Accelerating Innovation through 'Young Leaders Awards' at Habitat III, Quito

The growing youth demographic in many countries is a phenomenon that will be reckoned with for generations. To turn the youth bulge into a demographic dividend, countries need to focus on policies that develop this human capital and their full citizenship.

In the run-up to the UN Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, November 17-20, 2016, the Mega-Cities Project organized a global competition to identify Young Leaders that are implementing creative solutions to urban challenges at the intersection of poverty, environment and voice. Global Communities shared this opportunity with Francisco Javier Sequeira Rankin, a young leader supported by USAID’s Municipal Governance Program (MGP) who has been successful in strengthening youth civic engagement through the Bluefield’s Indian & Caribbean University (BICU) Observatory for Human Rights and Autonomy (OHRA). Francisco was one of two Young Leaders selected from candidates who applied across the Americas, Africa and Asia.


Over the past four years, MGP has supported BICU-OHRA in their pursuit to strengthen the Adolescents and Youth Municipal Councils (COMAJ) in four municipalities in the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua, the region with the highest poverty rate in the country and home to the majority of indigenous and afro-descendant populations. This initiative has brought together more than 450 young people (58% women) to promote critical analysis of their interests and supports their interaction with the Municipal Government to raise their demands and exercise their rights. The COMAJ are democratically elected bodies made up of members aged 15-29.  The COMAJ motivate the youth to get involved in good governance practices and gives them an opportunity to take a leadership role in their communities. Through constant coaching and mentoring, the COMAJ youth are trained in a variety of skills, including project management, advocacy, and gender equality, preparing this cadre of young leaders to engage with the municipality and civil society organizations. This gives the members of the COMAJ a greater understanding of needs in their communities, how to create projects to meet these needs, and how to establish local partnerships to achieve them. The impact of this program has led to some system changing solutions, such as youth focused projects that are now being included in the budgets of municipalities and the budget planning process. Projects already financed by the Municipalities include recreational parks and gymnasium upgrades and funds for cultural events.


In addition to these efforts, since 2014, the Observatory for Human Right of BICU has been coordinating the Youth Roundtable, which creates more effective joint efforts on adolescents and youth issues by coordinating multi-sector dialogues between organizations working in this space. This effort has led local authorities to start building the Regional Youth Development Policy.


The Mega-Cities Project selected Francisco and the Youth Program because of their leadership in the region, their demonstration of system challenging ideas, and their progress is scaling solutions into policy. The Youth Program is creating young leaders and social entrepreneurs which can inspire other similar movements. Mega Cities and Global Communities selected Francisco and the Youth Program as both an effective and inspiring example the types of initiatives communities across the globe need.


Francisco shared his story with 100s of people at a lively and highly engaged audience in a Networking Session of the UN Habitat III conference on Youth Initiatives in the Quest for Urban Inclusion: Emerging Voices and Networks, October 18, 2016. Francisco’s story was also broadcast by media in the region.




Massive Open On-Line Cities

By Brian English, Director of Program Innovation, Global Communities

This blog is part of a series I convened and edited for Global Communities called Accelerating Innovation in the Internet of Cities which discusses how cities can learn, adopt and transfer innovations between each other in order to solve local issues of global significance.

As an urban planner working in the field of international development, I have spent my career working with cities around the globe to solve problems, plan for their aspirations, and help them learn from other cities in the process. Recently, at Global Communities, we partnered with five cities across India and Ghana to improve slum conditions and livelihoods.

During this time, I observed how revolutions in information and communication technology (ICT) are altering the entire ecosystem of connections that enable city stakeholders to access information, learn from each other, and engage in problem solving. This is inspiring and enabling a global movement to reimagine how development solutions can be implemented with marginalized urban communities and how innovations can be propagated at the grassroots.

It is a “smart cities” movement of its own kind, building tools to democratize information, increase transparency, and change traditional information flows that prevent communities from having a voice in their city. It is being supported and led by non-profit IT organizations, like UshahidiGround Truth,Development Gateway, and hundreds of others who provide free, open source platforms. Organizations like Global Communities, which serves as a catalyst for solutions in communities, use these tools to transform traditional development activities.

Building Networks and Collective Understanding
Mapping communities with residents, for example, has been an entry point activity in development programs for decades. This is often the first step in forming a relationship with a community and for residents to network and inform their collective understanding of their neighborhood. Now this data can be collected, updated and shared at a scale, sophistication, and fraction of the cost compared to old modes. Global Communities surveyed and mapped over 1.15 million slum residents across India and Ghana using a combination of simple, user-friendly tools. We then made it available to city stakeholders and the public domain, both on-line and off-line. For example, we used Walking Papers to map slums with community members and then contributed toOpenStreetMaps, a free editable map of the world created by volunteers using the widespread availability of GPS tools in phones. We also shared this information through paper-based “slum atlases” and helped them become part of official land records in local governments.

Initiatives like this fill critical information gaps that enable strategic planning with the latent energy of a broader group of stakeholders to legitimize findings and develop solutions – not just the government. They also add to what Tim Campbell calls, “tissue of remembering”, a suite of institutionalized places, documents and practices that innovative cities can use to analyze and establish strategies. You can’t manage what you can’t measure.

Most importantly, collective learning and open data exercises like this provide fuel for the transactions of democracy – where solutions are forged. In Pune, I observed this when one slum resident said: “Now I know everything about my neighborhood. Once there was a debate on the availability of garbage bins and water taps and because of the mapping I knew exactly the status in my cluster and the [elected representative] had to listen to me.” Xavier Briggs, author of “Democracy as Problem Solver,” explains that solutions progress where there is a combination of continuous learning and bargaining, multiple forms of accountability forged, and the capacity of the grassroots and grass tops are leveraged.

How far can we go?
As citizens become more connected through new and evolving ICT, the horizon of opportunities to empower individuals by connecting them with each other and new information sources seems endless and full of potential.

When mobile phones proliferated across the world, technology companies saw the opportunity to integrate computing power into this platform and create smart phones. This same imagination was carried forward by groups on the front-lines of development among vulnerable communities. In 2008, we began helping
a social enterprise called LabourNet capitalize on the proliferation of mobile phones among low-wage construction workers to send SMS messages advertising job opportunities and then, in turn, dispatched workers to job sites. As LabourNet grew its membership, they were then able to use this new bargaining power to approach banks and insurance companies to get bank accounts and low-cost health insurance for these workers. Over the three years we worked with LabourNet, 44,000 workers signed up for these offerings. The market spoke and the program scaled. If people are poor because they are powerless, then our job, like LabourNet did, is to give them tools to gain education, legitimacy, and connections with the wider economy that empower them.

Other powerful experiments are also underway for the broader institutions of cities to engage in distance learning and collective learning. Coursera is offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Designing Cities by University of Pennsylvania’s Design School and Harvard’s EdX now offers a MOOC on Evaluating Social Programs. To explore the potential of this emerging movement, I recently signed up to participate in my first MOOC through Harvard’s EdX. In my course there are 4,792 students signed up across 1,234 cities. Through the EdX website we can find other students in our area, form study groups and meet in person. The course is taught by two world-renowned professors, a group of advanced doctoral students, and volunteers. I did not have to pass any entrance exams to get into the course, and I don’t pay anything. This is the kind of potential that can be imagined for distance learning and open education in the information age. The economics of who pays for platforms like this are yet to be determined. But one thing is for sure; people will only participate and pay if they see value.

resident survey

Tools to empower marginalized communities. In Pune, women were trained to survey their neighbors. This data was aggregated into a GIS system and housed within the city government and used to reveal patterns in the conditions of these slums. More powerfully, the data was given back to the women who collected it and they were taught how to organize conversations about common problems. They were taught how to seek consensus, prioritize issues, mobilize local resources and advocate with government for additional resources.

Over the Hump: Getting the Green City Movement to a Tipping Point

This blog by Steve Nicholas is part of a series I convened and edited for Global Communities called Accelerating Innovation in the Internet of Cities which discusses how cities can learn, adopt and transfer innovations between each other in order to solve local issues of global significance.

By Steve Nicholas, Vice President. Institute for Sustainable Communities

biking across bridgeSteve NicholasGuide to Greening Cities

When I became director of the City of Seattle’s newly formed Office of Sustainability and Environment in 2000, there were just a handful of such positions in the US – all in places you’d expect: Portland, Oregon; Berkeley, California; Burlington, Vermont; and the like. Today, well over 1,000 communities have sustainability directors and programs in place, including many “unusual suspect” cities where the political waters are far less warm and inviting: Houston, Texas; Fayetteville, Arkansas; Dubuque, Iowa; and many others.

As my co-authors and I showcase in The Guide to Greening Cities, a fast-growing array of urban leaders are realizing that they hold a key, if not the key, to meeting the urgent global challenges of climate disruption and unsustainable human development. With more than 50 percent of the world’s population already living in urban areas – a slice that’s projected to grow to about 70 percent (some 6.4 billion people) by 2050 – it’s clear that cities no longer can gobble up three-quarters of the global energy supply, the vast majority of it derived from climate-disrupting fossil fuels. They must transform themselves – from being a big part of the problems to becoming laboratories and leaders ofsolutions.

The good news is that many cities – here in the U.S. and abroad – are rising to that challenge, reinventing everything from how they design, construct and manage buildings to the way they manage energy and water supplies and think about regional food systems. This “green city movement” is growing fast and inspiring lots of hope along the way; but it is far from the tipping point. Only a small percentage of the 30,000 municipalities in the US have people and/or plans truly dedicated to sustainability. And there is lots of variability in the quality of the efforts even among the early adopters. Relatively few have sufficiently robust and systematic approaches – a “triple bottom line” scope integrated across economic development, environmental protection and social welfare goals; effective multi-stakeholder engagement; and a sustainability-oriented performance management system driving the development and continuous improvement of the city’s policies and practices.

What is holding this movement back? What might accelerate its progress toward that much-needed tipping point? At the Institute for Sustainable Communities (ISC) we believe that one of the best ways to help urban leaders is to provide them with efficient, affordable access to good information, expertise, and – most importantly – each other. A tremendous amount of experimentation and innovation is going on across the country. But these reinventions don’t spread widely, in large part because the innovators are hunkered down, focused on achieving and sustaining their own successes and managing their own complex suite of fiscal and political challenges. It’s not that they are stingy; on the contrary, most early adopter-types love to share their stories and help their counterparts learn and copy from them. But they have neither the mandate nor the resources to do it.

Peer learning and network development are among the fastest and most effective ways to build capacity for urban solutions. When well-designed and executed, they provide practitioners with efficient access to the information (success stories and lessons learned) and the people (their peers in other cities who are toiling away in similar trenches) who can help them the most. ISC leads or supports a number of peer-learning and networking efforts in the US and Asia. For example, in the US we lead the National Sustainable Communities Learning Network, serving about 200 communities across the country that are receiving grants through the federal government’s ground-breaking Partnership for Sustainable Communities to better integrate actions and investments related to land use, housing, transportation, economic development and social justice. And we support the Western Adaptation Alliance (a learning community of 13 cities and counties in the Intermountain West focused on climate adaptation and resilience) and the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact (a collaboration of four counties in this climate-vulnerable part of the country representing one-third of the state’s population and economy).

We’re learning a lot from these experiences – sometimes the hard way – about the fine art of peer-learning and network-building. Among those lessons learned are these:

  • Create value from the start, and sustain it throughout, in particular by letting the network’s customers (members) drive the development and governance of the network (including decisions about which products and services to prioritize);
  • Start small and simple, and take it from there. The bigger the network, the harder it will be to get it off the ground. Start with a relatively small group that already enjoys a high degree of commonality and camaraderie. And focus first on “the little things” first (trust-building and efficient information sharing) before taking on heavier lifts (such as joint policy statements or purchasing agreements).
  • Provide sustained “backbone support” with a servant-leader orientation. While the best networks tend to be those that are the most deeply “owned and operated” by their members, none can rely solely on that. There must be a person(s) and/or organization(s) playing the critical hub-of-the-wheel role.

“If you build it, they will come,” is a famous line from the 1989 American movie “Field of Dreams.” But when it comes to peer networks, it just doesn’t apply. How the network is designed, initiated and facilitated very much determines its success (or lack thereof). Without engaged participation and ownership by its members, the network is unlikely to either net or work.

Steve Nicholas is the Vice President for US Programs at the Institute for Sustainable Communities, former director of the Seattle Office of Sustainability & Environment and co-author of “The Guide to Greening Cities.”

Innovating at the Intersections of Cities

This blog coauthored by Brian English and Janice Perlman is part of a series I convened and edited for Global Communities called Accelerating Innovation in the Internet of Cities which discusses how cities can learn, adopt and transfer innovations between each other in order to solve local issues of global significance.

Why we need to cross borders, disciplines, and other boundaries to create solutions

By Dr. Janice Perlman, Founder, The Mega-Cities Project, March 26th, 2014

Brazil Oct 20131

If we stand tall it is because we stand on the shoulders of many ancestors. – Yoruba Proverb

We Cannot Wait Another Generation
It is widely accepted today that cities are a positive force in global development and that the future of the planet depends on the future of its cities. But experience shows that there is often a 20-25 year time lag between new ideas and their incorporation into public policy. For example, in many countries it has taken decades for policy makers to stop looking at slum neighborhoods as problems, and instead see them as solutions developed by families seeking a better life for themselves and contributing to economic growth through the cities’ informal economy. Only then have appropriate policy responses followed, where policy makers focus on providing land-tenure instead of bulldozers. But not every city is at this same juncture, and many individuals and institutions throughout these cities are hungry to learn how they can advance their own solutions.

With the mounting challenges facing cities today – climate change, violence, job creation, democracy building, and inequality – we cannot afford to wait generations for new policies to be developed. Now more than ever, we need to turn our attention to how we can speed up this process and facilitate greater participation by all city residents and institutions.

Let’s be clear. Cities do not learn, only people learn. City governments can budget for and structure learning activities, build networks, and organize exposure trips, but ultimately learning and capacity building cannot just be a city hall endeavor, it must be a citywide and multi-stakeholder endeavor. Cities have short institutional memories and uncertain continuity. They also suffer from the “not-created-here” syndrome. To build continuity, cities need independent NGOs, research centers, academic consortia and other institutions with life spans beyond the electoral cycle or quarterly earnings statements.

Generation 1.0: The Mega Cities Project
I founded the Mega Cities Project in 1987 to “shorten the time lag between urban innovations and their implementation and diffusion”. To do this, we created a global network among 21 mega cities anchored by project coordinators and multiple-sector committees in each city. Together, we operated through a “dual strategy for deliberate social change”  that drew knowledge and know-how from empirical research and community wisdom.

We used a rigorous five-part methodology to search for innovative solutions that were socially just, ecologically sustainable, politically participatory and economically viable. We also sought to gain a deeper understanding of the process of innovation and the consequences for deliberate social changes in cities. We looked at: 1) Where do innovative ideas come from? 2) What are the conditions for successful implementation? and 3) How does innovation transfer work?

We found that the most fertile ground for urban innovation was – and still is – at the local level and at the nexus of poverty, environment, and inclusion.  It is at such intersections where people must cross disciplines, sectors and silos to experiment, learn, and collaborate.

Over our 25-year history of action research it has become clear:

1) There can be no urban environmental solution without alleviating poverty. The urban poor tend to occupy the most ecologically fragile areas of our cities, such as steep hillsides, low-lying swamplands, or areas adjacent to hazardous industries.  In addition, their lack of resources often prohibits them from having adequate water, sewage, or solid waste management systems. Without alternative locations and income for basic needs, their survival will be pitted against environmental needs.

2) There can be no lasting solutions to poverty or environmental degradation without building on bottom-up, community-based innovations. Since creativity was not distributed along lines of race, class, or gender, experts and policymakers are not always the best source of system-transforming innovations. The most creative and resource-efficient solutions to urban problems tend to emerge at the grassroots level, closest to the problems being solved. And, without local participation in implementation, even the best ideas are doomed to fail.

3) There can be no impact of scale without “sharing what works” across communities and cities and scaling up into public policy. While small may be beautiful, it’s still small – and the problems are enormous. In order to have meaningful impact, micro-initiatives need to be replicated through peer-to-peer learning or incorporated into public policy frameworks.

4) There can be no urban transformation without changing the old incentive systems and “rules of the game.” Since every sector of urban society holds a de facto veto on the others, local innovations can never achieve scale without cross-sector partnerships involving government, business, NGOs, academia, media, and grassroots groups. We need to create a climate conducive to experimentation, mutual learning, and collaboration.

Generation 2.0: Mega Cities x Mega Change (MC2)
Members of the Mega Cities Project founding network are now coming together to support the creation of the next generation of a global network that will foster urban change, the diffusion of urban innovations, and the development of new urban leaders. At the EcoCity conference in Montreal in 2011, it was named Mega-Cities/Mega-Change or MC2 (i.e. pure energy). MCengages the emerging young leaders in every sector and draws upon evolving information and communications technologies that enable us to reimagine elements of our network, from peer-to-peer learning to crowd-sourced funding of local projects.

Our original Coordinators and participants in our research-action teams have become leaders in their countries, regions and internationally. Today they are respected “elders” holding senior positions and have agreed to become mentors for those who share their passion. This fulfills a second mission: “to shorten the lag time between the next generation of urban leaders and their ability to make a difference.” MC2 is the fusion of the accumulated wisdom, credibility and trust of our founding network with the creativity, passion and technological sophistication of the next generation of urban change-makers.

Smartness in Three Flavors

By Tim Campbell, PhD Global Fellow, Urban Sustainability Laboratory, The Wilson Center
Tim CampbellBeyond smart Cities
This blog is part of a series I edited for Global Communities on Accelerating Innovation in the Internet of Cities which discusses how cities can learn, adopt and transfer innovations between each other in order to solve local issues of global significance.

Several years ago in Beyond Smart Cities*, I wrote about cities on the prowl. By the thousands, cities from around the globe are flying every which way, searching like so many hunters and gatherers to learn and share information. By one estimate, the 1,000 cities on the planet that have more than half a million people are engaged in many thousands of exchanges every year. Why so much prowling? It’s much cheaper and less risky to pick up the secrets of success by examining innovations at close range in other cities, where new practices have been tried out, than to reinvent the wheel back home. Nothing has slowed that pace, but some of the consequences of so much international inter-city exchange is smartness that is now appearing in three flavors.

First, cities are learning how to learn. This week, C-40 reported that cities are learning how to design and implement home-grown climate change reforms by picking clues and patterns from each other. In C-40, as with ICLEI and dozens of other special purpose NGOs, new attention is being paid to the learning process. A cottage industry of city-related web-sites, magazines, conferences, and blogs has shot up over the past decade. Atlantic Cities, Cities Today, CitiScope, New City, Sustainable Cities and many more aggregators specialize in pumping out lessons, spotting connections and focusing information on issues, policies and practices. The same is true of city-based membership organizations like CityNet, Global Cities Indicators, ICMA, Metropolis and UCLG. These organizations have always traded in information and knowledge, but the focus and sophistication are on the rise. These make it easier for cities to access and absorb new information.

A second flavor is that cities are learning how to be smart cities. One of the most ubiquitous, if not most popular topics of exchange concerns the high-tech and usually web-based applications that are at the core of smart cities. The prospects can be dazzling. Most involve sensors and feedback, in public spaces, parking spaces, car lanes, water systems, power grids, public lighting, neighborhoods and much more.

Consider autonomous vehicles as a publicly-owned utility. A recent traffic model at the University of Texas showed that autonomous vehicles numbering only a fraction of a city’s total fleet could reduce by an order of magnitude the number of vehicles on the road at any given time. That reduction could also clear the way for amenities in expanded open space and lead to dramatic reductions in accidents and fatalities. In the case of electric utilities, power management ranges from the individual household feeding the grid to smart grids at the regional scale feeding each other and each benefiting from reciprocal flows depending on grid requirements.

All these and other examples to some extent depend on centralized and decentralized elements reading and reacting to each other. We are told that the actions of thousands upon thousands of individuals can be rendered into patterns that can be made sense of, helping both centralized elements of the city—utilities, managers of vehicle fleets and buildings, first responders—to make more informed decisions just as individuals themselves can benefit by making more informed choices, for instance, to avoid congestion, find parking, adjust heating and lighting, or book a car. Most of these examples are already out there, and cities are quickly spreading this second flavor of smartness.

Third, and most important, cities are taking on a new awareness about themselves, a new and potentially transformative smartness: the collective identity of cities on the global scene. One of the by-products of so much city intercourse is the growing awareness among cities that they as individual actors have a vast greenfield of common ground. This terrain is rich in possibilities for cooperative action on many issues of national and global significance. National actions on global issues have proven to be sluggish and disappointing. Meanwhile, cities have made steady progress on a dozen fronts, some modest, others promising. Hundreds of cities have taken comprehensive action on climate change. Many have found novel ways to handle immigration, to set up first lines of defense to prevention of epidemic diseases, to strengthen resilience, and to a lesser extent, to fight poverty and preserve cultural assets. Sooner or later these small bricks will pile up to a more significant edifice of change. In all these flavors of smartness, private industry has shown an eagerness to enter these arenas bringing a fresh sense of possibilities and partnerships in cities that are simply not possible at the national level.

Cities have entered a transformative period of smartness in many flavors. They have shown us that city-to-city learning is alive with possibilities. City-to-city exchange leads to improved learning as well as to smart technologies that can revolutionize the relationships between center and periphery at every scale. Perhaps most intriguing, a new dawning has arrived as cities become cognizant of the benefits of cooperation with each other on problems of global goods.
*Beyond Smart Cities:  How Cities Network, Learn and Innovate.  London:  Routledge/Earthscan, 2012

Trash to Treasure: Women Entrepreneurs Help Pilot India’s First Citywide Recycling Program

As the world races headlong into the urban age, cities across developing countries are facing the significant challenges of governing increasingly complex urban systems and tackling higher rates of urban poverty. Where city governments have failed, social enterprises have increasingly taken the lead on forging new solutions and championing them into public policy. India has been a beacon of innovation in this field, pioneering solutions that span from mobile banking to low cost toilets.

Solid waste management sits at the nexus of these issues. This can be seen in Bangalore, India, where the city’s population of almost 8 million people produces about 4,000 tons of waste daily. An estimated 600 tons of this waste is recycled by about 20,000 informal waste pickers, nearly half of whom are women, mostly from lower castes and disadvantaged groups.

Working as individuals and small enterprises they retrieve recyclable materials from households, businesses, city streets and dump yards. They sort the materials, typically in back alleys or vacant lots, and sell them for small profits up the recycling chain. On average, a self-employed waste picker earns about 100 rupees, or $2, a day.

This informal sector forms the backbone of India’s nascent recycling economy. Their recovery and sale of recyclable materials creates “green jobs” downstream in the processing of these materials and reduces waste going to landfills, free of cost to the city. This, in turn, reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the occupational hazards are many, including harassment from police who treat them as thieves, and the public in general who treat them as second-class citizens.  Then there are health hazards from exposure to dangerous materials that are slowly being introduced by India’s growing middle class, like electronics, CFL light bulbs, and diapers.

With funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Caterpillar Foundation, Global Communities partnered with some of Bangalore’s most inspiring social entrepreneurs to formalize recycling systems in the city and improve the livelihoods of informal waste collectors. Social enterprises like Sahaas, Waste Wise, Daily Dump, Full Circle, and AIW partnered with us to create practical solutions based on our collective view that ‘nothing is waste’. Together we partnered with an even broader ecosystem of NGOs, citizen interest committees, government agencies, businesses, neighborhood associations, and most importantly, thousands of informal waste collectors that animate the recycling system every day.

We called the program Trash to Treasure because it capitalized on the value of recyclables to help pay for their clean up. The business model for our recycling centers is simple. The city provides the land and building costs, Global Communities uses grant money to kick-start the operations of the centers, and local NGOs or social enterprises manage the operations of each center. They hire and pay the waste pickers’ salaries by two fees. One is a monthly fee from households for collecting waste and the other is from selling recyclables and composted organic waste to larger recyclers.

We piloted seven recycling centers, which have a capacity to recycle 50 tons of waste per month. Based on the success of these centers, Bangalore’s municipal government is now rolling out the program by constructing one center in each of the 198 wards of the city, the first of its kind in India.

The neighborhood recycling centers legitimize an otherwise marginalized profession. Instead of relegating these activities to back alleys, the centers provide formally sanctioned space where economies of scale can be achieved in segregating, storing and selling recyclables. These centers also keep waste pickers safe because equipment, tools and appropriate clothing is provided.

We also sought to address the legitimacy of the informal collectors working independently across the city by addressing their “identity.” To do this, we helped the Bangalore city government issue identity cards to over 6,000 waste pickers and scrap dealers across the city. These ID cards authorize their legal right to work in the city. This was the first city in India to do this. These cards also enable workers to access additional government services like health care.  It sanctions their livelihood.

We then supported the formation of an association representing waste collectors in the city called Hasirudala (“green force”).  More than 2,500 individuals have joined the association and now have a collective voice of their own to advocate for their concerns. Through this association, we are now able to provide vocational and life skills training. We are also able to organize self help groups amongst women, so they can save, pool and lend their money to each other.

The entire Trash to Treasure program has been instrumental in helping this informal sector create more economically productive relationships that improve their position in the city, away from its fringes.

On-Demand Water Helps Communities Adapt to Climate Change

As our SUV rounded the corner of the rugged road in the parched, mountainous landscape of southern Honduras, we saw an enthusiastic man waving us to proceed towards him. With his machete in one hand and a large straw hat in the other, he jumped in the back of our colleagues’ truck ahead of us and led us to an oasis, a five-hectare plot blossoming with the broad, deep green leaves of plantain and papaya trees. Beyond this, gourd and watermelon plants creeped around the roots of tall yucca plants, flourishing in the shade protected from the hot sun.

The farmer, Daniel Cruz, guided us through his field, boasting about his plants like a parent would his children. He has plenty of reasons to be enthusiastic. Just three years ago he was only able to produce one crop – corn, whose yield was at the mercy of the fickle rains. Most years, this provided subsistence for him and his family and during a good year, about $500 in income. Some years, however, there was not enough rain to grow anything at all. Today, he earns more than $12,000 from cultivating over six crops harvested throughout the year.

The source of Daniel’s success is simple: a steady supply of water harvested in a reservoir uphill and fed to his crops through drip irrigation. This system was introduced by Global Communities (formerlyCHF International), an international aid organization focused on sustainable community development, with funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

Global Communities has introduced these impoverished farmers to one of the most advanced drip irrigation systems on the market. Developed in Israel, and recently bought to Honduras by John Deere, it is capable of distributing water under low pressure and economizing it with a precision never achieved before. A very small piece of engineering inside the half-inch diameter plastic tubing — which looks like a miniature maze — controls the flow of water exiting each hole and provides a consistent drip rate. The rate of water can be regulated by a set of valves according to what the different crops need, and sections of the network can be turned on and off.

The impact of this irrigation system, and seven other reservoirs constructed by Global Communities, has been nothing short of a green revolution for Daniel and almost 1,000 others directly benefiting from these systems. Compared to youth-led revolutions occurring in many countries today, this revolution is being led by the older generations, those who stayed in this unforgiving land while their children have migrated north, many to the United States to work in agriculture.

This green revolution is also keeping young adults home instead of migrating north. Daniel’s four sons stood nearby as we toured their field. They wore hooded tops with headphones dangling from their ears, watching us closely with a palpable urge to be recognized for their role in creating this bounty. If these boys choose to leave, there is reason for their father to be concerned: the journey north has become fraught with the risks of human trafficking as gangs and drug cartels from Tegucigalpa through to the US-Mexico border have expanded.

Daniel’s father and wife are also animated by this new life springing from their field. His father bent on his knees to dig up a yucca with his machete and show us the gourd varieties, as if we had never seen such a thing. Daniel’s wife, too, cuts gourds and papaya and sells them by the road side at $2 a piece – great money and a guarantee that she will be able to pocket some profit, also.

The agrarian reforms have been good to Daniel and his father, enabling them to own land. The Honduran government began addressing inequitable land ownership starting in the 1960s. The most significant actions were taken between 1972 and 1975, when 120,000 hectares were divided among 35,000 poor families. It has progressed slowly ever since. Most recently, in 2009 following the coup d’etat, President Micheletti redistributed land by issuing 400 titles of ownership to residents here in the Department of Valle.

Landless only a generation ago, Daniel now owns five hectares with an association of 12 other farmers. Global Communities is helping these groups of farmers work collectively to buy inputs, become part of savings and credit groups and sell in the market at greater quantities and better prices.

People have practiced agriculture in Honduras since the native Lencas populated the land, during the Mayan era. Like today, they squeezed out subsistence farming at the mercy of the weather, with rains typically coming once or twice a year.

Degradation of the landscape over the past half century (due to poor agricultural practices and population growth) has stripped the land of vegetation, altered natural hydrological cycles, eroded soils, and spurred deforestation. This desertification has led to a continuous reduction of water availability and progressive loss of soil fertility. So when rains do come now, the water retention in the soil is low and flooding is exacerbated.

Climate change is becoming a decisive factor impacting the availability and use of water resources for agriculture in many countries. It is causing crop loss and severe food insecurity.

Harvesting rainwater in reservoirs is not new; it is a centuries-old practice. However, innovations in drip irrigation technologies are enabling these reservoirs to be economized for much longer periods with very low pressure. All of this is new to southern Honduras and, for Daniel and the hundreds of other families living there, life is no longer teetering on the edge. Instead, life is flourishing as they add value to the landscape and trade produce.

 In 2011, Global Communities was awarded the highest environmental award of Honduras for this project, and in 2012 they were awarded a $50,000 Actions in Water and Climate Change Adaptation prize for this innovation in adapting to climate change. They are using the prize money to further develop the program.


Empowering the Urban Poor: A DIY Approach to Future-Proofing Cities

America has a great legacy of institutions that foster the “do it yourself” ethic from an early age, from the Boy Scouts to Popular Mechanics. In international development, this “DIY” attitude is more important than ever – and it begins with empowering the most vulnerable members of society.

Currently, one billion people around the world live in urban slums, and according to the United Nations, that number is expected to increase to two billion by 2030. These are the same people who find themselves at the front lines of climatic shocks – from droughts to intensified storms – with little protection.

It’s unfair, to be sure. According to the U.N., the 100 countries most vulnerable to climate change contribute the least to total global greenhouse gas emissions. But instead of pitying the people who are hurt most, we should empower them to make change. Because while reversing urbanization or climate change may be impossible, increasing the resilience of cities’ physical, social, and economic fabric is not.

Through my work in India for CHF International, I saw firsthand how the urban poor lean into challenges together, and invest in bettering their own communities as a cohesive unit. In 2007, supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation, we used this community-centric approach in one of India’s largest cities to make lasting improvements to the resilience of their most vulnerable slum populations:

Near Mumbai, the city of Pune is the eighth largest metropolis in India with a population of about five million people – and 1 million of them live in slums. By 2025, the population of the Pune-Mumbai “mega region” is expected to hit nearly 50 million people.

Situated at the confluence of three rivers, Pune has experienced many floods over the last several decades, including an historic major dam failure in 1961. Climate change is likely to increase the frequency of these floods. And slum dwellers in the region face additional challenges: 44 percent of them have sheet roofs containing asbestos, and thousands of them have no access to sanitation facilities. Like so many slum communities around the world, the poorest of the poor in Pune are living in hazard-prone areas, without rights to their land, with little savings, and without identity.

We wanted that to change. And it did.

When the central government of India made funding available to major cities in the country, including Pune, to undertake slum-upgrading projects, we helped empower slum dwellers to create better housing solutions. We did this in close partnership with city governments and locally based NGOs.

For example, instead of evicting, demolishing and rebuilding housing more quickly in the city outskirts, we helped residents develop housing on the same sites where residents had established their lives and livelihoods. We also worked with a collective of slum-based women’s savings groups chosen to administer a city contract to rebuild 700 houses across these slums. Working directly with a team of architects, the slum residents developed housing designs and neighborhood amenities like open spaces.

The project left more than just new houses. It left a legacy of community dialogue, debate, engagement, and empowerment.

We also helped Pune implement a program that supports both local governments and their urban poor in exploring the conditions of their communities in order to take action – a skill that will be increasingly needed in the face of climate change.

We engaged 5,000 volunteer slum dwellers to survey the socio-economic conditions of their peers across the city. Entering this information into a Geographic Information System (GIS) that we developed with the local government, we then gave back the data to community volunteers and taught them how to organize neighborhood action plans supported by their findings.

In two years, having mobilized their own resources and those of the local government, 130 slum communities in Pune implemented projects that they wanted, and on their terms. The improvements included a solid waste management program, better water connections, sanitation access, and the development of renewable energy sources.

The urbanization-fueled challenges faced by vulnerable communities in Pune are similar to those in many other mega-cities around the world. As global citizens, we are faced with a choice: to plan for the poor in future-proofing these cities, or to plan with them.

In fostering the DIY spirit that Americans know so well, I choose the latter. The urban poor are incredibly resourceful, with their own resources, networks, and demonstrated capacity to save and invest in the betterment of their cities. We just need to give them the chance.

What's the Big Idea? Aspen Ideas Festival 2012

I had the privilege of attending the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival in June, an annual event hosted by the Aspen Institute, now in its eighth year. This weeklong event brings together world renown thinkers and leaders – from Bill Clinton to Bill Gates – and a diverse, intellectually curious set of individuals to debate, question, listen and learn about what we can do to make our world a better place. Here are the top 10 ideas that I took away from the event:

  1. Movies are weapons of mass construction, according to Louie Psihoyos, who won an Academy Award for his documentary The Cove, which revealed the horror of the annual roundup and slaughter of dolphins in Japan. This was Psihoyos’ first ever film, and its popularity dramatically changed Japan’s fishing industry. Psihoyos and many other participants emphasized that the scientific evidence of many environmental issues is crystal clear, but our methods for fostering widespread policy and behavior change is less understood. Google’s Geospatial Technologist Ed Parson’s underscored that we are emotional beings whose hearts are more powerful than our brains, and asked, “when did a map last make you cry?” Violinist Kenji Williams, in collaboration with NASA, performed his ‘Living Atlas’ show called Bella Gaia (Beautiful Earth) which takes viewers on a journey of our world and galaxy using imagery from NASA space flights in combination with live music to express the deeply moving beauty of planet Earth.
  2. The age of one-way mass media news “broadcast” is over. Matt Thompson of NPR and Amanda Michel of US Guardian explained, media is no longer an appointment you go to at 5pm or 11pm; it’s a layer over our lives throughout the day. Audiences now share content with each other through on-line social networks, blogs and micro-blogs. Citizen journalism is growing and media outlets now find themselves sitting with their audiences, sharing content with each other.
  3. Technology and democracy are creating revolutionary times. Chrystia Freeland, the sassy provocateur and editor of Thomson Reuters Digital, proposed that we are now in the era of “leaderless revolutions.” Technology has empowered populations to rise up against those monopolizing power and even overthrow their governments – think Arab Spring – but, Freeland asked, where are the revolutionaries with the tools to rebuild governments. Protestors and organizers of revolutions can now scale up and communicate across networks-of-networks before even coming onto the streets. Previously, she said, “if a hundred people went out, they ended up in prison. If a million show up, the leader goes to jail.” Poland was able to create its government from the ground up – which many attributed to its culture of apprenticeship – but what about places like Egypt and Libya?
  4. “Climate change is one big psychic problem we need to get off the table,” explainedDavid Breashears, executive director and founder of GlacierWorks. David has documented, without doubt, that the glaciers of the Himalayas have already melted significantly. Yet, 1% of scientists with skewed views are stalling what we already know we must do, explained Dennis Dimick of National Geographic: change the energy paradigm, stop cutting forests, start having 2.1 kids per family, and empower women to have an equal voice in domestic affairs. The influence of human behavior on the Earth’s atmosphere in recent centuries has been so significant as to constitute a new geological era, the anthropocene.
  5. Get off ancient sunshine and onto current sunshine. Every year we burn a million years of photosynthesis that created our fossil fuels. I heard bright spots and dark spots about the future of energy. The bright spots lie in developing countries like India and China that have the opportunity to invest in next generation power, unconstrained by aging energy infrastructure. The CEO of SunBorne Energy explained that his company is creating utility-scale solar plants in India. I was also encouraged to hear that technological breakthroughs are still happening in the US today, for example in the extraction of natural gas which has opened up unimaginable volumes of gas across the globe, previously not commercially viable to extract. But there is a dirty side to this gold rush: it is contaminating drinking water and methane released is 25 times more harmful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. Shell’s natural gas production will outpace oil production this year, contributing to US energy independent and US trade, according to Russ Ford of Shell. But until game-changing breakthroughs in renewable energies make them more profitable that fossil fuels we will not see any shift in the unsustainable energy paradigm.
  6. Practice more “local universe problem solving.” 21st century global problems require 21st century global solutions, but we also need to influence what is within our control and rationalize our actions.David McConville, president of the Buckminster Fuller Institute emphasized that we need to re-think our role in the ecosystem to understand our impact on it and think more systematically. Our designs and systems need to enhance the regenerative processes that support life. Finally, Alexis Karolides, of the Rocky Mountain Institute, explained that we need to capitalize on the power of place to galvanize communities and institutions around issues like energy efficiency, as explained in its energy roadmap Reinventing Fire.
  7. Break the Rules: art, design and social change. Jane Shaw, dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, placed the arts on the Festival agenda at the onset by explaining, “As individuals and collectively, we need to develop our moral imagination. Art is central to entering another’s shoes, but our education system is increasingly making that impossible with cuts on the humanities…The point of entering another’s story is not simply to feel sympathy, but to foster a sense of community that prompts action…” Later, Tim Brown, CEO of the world renown design firm IDEO, gave us 9 principles to design our world by:1) Design behavior, not objects, 2) Design for information flow, 3) Faster iteration = faster evolution, 4) Launch to learn, 5) Use selective emergence, 6) Take an experimental approach, 7) Focus on simple rules, 8) Design is never done, 9) There is power in purpose.  Finally, Adam Lerner, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, highlighted that there is a lot to learn from artist who break the rules. Artistic combinations and fusions help bring newness into the world.
  8. Risk was America’s best idea. The biggest risk is the one you never take. Kai Ryssdal, the host of public radio’s Marketplace, and my favorite radio voice on air today, explained, “Political risk is a virtue. Not balance, not harmony, but rather the idea of political risk is America’s founding idea. But we’ve forgotten what political risk in a democracy means, calculated action for the common good without regard for personal gain.”
  9. What separates a product from a brand is an idea. Brad Jakeman, president of PepsiCo global beverage group, argued that companies who have already thought about commercializing ideas and creating markets for them could become the wind behind small ideas. That is why Brad said they are trying to turn their 300,000 employees into inventors and listen for small ideas that could be recipes for feeding the next billion. Small is the next big.
  10. Lighten up, Revive “the Joke.” Jeffry Goldberg of the Atlantic provided comic ‘shock and awe’ each time he took the stage. He explained that there is too much “self-seriousness” in our policy discussions and less weighty matters, like “the joke” could go a long way. That’s why Goldberg, on the heals of all the buzz about The Atlantic’s cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” introduced himself to the audience as Anne-Marie Slaughter. Laughter produces all sorts of positive cocktails such as dopamine and endorphins, all of which help our creativity, sociability, problem solving and things like blood pressure and immune systems. Take the issues serious, but not yourself.

TEDx (Video) Creating Smarter Cities with the Urban Poor

At TEDx Adams Morgan, I talked about creating smarter cities by filling the information and power gaps that have prevented slum residents and the urban poor from becoming co-creators of solutions, scaling-up interventions, and having a real voice in the retooling of their cities.

Creating Smarter Cities with the Urban Poor

In 2005, former President Bill Clinton, through the Clinton Foundation, challenged Cisco to use its expertise to make cities more sustainable.  As a result, Cisco dedicated $25 million over five years to the topic and piloted solutions in San Francisco, Amsterdam, and Seoul. Using “networks, sensors and analytics to make cities more efficient, productive and habitable” has since evolved into an emerging service line for ICT giants like Siemens, IBM, and CISCO, which is now being dubbed Smart Cities.

IBM has built a system to integrate data from 30 agencies of Rio de Janeiro under one roof called the Operations Center of the City of Rio to monitor city operations in real-time and respond quicker to emergencies. CISCO has created Smart Work Centers with the city of Amsterdam to help curb CO2 emissions and drive global collaboration.

As these ICT giants race head-long into this potential multi-billion dollar business so is the world rushing into the urban age, which is now half complete with 50 percent of the world living in cities. By 2050, the number of people living in cities is expected to nearly double to 6.3 billion. What took more than 250 years, will be repeated during the next 50 years.

There is no doubt that cities will need all the technology they can get to help manage resources, inform citizens, reduce energy consumption, improve mobility, promote transparency and even democratic principles. The complexity at hand for many city managers is unprecedented, both for the world’s mega-cities and also the rapidly growing second and third-tier cities in developing countries.

As an urban planner I have had my focus fixed on a more troubling wave cresting over burgeoning cities of the developing world, the rise of slums. One billion people live in slums today and this number is projected to grow to 2 billion by 2030.

Slums are not the inevitable result of urbanization. They are the result of failures in governing institutions, dysfunctional markets, lack of political will, and policies and practices of exclusion.

At the core of all solutions, we must stop planning for the poor and start planning with them. Otherwise we will only perpetuate the marginalization of the poor and the proliferation of slums.

With my colleagues at CHF we come up with our own “smart city” solutions focused on the 90 percent of the world’s populations not served by formal sector solutions. In the city of Pune, India, our team helped map all 477 slums in the city, home to 32.5 percent of the city (1.15 million people) by engaging residents to help conduct surveys of their neighborhoods. Then we organized this data on a web-based Geographic Information System within the local government so the city could make better planning decisions. More importantly we gave the information back to the residents and taught them how to mobilize action themselves.

In 2 years we helped 130 slum communities in Pune undertake this process, which were home to almost a quarter million people. Of these communities, almost all of them mobilized their own resources or those of the government to execute tangible projects and programs that have improved their communities.

At TEDx Adams Morgan on June 7, 2012, I will talk about building smarter cities by filling the information and power gaps that have prevented slum residents and the urban poor from becoming co-creators of solutions and having a real voice in the retooling of cities.

The First Mile Starts In The Community, Not The Last Mile

When the international development community speaks about citizen “participation”, “involvement” or even “empowerment” they usually express this as the “last mile” in development programs. At its best, this represents a fear of getting involved in what is perceived as the sticky work of “stakeholder dialogue” which muddles up clearly defined results frameworks. At its worst, it represents a form of manipulation where citizen consultation is used as a form of tokenism in order to push through a solution.

Last mile solutions plan for the poor, first mile solutions plan with the poor.  “The poor” have long demonstrated their ability to organize, learn from others, contribute resources, and implement solutions. And until the development community recognizes this and factors it into the first mile of programs, residents will continue to be marginalized and solutions crippled.

The Pune Municipal Corporation in India got it right when they recognized that they could contract local NGOs to design and redevelop housing with the city’s slum residents instead of evicting, demolishing and rebuilding housing more quickly in the city outskirts.

The Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC), with affiliates Mahila Milan and the National Slum Dwellers Federation, accepted a contract from the local government to plan, design, and rebuild subsidized houses as part of the Yerwada Slum Upgrade project which includes six dense Yerwada-area slums in Pune, India. Through CHF International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supported this program by hiring an architecture team to go door-to-door to collect ideas about what the community wanted, using housing models and life-size replicas, community meetings and broad engagement with the residents. These designs were on view earlier this year at the United Nations headquarters in an exhibit titled, “Design with the other 90%: Cities.” The program left more than houses, it left a legacy of community dialogue, debate, engagement and empowerment, the things that make democracies work. The Pune government demonstrated how to flip the development paradigm and let the first mile start in the community by delegating power and citizen control over program resources.

4 Lightening Presentations, One Spark: Open Data For Development

Last week I presented at the Geo DC Meet Up to a crowd of more than 80 development professions and techies crowded into the second floor of a bar. With a large flat screen TV to project our slides, four of us set off on our “lightening presentations” with a 5-minute time limit. Mikel Maron, cofounder of Ground Truth, talking about using Open Street Maps to help the residents of Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, map their neighborhood. Joshua Goldstein talked about mapping Dar es Salam with the World Bank’s Open Development Technology Alliance and how they got the university to host the data so no single agency could silo it or manipulate it. Christoph Koettl from Amnesty International talked about how they are using remote satellite imagery to look at eviction of squatter settlements in locations not safe to enter themselves. I talked about how CHF India mapped almost 500 slum pockets in Pune, India, using more than 1,000 volunteers, then helped their communities implement action plans based on their new community understanding.

The common thread amongst all our presentations was how “open data” can translate into more informed and empowered citizens.  Open data should be seen within the context of the Open development movement, which provides citizens with the information and tools to access, understand and influence their own development. Instead of institutions just producing large analytical volumes, surveys, and reports, domestic governments and bi-lateral aid organizations can increasingly share data and software tools, so policy makers, NGOs, community groups and individual citizens can do their own analysis, their own verification of the results, and develop their own plans for action.

As new systems are created to gather data, either traditionally or through new means with information technology, many stakeholders are now arguing that data should be made open so the latent energy of a broader group of stakeholders can legitimize findings and inform solutions.

For example, the World Bank’s Open Data Initiative has released over 7,000 indicators and they are producing free software to allow citizens, researchers, and policymakers to analyze household surveys and undertake their own poverty assessments. “OpenStreetMaps” is a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world by volunteers using copyright free sources and the widespread availability of GPS tools often available in mobile phones. OpenStreetMap allows anyone to view, edit and use geographical data in a collaborative way from anywhere on the globe.

Because slums are “informal” settlements, by definition, these communities often live in the shadows of formal sector data coverage. City governments often know very little about the actual socio-economic conditions of households, their living conditions or urban service levels. This data gap is a tremendous stumbling block in efforts to plan more strategically, at scale, or monitor progress of investments. At the same time, there is also a huge information gap for residents of slums, and often for citizens in general, to understand how to gain access to urban services, the governments that administer them or to have a voice in planning decisions.

Many institutions are attempting to fill this gap, including CHF International. In 2008, CHF designed a program called ‘Utthan’ (‘to rise from the bottom,’ in Hindi) with the Pune Municipal Corporation, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Utthan collects information on the physical and socio-economic conditions of Pune’s urban slums and uses this information to empower residents and local government officials to undertake community development projects.  The Utthanprogram is distinct because data is being collected by an extensive network of approximately volunteers that reside in the slum communities. To date, these volunteers have collected detailed surveys in 360 of Pune’s 477 slums, covering 86,000 households (approximately 430,000 residents). Over a two-year period, 130 slums have participated in the micro-planning process and almost all of them have completed tangible outcomes that improve their living conditions.

One volunteer explained, “Now I know everything about my cluster. While talking to the corporator I can give quick evidence of the amenities and residents of my cluster”. “Once there was a debate on the availability of garbage bins and water taps and because of the mapping I knew exactly the status in my cluster and the corporator had to listen to me.”

CHF’s development work will always rest on people power. But intermediary institutions like CHF and other stakeholders are becoming increasingly connected with emerging tools of the information age. And with these new powers, we can help create more powerful solutions.