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Dialogue between Rachel Sibande and Johanna Figueira

50 Minds for the Next 50. Imagining Heritage in the Digital Dimension Session

Rachel Sibande

Digital and data development specialist and social entrepreneur

Johanna Figueira

Entrepreneur, digital marketer and tech activist

Vision for the Next 50

In the Next 50… Youths spearheading mapping of heritage sites, creating digital content and suggesting innovative solutions for heritage. Women have equal access to digital platforms and the skills to serve heritage in the digital era.

In the Next 50… Social media brings positive impacts to local communities in raising awareness about heritage, sharing their own stories and defending their culture.


The dialogue between Rachel Sibande and Johanna Figueira centred around the digital empowerment of communities. They agreed that technology can benefit local communities to share their own stories and conceive innovative solutions to protect their heritage. Sibande believes that women must benefit from equal access to digital platforms. She also highlighted the power of youth in the digital dimension, as mappers, creators and innovators of heritage. Figueira expressed her optimism about the power of technology based on how Venezuelan communities have used social media to harness power and solidarity to respond to their problems and to protect their own heritage.


It's a great pleasure to meet you, Rachel. You work in an incubator that you set up and created. As you work with young people, what potential do you think these young people have to protect heritage in their communities in Malawi?

A number of things that we do as a technology hub is to champion the development of technology solutions. We train young people to learn digital skills from basic information and communication technology (ICT), skills development of web applications, mobile apps, to robotics, machine learning, big data, internet of things, and so on, but we also train young people on how to map their communities. They're also mapping heritage sites, or cultural landmarks, using OpenStreetMap and Google.

But to answer your question, we see a lot of potential with young people in a number of ways. First, youths are the greatest mappers of heritage sites. As you know, it's very important to map these heritage sites to give more people access to them. We also find that youth are great creators of content, to complement what's already there in these heritage sites. They are, generally, digital citizens and tech enthusiasts. They are the most eminent digital citizens of this generation and so they do have a role to create innovative technology solutions. It could be 3D documentation or the use of specific technology to map heritage sites or blockchain for information-sharing or artificial intelligence.

Indeed, virtual reality (VR) can help their communities and the world to experience heritage within their communities. So this is the potential we see in young people, and that is why we invest in training. Most of these young people become consumers but also creators of technology solutions.

From your perspective in the work that you do, how do you see the digital divide affecting access to heritage?

That is a very good question. Taking an optimistic approach, we know that accessing some high-level technologies is not always reachable for everyone, but when technology moves forward and becomes popular, its costs go down and thus becomes more accessible to a greater number of people.

So everyone can access a certain measure of technology when it becomes popular. If you think when the internet started 30 years ago compared to today, over half of the planet now has a cell phone, which is practically a computer in your pocket.

I think 30 years ago, nobody could have imagined this would happen. But there is much left to be done. Some communities still don't have access, even though over half of the global population has a cell phone, which in my opinion is incredible. As things move forward, communities gain greater access to what we call the digital world.

It's not only a matter of gaining education and knowledge, it's using technology to tell their own stories and to protect their own cultural heritage. One example in Venezuela involves work with an organization that is in contact with very remote, inaccessible localities, and they are using the digital approach to transmit music and stories about places that are unknown even within the country itself.

I think this is a wonderful way of accessing digital technology, preserving cultural heritage and getting to better know these cultures.

I think we can dream about the possibility of VR playing a role in the coming 50 years, with a more immersive experience. These technologies are limited today, but just like with cell phones, a day will come when there will be greater access. So I'm a lot more optimistic about the digital divide and access to cultural heritage.

We are also discussing the variety of tools available today for cultural heritage and World Heritage. What are the easiest, most accessible tools that could be created for the public to safeguard and protect cultural heritage?

You were talking about the mobile phone and indeed it is the most progressive ICT there is and will ever be. When we talk about bridging the digital divide, the convergence of digital will only happen on the mobile phone.

To answer your question, where should we be deploying digital tools that can create or raise awareness about heritage?

I think our first stop should certainly be the mobile form as this is used by the majority of the global population, even in least developing countries. Women will at least have access to a mobile phone and not any other gadget aside from that. So it's important to consider platforms like social media where we've seen a lot of popular audiovisual content because it appeals and people can relate to it.

But mobiles have become a very easy platform, so it's important to consider people who are visually impaired or have hearing difficulties. We should consider the disparities that exist in terms of access and use of mobile platforms. In most countries, we find that fewer women have access to these platforms than men. So it's just as important to consider these aspects as we build these digital platforms to raise awareness about digital heritage.

So do you think that cultural and natural heritage can be a source of communal resilience, particularly among marginalized or disadvantaged communities? And if so, how do you think digital technology can actually enhance this resilience?

: I think this question follows up on our earlier discussion and the example of people in Venezuela who, thanks to technology, were able to overcome the crisis in the country and promote their culture. This may seem to be a commercial approach, but if you look at the cultural benefits of preserving traditions, I think it's a wonderful result.

Another example would be how marginalized communities make use of technology and social media. I've seen, especially in Canada and the United States, communities using social media to improve understanding of their communities and cultures by first or second generations by sharing their ancestral knowledge. They have become ambassadors of their people and have millions of followers who would never otherwise have discovered these cultures.

I think that people who are making use of social media and adapting to the audience acquires cultural wealth. Anyone can tell his or her own story, which would not have been possible in a different situation. This is a form of resilience in the digital world, a way of saying ‘here we are’.

Rachel, you were talking about something that is very important about women and access to technology. We all know that women have a very important role to play as bearers of cultural traditions in their communities. Do you think that digital transformations pose a threat to the crucial role played by women, or can they use it to their advantage?

That's a very relevant question. Certainly, there is no doubt that women are custodians of our heritage. As an example, most of the artistic impressions by the Chewa in one of the World Heritage sites in my country are mostly represented by women. They are the storytellers.

However, there are fewer women on digital platforms or women who can access tangible digital skills to get online and navigate digital platforms. As we transition cultural heritage sites and content to digital, we need to consider other collective interventions and collaborations with other sectors to drive access and the use of digital skills for all. There are also several cultural and social norms that deter women from earning full access, control and use of digital platforms. Those narratives have to be dismantled within our communities and social setups.

We cannot talk about meaningful development or transformation around knowledge and awareness of heritage sites if we do not consider women, who make up over half of the world's population.

Johanna, I know you have used the power of crowdsourcing to save lives, which is phenomenal. Do you see a potential to leverage hashtags and crowdsourcing to save heritage that is in danger?

That's an excellent question. I have the feeling that societies have not really fine-tuned the best way to maximize the potential of social media to unite and to face a negative event.

I have an example in Venezuela where something unfortunate happened because of a lack of respect for a World Heritage site. In this case, social media was the meeting point for all the citizens in Venezuela to express their disapproval of this event. This led to consequences that I think would never have happened otherwise. It raised awareness among persons visiting the site and among citizens at large, leading to people valuing the site.

So viral messages and hashtags were used as a tool to defend heritage. This is an example of how social media can be used in a rational framework for the common good as a positive effect to protect and save World Heritage sites.

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