• Debraj Roy

Why model? A case of urban informal settlement or slums.

Updated: Sep 30, 2019

Utopian city - Slums could inspire the cities of the future. Here's how?

Soon, one third of humanity will live in informal settlements or slums in developing countries. Our cities are at breaking point with over 90% of urbanization in this century will be due to the growth of slums. "By the end of this century, the top megacities will no longer be London and Tokyo; they will almost all be in Asia and Africa, and they will be far bigger than the metropolises of today".

By the end of this century, the top megacities will no longer be London and Tokyo; they will almost all be in Asia and Africa, and they will be far bigger than the metropolises of today.

Lagos is projected to have a population of 88 million. Dhaka: 76 million. Kinshasa: 63 million. The world is essentially reorganizing itself. However, urban planners across Asia and Africa are still looking for sustainable ideas to deal with ever increasing demand for low cost urban housing due to urbanization. In most Asian and African cities, this has led to growth and emergence of slums. Slums are often assessed with negativity. However, they don’t have to be an anomaly and, in most cities, they are an asset.

The informality of slums could perhaps inspire a new vision for urban living. By considering urban living at the human scale, and from a bird’s eye view, we can redesign slums as more sustainable and adaptive places, that can provide social and economic mobility to a diverse group of citizens. We could really harness the resilience they exhibit. Slums also exhibit a stunning self-organized emerging governance structure (block chain democracy) which has proven to be inclusive. However, the problem is in most cases the policy makers are stuck with “lower order” solution to re-design (develop) slums. So, what do I mean by “lower order” solutions?

Lower oder solutions

Often policy makers and researchers rely on policies such as microcredit, subsidized housing loans and services for the urban poor. These policies are derived by assessing the macro-scale behavior of slum dwellers through various surveys. However most of them fail in the long term. A house is only useful for the urban poor if its "use value" is greater than its "exchange value". For most urban poor, unfortunately that is not the case. That's one of the key reasons you see many slum relocation programs fail. Similarly, minimum wage will basically remove the key dimension which makes slums resilient, that is, informality. It will create inflation in the low-cost housing market and the slums will lose their function.

Slums are the future micro cities

A micro city is a framework for urban reform which was presented by Utopia in the World Economic Forum. It has three core elements:

  1. A micro city is a conversion of an existing slum.

  2. It is a semi-autonomous, privately owned and operated Special Demonstration Zone (SDZ) for up to 100,000 inhabitants.

  3. A micro city will be a semi-autonomous area within its city, using a block chain-based governance system that decentralizes and automates much of its administration. It would feature a block chain-based membership system, for example, that offers access to all key functions through member service hubs that become its inhabitants' key point of contact for almost everything.

Designing micro cities involves several core principles. First, using emergence theory - which looks at how simple rules and concepts give rise to complexity - to understand how slums and cities evolve. Modelling and simulation is key to this. In our previous work, we have shown how modelling can help us with more in-depth insights.

So what’s next?

Utopia is launching the first micro city in partnership with the city of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, and many of its leaders. "This joint venture will demonstrate to mayors around the world what they might do to repurpose their slums and, while doing so, create the future of urban living".

This will be the first in a global network of micro cities. The vision is to help establish 100 micro cities that will be connected – through their economies, governance systems and identity – in emerging cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America. However, to make these micro cities successful and to find the right interventions ex-ante agent-based modelling (ABM) is the way forward. ABM places humans at the center of the design. Micro data from slums can help us build such computational model and inform us a lot about how slum dwellers interact with their cities.

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