By David South
southasiadiasters.net December 2013
The transition to a green economy has reached a crossroads: while multilateral global initiatives have been long-running and complex, the idea of a green economy still seems fragile and achieving it far from certain. In the face of the ravages of the global economic crisis that has raged since 2007/2008, countries are now trying to roll back their green pledges or slow the pace of transition.
This exposes a dilemma: a perception that a green economy is in conflict with economic growth, prosperity and the advance of human development, particularly in developing countries seeking to make rapid gains in reducing poverty and building a middle class, consumer society.
Three things need to be foremost in the minds of those who care about creating a global green economy in the 21st century: innovation in design, in market prices and in business models. I think these three factors will be the deciding elements in whether green technologies are taken up quickly and used by large numbers of people to improve their lives.
The green option needs to always be the more appealing, cheaper option that also improves living standards. Happily, many people are doing this all around the world – you just may not have heard of them yet (unless you are reading Southern Innovator magazine that is).
As editor of the magazine Southern Innovator since 2011, I have had the privilege to meet, interview and see first-hand green economy innovators across the global South and profile them in the magazine. What has stood out for me is this: the ones who have achieved sustainable success have put a great deal of effort into design – how the technology is made, what it looks like and how it is used, how efficiently it is made and distributed – while also thinking through the business case for their work and how to make it appealing to others.
We have tried to apply this thinking to the magazine as well, by using clear and modern design with bright, eye-pleasing colours, and by choosing to use 100 per cent renewable energy (much of it from geothermal sources) for the magazine’s design and layout and to have it printed on paper from sustainable forest sources.
The fourth issue of Southern Innovator (www.southerninnovator.org), on cities and urbanization, launched in October at the Global South-South Development Expo 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya. It profiles many practical initiatives and innovators that are currently building green homes, communities and even whole cities. The magazine’s fifth issue will focus on the theme of waste and recycling and hopes to be a one-stop source of inspiration to better use the finite resources of planet earth.
– David South, Editor, Southern Innovator
United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC)
Published: July 2014
Issue No. 114, July 2014
Theme: Towards Urban Resilience
The coming wave of technological innovations aimed at global South cities will dominate civic debates whether people wish it to or not. Already, futuristic, 21st-century cities are being built around Asia from scratch. I had the privilege of visiting a couple of them in 2012 while researching the fourth issue of our magazine, Southern Innovator ( h t t p : / / w w w . s c r i b d . c o m / SouthernInnovator). Each city had a different focus for its construction – one was seeking to be an “eco-city” and the other one called itself a “smart city,” focused on becoming a regional business and technology hub. Both aimed to use the latest information technologies to make the way Asian cities operate on a day-to-day basis smarter – and greener.
Large information technology companies – including India’s Infosys (infosys.com) – have their sights set on selling all sorts of technological solutions to common problems of urban living. This aspiring revolution is built on two foundations: One is the Internet of Things – in which everyday objects are connected to the
Internet via microchips. The other is Big Data, the vast quantities of data being generated by all the mobile phones and other electronic devices people use these days.
Much of this new technology will be manufactured in Asia, and not just that – it will also be developed and designed in Asia, often to meet the challenges of urban Asia.
By their nature, cities are fluid places. People come and go for work and pleasure, and successful cities are magnets for people of all backgrounds seeking new opportunities. This fluidity puts stress on cities and leads to the constant complaints familiar to any urban dweller – inadequate transport, traffic jams, air pollution, poor housing, and a high cost of living.
If handled well and with imagination, new information technologies can ensure Asian cities do more than pay lip service to aspirations to improve human development. They can make cities resilient places – able to bounce back from disasters, whether man made or natural.
During the late 1990s, I saw first-hand the pressures placed on one Asian city, Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. The country endured the worst peacetime economic collapse since World War II while confronting the wrenching social and economic stresses of switching from a command economy during Communism to a free-market democracy. The city’s population grew quickly as rural economies collapsed and poverty shot upwards. I can only imagine now how the response could have been different with the technologies available today.
In 2010, I interviewed one of the editors of the Cities for All book, Charlotte Mathivet (http://globalurbanist.com/2010/08/24/cities-for-all-shows-how-the-worldspoor-are-building-ties-across-theglobal-
south), and she stressed the importance of South-South cooperation to ensuring cities are good places to live for everyone.
“A lot of social initiatives based on the right to the city are coming from these ‘new cities of the South,’” Mathivet said. “The book highlights original social initiatives: protests and organizing of the urban poor, such as the pavement dwellers’ movements in Mumbai where people with nothing, living on the pavements of a very big city, organise themselves to struggle for their collective rights, just as the park dwellers did in Osaka.”
Recently, an Indian restaurant uploaded to the Internet a video of what it claimed to be the first drone delivering a pizza in an Indian city. While this may or may not be a practical solution to traffic congestion, the subsequent negative fallout – angry police and public officials – from this use of new technology highlights the promise
and perils of innovating in the real world of Asian cities (http:/
b l o g s – n e w s – f r o m –
Micro electronics are becoming cheaper and more powerful by the month. Small businesses armed with a only laptop computer, access to the Internet and/or mobile phone networks, and cloud computing services, can offer very powerful business and public services solutions. And sharing solutions across the global South via information technologies has never been easier.
The U.S. Pentagon published various reports and studies in the 2000s forecasting a dark future for cities in the global South. As author Mike Davis revealed in his seminal work, Planet of Slums (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obido/ASIN/1844670228/nationbooks08), the Pentagon saw the developing world’s cities as the “battlespace of the twenty-first century.” It imagined sprawling, crime ridden cities full of poverty and slums and needing tiny drones and robots darting back and forth, keeping an eye on everything and suppressing unrest. This threat-based view of future cities is one to be avoided. It is possible, through the right application of quick solutions to the challenges that arise as cities grow, to turn to cooperation across the cities of the global South to avoid this pessimistic fate.
– David South, Editor,
United Nations Office for
Published: March 2015
Issue No. 128, March 2015
Fast-growing cities and urban areas in the global South can be vulnerable because they lack the web of structures and institutions that enable more long-established cities to mitigate risks and, when a disaster does strike, to bounce back quickly. But thanks to many new technologies, and some smart new thinking, it is possible to bring resilience to even the poorest and most deprived urban communities.
The essence of resilience is to build into plans and daily activities a
community’s ability to weather any disaster, small or large. All cities, rich or poor, can experience a disaster of some sort, be it weather, civil unrest, war, earthquakes, shortages, or economic, financial and health crises. New technologies make it possible for all cities, no matter how poor and overcrowded, to build in urban resilience. The ubiquity of mobile phones introduces a powerful city and urban planning tool. Mapping chaotic and unplanned areas is already underway in many cities of the global South (in Brazil and Kenya for example (http://tinyurl.com/qgba8kb).
Impressively, innovators in the South are using affordable microelectronics in the form of mobile phones and laptops to gather data and map it. This computing capability was once the sole domain of big information technology companies such as IBM. Now, a single laptop computer combined with a smartphone equipped with the right software can manage a large urban area, a task that once required rooms full of computers. The data can then be used to manage growth today and re-build after a disaster. Any excuse not to be resilient has been wiped out with this technological leap.
But how to deal with the common reality of feeling overwhelmed by the many obstacles to rational planning and building for urban growth in the South? Innovators have stepped in to take matters into their own hands with simple construction technologies as the solution. One example is the Moladi system of recycled plastic moulds (moladi.net). Anybody can master this simple building technique, as the mortar-filled moulds are designed to fit easily together to construct an earthquake-resistant, beautiful home.
This approach has the advantage of bypassing the failings of authorities to enforce building codes and standards in poor, urban communities, creating safer places to live and preventing the growth of unregulated shanty towns at risk to fire and earthquakes.
Others have found social ways to organize people, even in the most desperate of conditions, providing services and laying down the groundwork for an upgrading of an urban area to improve living conditions and long-term opportunities. The concept of ‘cities for all’ has inspired many to re-energize civic organizations and networking in poor areas to ensure they are not left out of economic growth. In Colombia, a famous example of this is the escalator in the city of Medellin, which connects a hillside slum to the centre of the city, opening up economic opportunities to all (http://tinyurl.com/nm47d3u).
Still more exciting, new technologies are in the works to simplify construction of major infrastructure and new buildings. A future city will be able to gather extensive data on an expanding urban area, make detailed development plans with architects and engineers, and then have robots and 3D fabricating machines quickly lay down infrastructure and erect buildings. Sounds far-fetched?
Well, in China one company recently used a 3D machine to make 10 houses in a single day (http://www.yhbm.com/index.aspx).
An infographic from Southern Innovator’s fourth issue (http://
tinyurl.com/m9vfwur) shows 10 ways any urban area – either planned or unplanned – can build in resilience. All are proven approaches from cities in the global South.
Southern Innovator’s upcoming sixth issue will explore the interplay
of science, technology and innovation in the global South and how people are making the most of 21st century advances to increase wealth and improve human development. Hopefully, all of this innovation will lead to more resilient cities in the future!
– David South,
Editor, Southern Innovator, UNOSSC
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