Media Releases

U of T researchers contribute to award-winning NFB series exploring the universe within highrise apartments

June 2, 2015

Toron­to, ON – Two Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to researchers played a key role in cre­at­ing the final instal­ment of the award-win­ning “HIGHRISE” doc­u­men­tary series, released today by the Nation­al Film Board.

From hours spent on Skype con­nect­ing with loved ones far away to build­ing polit­i­cal move­ments using What­sApp, the inter­ac­tive online doc­u­men­tary “Uni­verse With­in: Dig­i­tal Lives in the Glob­al High­rise” explores the mobile and Inter­net habits of apart­ment dwellers across the globe.

U of T geog­ra­phy Pro­fes­sor Deb­o­rah Cowen and Fac­ul­ty of Social Work senior research asso­ciate Emi­ly Par­adis worked with film­mak­er Kate­ri­na Cizek to con­ceive of the over­all project – and to research, col­lect and ana­lyze data that informs this last instal­ment.

The online sto­ries take view­ers into the hearts, minds and com­put­ers of apart­ment dwellers in 18 cities, includ­ing Guangzhou, Chi­na, the sub­urbs of Mum­bai, New York’s pub­lic hous­ing projects and Toronto’s Rex­dale com­mu­ni­ty.

At U of T, Cowen stud­ies the changes in Toronto’s inner sub­urbs. Par­adis con­ducts research on issues of hous­ing and home­less­ness, and is man­ag­er of Prof. David Hulchan­ski’s Neigh­bour­hood Change Research Part­ner­ship.

Cizek first approached Cowen and Par­adis to advise on the devel­op­ment of the project and help iden­ti­fy high­rise sto­ries from around the world. The U of T researchers have both done field research on the project in Toron­to and Mum­bai. Cowen also did research work in Sin­ga­pore.

“Most doc­u­men­tar­i­ans tend to ‘buy the rights to the book’ so they’ll do the film about a book or research that’s been writ­ten already,” Cizek said. “Our case is unique, as we’ve been doing par­al­lel research and doc­u­men­tary mak­ing, inform­ing, inspir­ing and influ­enc­ing each other’s work all along the way.”

For Cowen and Par­adis, their research results – some of it fund­ed with a part­ner­ship devel­op­ment grant from the Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties Research Coun­cil of Cana­da – opened their eyes to how impor­tant dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy has become in some of Toronto’s most impov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties.

The researchers found that 80 per cent of house­holds in the Rex­dale apart­ment com­plex they stud­ied – even though it was locat­ed in one of Toronto’s most pre­car­i­ous and low income com­mu­ni­ties – had Inter­net access either at home or through their mobile phone.

“When you’re work­ing in pri­mar­i­ly dias­poric com­mu­ni­ties where most peo­ple are tied to peo­ple, places around the world, the dig­i­tal has assumed an impor­tance that was quite stun­ning to us,” Cowen said.

The doc­u­men­tary was shot on loca­tion in Accra, Ghana; Athens, Greece; Baku, Azer­bai­jan, Guangzhou, Chi­na; Jed­dah, Sau­di Ara­bia; Kam­pala, Ugan­da; Mex­i­co City, Mex­i­co; Mum­bai, India; Nairo­bi, Kenya; New York City, USA; Ottawa; Rome, Italy; San Cristo­bal, Venezuela; Seoul, South Korea; Sin­ga­pore; Tokyo, Japan; Toron­to; and Ramal­lah, West Bank.

Uni­verse With­in and all of the HIGRISE projects are acces­si­ble via the NFB’s web­site at


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