Opinion: Why informal settlements are already smart

Residents living in Sujat Nagar slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by: Dominic Chavez / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

On billboards and posters around the world, advertisers portray their visions of smart cities with exciting and innovative technologies enabling ever higher levels of productivity and new ways of life for urban residents. Economies driven by data and interconnectivity promise to revolutionize the means of production and to banish the chaos and filth of earlier ages.

From North America to India, officials extol the virtues of smart cities as a means of radically reshaping urban life. These ideas are echoed by urban planners in their visions for “world-class” cities to take the place of the messy, unplanned urban centers that exist today in many parts of Africa and Asia.

One common and conspicuous feature of these visions is the absence of low-income residents and neighborhoods. Concealing their existence is factually inaccurate, as about one-quarter of the world’s urban population ― nearly 900 million people ― live in slums. This all-too-common utopian view perpetuates harmful assumptions of who does and doesn’t belong in the cities of the future, and provides unofficial justification for evicting poorer residents or relocating them far away from employment opportunities.

It also misses a key opportunity to draw on their knowledge and financial capacity to make cities genuinely smart. An alternative vision would draw on these skills to enhance smart cities in ways that would make them more sustainable, resilient and productive for all.

Informal settlements, and the people who live in them, have key characteristics that epitomize “smart cities.” By ensuring that their knowledge and experience are integrated in city plans rather than excluded, all urban residents will be included in their development ― making the cities themselves more efficient, productive and less impactful on the environment.

Here are four important characteristics of informal settlements that demonstrate just how smart they are.

1. Compact

Urban sprawl is widely recognized as contributing to higher levels of energy use, particularly for transportation. While the density of many informal settlements is often a barrier to achieving adequate standards of living, new efforts by community architects around the world, including in Karachi, Bangkok and Kathmandu, are developing ways to maintain high levels of density and connectivity while simultaneously improving basic services, including piping water into homes, providing good quality sanitation, drainage and regular collection of household waste.

2. Networked

All too often, informal settlements are seen as inefficient and isolated, but a growing body of evidence shows how informal production systems are intricately linked with the city economy. Many informal economic activities that take place in informal settlements are important links in supply chains, and most are closely integrated with the “formal” sector. Similarly, low-income settlements can be financially connected as locally controlled funds, providing a bridge between low-income residents’ savings and financial institutions. This in turn provides the basis for cost-effective improvements in living conditions.

“Informal settlements, and the people who live in them, have key characteristics that epitomize ‘smart cities.’”

― David Dodman, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development’s  Human Settlements research group

3. Efficient

The need for urban development to reduce its impact on the environment is another key argument for including low-income communities in making cities smart. Low-income urban residents have a very small environmental footprint, particularly in relation to food, energy use and generation of solid waste. Many people work as waste pickers, boosting rates of reuse and recycling: in an average Indian city, 1 percent of the population recycles approximately 20 percent of waste generated. Yet this significant environmental contribution — often at great cost to health and welfare — is frequently ignored, while examples from around the world show how waste-pickers can be involved as partners in managing waste in ways that maintain these environmental benefits while reducing the harmful impacts on individuals.

4. Data rich

For the wide-range of benefits developed by informal settlements to be included effectively in the development of smart cities, data collection needs to be improved. In most cities in Africa and Asia — where half or more of a city’s population lives in informal settlements — there is still little data about them. Organizations and federations of “slum” dwellers around the world, such as Slum/Shack Dwellers International and Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, have pioneered the use of detailed community profiles to build the evidence base on the characteristics of informal settlements.

This type of data, now available in the global database Know Your City, complements “official” sources, such as demographic and health surveys — which fail to cover informal settlement — and censuses that are often out-of-date. Community-driven data forms the basis on which community groups can negotiate improvements with local authorities, and provides evidence about the appropriate locations and types of investments that are required.

Of course, it is important not to idealize the conditions in low-income and informal settlements — many of which desperately need to be upgraded to achieve even the most basic standards of living considered appropriate in the 21st century. Yet excluding them from the plans for the next generation of urban development means ignoring low-income groups’ rights to live in the cities in which they belong, and denying key expertise that will make cities truly smart.

Over six weeks, Devex and our partners will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • David Dodman

    David Dodman is the director of the Human Settlements research group at the International Institute for Environment and Development based in London and a teaching fellow in the Development Planning Unit at University College London. David and his colleagues work in partnership with southern civil society organizations, local and national governments, and international organizations in low- and middle-income countries to address urban challenges of poverty and vulnerability.