More Innovations from Informal Settlements!

Spaza-de-Move-On self-built by street vendor Moses Gwiba in Durban, South Africa.

Spaza-de-Move-On self-built by street vendor Moses Gwiba in Durban, South Africa.

Lately it has become kind of a trend to talk or write about informal settlements – mainly about those in the southern hemisphere. Often these discussions are linked to the term Slum Upgrading. But what does this dubious term actually mean? And what are the innovations behind it like? As mentioned in one of my earlier entries, I am convinced that sooner or later urban societies from so-called developed countries will look for know-how from self-organizing communities satisfying local needs with local materials. Today I want to present some solutions invented in or for informal settlements.

World Bank’s and UN-Habitat’s Cities Alliance defines “slum upgradingas a process through which informal areas are gradually improved, formalised and incorporated into the city itself, through extending land, services and citizenship to slum dwellers. It involves providing slum dwellers with the economic, social, institutional and community services available to other citizens. These services include legal (land tenure), physical (infrastructure), social (crime or education, for example) or economic.” Despite to the problematic term slum or slum dweller I want to accept this definition and present five innovations which overlap these categories.

The "Design with the Other 90%: Cities" exhibition at the UN-Headquarter in New York.

The “Design with the Other 90%: Cities” exhibition at the UN-Headquarter in New York.

The recent exhibition and online database Design for the Other 90%  focused on design solutions that address the 90 percent of the world’s population not traditionally serviced by the professional design community. In its publication as well as on its website you can find solutions of designers, architects, organizations and individuals.

Rendering of self-built vertical housing units proposed for Heliópolis.

Rendering of self-built vertical housing units proposed for Heliópolis.

In one of Sao Paulo’s oldest favelas, called Heliópolis, a co-operational project between the university ETH Zürich and the city’s Municipal Housing authority (SEHAB) proposes to engage local residents to recycle discarded materials, which will be combined with concrete. By doing so, new construction materials can be created. Combined with industrial and urban waste products (polysterene, expanded clay, recycled plastic or natural fiber), concrete becomes lighter in weight and improves insulation and tensile properties. The composite materials allow for a modular building system which can be used to construct affordable self-built housing units. Further the collecting of waste material generates income for its inhabitants and keeps the settlement clean.

Recycling system diagram illustrates key collaborators and outcomes.

Recycling system diagram illustrates key collaborators and outcomes.

In Yoff, an urban area bordering the Atlantic Ocean in Senegal’s capital Dakar, residents used to dump household water on the beach, resulting in not just significant loss of water but also coastal pollution. Together with them the organization Environment and Development Action (ENDA) designed and implemented a sustainable, gravity-fed wastewater system. Instead of dumping their greywater on the beach, residents dispose it in small settling tanks. It is then sent downstream to larger collection basins, where it is treated with aquatic plants. You can’t drink the recycled water, but it can be used for irrigation, urban agriculture, and toilet systems.

Hand-painted murals next to collection tanks educate users about proper wastewater disposal.

Hand-painted murals next to collection tanks educate users about proper wastewater disposal.

The following solution doesn’t have anything to do with infrastructural improvements, but rather with socio-economics ones. In India was the missing link between informal workers and better jobs. Without internet or computer access, informal workers, such as housekeepers, drivers and clerks, only find jobs through people they know. Often they have to travel hours a day because they can not find nearby jobs. This lack of awareness between the two groups leads to lower wages for workers and dissatisfied employers who can not find enough qualified candidates. is a web- and mobile-based solution to connect informal sector employers and job seekers. Once registered through an SMS, job seekers receive for two cents a day daily SMS alerts about jobs in their neighborhood. Their profiles are added to the Babajob website, and for a fee, employers can filter and sort candidates as well as post jobs. Until now has reached almost 150,000 users.

But what to do if your mobile phone runs out of battery – especially in countries with a loose web of electricity? A trained electrician from Tanzania got the answer. Together with the for-profit social enterprise Global Cycle Solutions he designed a phone charger from scrap bike and radio parts. He doesn’t need more than spokes, brake tubes, clamps, motors and capacitors to install the device. As soon as somebody rides on the bike, it generates power by coming in contact with the spinning wheel. In Tanzania, the devices are already sold in urban retail stores and via sales ambassadors in rural villages, and are now also distributed in Uganda and Zambia. This innovative bicycle charger costs approximately US$ 10,-.

Project Masiluleke from South Africa is implemented in one of the urban areas with the highest HIV infection rates. The project is a collaboration by the U.S.-based design firm frog, the HIV/TB service organization iTEACH, mobile-based solutions incubator Praekelt Foundation, social innovation network PopTech, and telecommunications company MTN South Africa. In South Africa even more people own a mobile phone. Therefore Project Masiluleke uses mobile technology to raise awareness, encourage testing, and guide people into care. It also provides a free HIV self-testing kit which features simple instructions that rely on minimal literacy and provides a message of health.

All these examples have one thing in common: the communities found their own solutions which brings not only innovation, but ultimately builds resilience. What still lacks, in my eyes, is communication. I assume that if these solutions and innovations were communicated as strongly as new electronic devices launched each month, it could make our world a better place. Furthermore they could play with the country of origin effect and turn the image of informal settlements into urban areas with a high share of social innovations.

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1 Response to More Innovations from Informal Settlements!

  1. One aspect of the aftermath of the Credit Crunch and prolonged recession in the West, is the evident failure of attempts at ‘property led’ regeneration of urban communities. This usually entailed up-front government funding along with ‘flexible’ institutional arrangements to encourage private sector participation and any footloose institutional investment.

    In the wake of those failures, I think that the kind infrastructure innovations described here will become relevant in long established and once prosperous urban communities in many Western cities. I’m a kind of ambassador for the early beginnings of a truly innovate approach in one such community; in Govan, Glasgow in the UK. This is under the tag ‘Glorious Govan’. It may well be that that is one location where the informal innovation scenario will increasingly play out.

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