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.

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.