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.”

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.
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*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.