FURHAT (Sweden - Samer Al Moubayed), A social robot designed to forge emotional bonds: Furhat is a customizable robot that can mimic human expressions appearing to listen, maintain eye contact and react, allowing for more natural interaction. Developers can personalize Furhat’s face, voice and reactions.

I-CUT (Kenya – The Restorers), A mobile app to condemn, inform and educate on female genital mutilation (FGM): In 2017 five Kenyan girls aged 15 – 17 formed a group called The Restorers and created a mobile phone app to oppose female genital mutilation. I-Cut is designed to support girls at-risk by putting them in contact with support services. The app also gives medical and legal advice to women who have undergone FGM. It lets users ask for help, alert the police, bear witness, get informed and make a donation.

rAInbow (South Africa– Kriti Sharma), A chatbot against domestic violence: Based on research and interviews with abuse victims, rAInbow is an application that helps women in toxic relationships realize they are being abused and take action. The AI is trained to learn behaviour patterns and uses digital storytelling techniques to explain how to find help in an emotionally-conscious way. It informs victims of their rights, encourages them to seek assistance or helps them just to survive.

SPATIAL (USA - Jacob Loewenstein), The next Slack? Mixed reality in the workplace: Spatial is a mixed reality coworking tool that uses the physical environment to create an immersive, shareable workplace. Users can collaborate, develop ideas and share content as if they were in the same place, making travel unnecessary.

SOUNDSHIRT (Germany / UK – Francesca Rosella), Feeling music through the skin: Developed by interactive fashion designers CuteCircuit with the Junge Symphoniker Hamburg orchestra, the Soundshirt lets hearing-impaired people feel music through a connected garment, which translates the sound of an orchestra into vibrations on the wearer’s skin. The sounds of different instruments are mapped out in specific locations in the textile so the wearer feels distinct sensations in different parts of the body (e.g. double bass in the stomach, violins on the shoulders).

TCAV, (USA – Been Kim), Shining a light on AI’s hidden algorithms: Developed by a researcher at Google Brain, Testing with Concept Activation Vectors (TCAV) aims to render decisions made by machine learning transparent for a more responsible AI. TCAV is a “translator for humans” that reveals algorithmic decisions. It shows the relative weight of each concept in AI decision. For example, if a machine learning system was trained to identify zebras from images, TCAV will say how important the concept of “stripes” was.


A Netexplo publication, A Tale of Two Futures, setting out the Observatory’s vision of technological trends, will also be presented during the first day. The publication examines the human fear of being supplanted by machine intelligence, the potential of technology to endow us with new capabilities and, finally, human particularities, such as creativity, that machines are unlikely to supplant.

Other notable events on that day will include presentations concerning education under the banner of Why What and How should we Learn in the 21st Century? and An Inspiring Vision for AI in Africa by Mustapha Cissé, Research Scientist and Head of Google AI Center, Accra.

Human learning in the digital age, is also the theme addressed by a new joint UNESCO Netexplo publication, a compendium of thoughts from an international pool of professors on how learning paradigms are influenced by unprecedented technological progress.

Heritage and technology will be featured in two presentations, Virtual Reality and Cultural Legacy, by ICONEM, a Paris-based startup specializing in the 3D imaging of cultural sites, and Digital Biosphere, on augmenting humans without destroying the planet.

On 18 and 19 April, Netexplo aims to serve as a Smart Cities Accelerator, taking stock of the fact that by 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban environments. Over two days, sessions will focus on urban challenges and solutions for issues including mobility, energy, and surveillance versus privacy, with examples from cities in Europe, Latin America and Asia will be featured. The programme has been produced with four leading schools and universities: ESCP Europe, Peking University, Shanghai Jaio Tong University and Télécom ParisTech and is in partnership with UNESCO, the French Ministry for Transport, attached to the Ministry for Ecological and Inclusive Transition, Paris City Hall and Ile-de-France Regional Council.

Smart Cities is also the subject of a new book published by UNESCO and the Netexplo Observatory, Smart Cities, Shaping the Society of 2030. The book takes stock of innovations, ideas and solutions identified in a vast range of cities and territories worldwide. Through overviews, exclusive analyses and projections, it provides a frame of reference, inspiring examples and maps out new avenues for decision-makers and other urban stakeholders while seeking to reflect citizens’ evolving expectations and pointing to ways “smart cities” can help meet them.


See https://en.unesco.org/netexplo for programme

A Tale of Two Futures will be available for download from 17 April 17 on Netexplo.com where Smart Cities, Shaping the Society of 2030 will also be available for download from 18 April


Laetitia Kaci, UNESCO Media Section, l.kaci@unesco.org, +33(0)145681772