On The Ground

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Tomorrow’s City Living Ideas from Today’s Slums

There is more sex in the city; the majority of the world’s seven billion people are now urban-dwellers.  Last year the China Association of Mayors announced that China has reached that milestone itself, and other fast-growing parts of the world are urbanizing feverishly as well. India will add almost another 500 million to its cities by 2050.  Nigeria, whose urban population grew by only 65 million between 1970 and 2010, is expected to add 200 million between 2010 and 2050.  Many parts of Latin America are majority-urban already. About 85% of Brazil is in cities.

Where are all these people going to live and what will be the quality of their lives? And where should planners turn for ideas and innovations in the new urban living? Should they take a tour of Antilla, the 27-story Mumbai home of billionaire Mukesh Ambani and his wife, Nita, featured recently in Vanity Fair? Or should they drive a few miles down the road toward the Mumbai airport and check out Annawadi, the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Katherine Boo’s new book about life in the most wretched of slums?

We think Annawadi may be a better bet. The best innovations are responses to the most severe unmet needs. In Annawadi—or, for that matter, in Kibera in Nairobi or Zabaleen in Cairo or Heliopolis in Sao Paulo—there is no shortage of unmet needs. And there is no shortage of people with such needs, since there are almost a billion slum dwellers around the world, expected to grow to 2 billion by 2030. Slums offer an informal global network of living laboratories.  Each offers a staggering variety of local solutions to universal urban problems that are rapidly catching up with all of us.

Consider Sanergy. One of us, Gaurav Tiwari, was on the founding team of this venture with several former MIT students.  Sanergy’s business model is a response to the “flying toilets” (human waste in a plastic bag tossed out of windows) of Nairobi slums. Sanergy is tackling this problem by building a network of low-cost sanitation centers (called Fresh Life toilets) to be operated for a profit by local entrepreneurs. The waste from the toilets is collected and converted to energy. This bundles solutions to multiple problems of sanitation, health and hygiene, renewable energy, and entrepreneurial opportunity into a single inventive product design and business model.

Here are four principles that we consider could guide development innovations for urban living, with potential implications far beyond the slums:

1. Adapt construction and design to the context: Usually slums occupy land that no one else wants to build on—swamps, marshes, garbage dumps, and steep hillsides. They are subject to floods, fires, and landslides. Building materials suitable for slums must evolve, adapt, and become sturdier after every disaster. Some examples include a floating school in Bangladesh, a vertical gym in Caracas, and garden-in-a-sack in Nairobi. These innovations, once developed, might then prove useful in a range of communities.

2. Displace ad hoc practices with systematic innovation:  Innovation that can support behavioral change in response to ad hoc practices can bring about dramatic improvements in the health and economic outcomes of people that may lack access to basic public services.  Sanergy’s Fresh Life toilets in the slums of Nairobi not only offer an economic opportunity for local entrepreneurs, they also aim to change slum dwellers’ behavior by freeing them from the unhealthy, ad hoc practice of throwing their waste onto the street.

3. Recycle for sustainable living: Several innovative ideas exist across the developing world:wastewater is captured and reused in the village of Yoff in Dakar, Senegal; bricks are made from cow dung in Indonesia; discarded materials are combined with either concrete or polymer to create new materials to make prefabricated elements for slum upgrading in Sao Paulo; and a recycling industry flourishes in Dharavi  in Mumbai.

4. Facilitate bottom-up entrepreneurship: Consider Abalimi Bezekhaya (“farmers or planters of the home” in Xhosa), an organization that combats poverty in multiple slums in Cape Town through a network of organic “micro-farms.” Abalimi teaches local communities to grow organic vegetables first for survival, then to sell surplus produce to markets outside of the townships, with the goal of generating a livelihood. Abalimi provides ongoing training, technical advice, cheap bulk inputs, irrigation, and other services.

What role will innovation play in elevating the urban poor out slums like this one in Nairobi? 

All urban dwellers need to solve a universal set of needs: shelter, health, water, education, energy, and transportation. Slums are providing ideas to do so by showing us how to adapt to the context, use and reuse locally available resources, and scale up in order to have an impact on the largest number of people.

Designers and innovators should turn to slums as incubators for “better homes and gardens” ideas for our collective future.  Even the Ambani family, residents of the 27-story Antilla, may find some interesting design ideas by driving the Bentley a few miles down the road to Annawadi.

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