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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s