Dr Jaideep Gupte, Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Challenge Leader for Cities and Sustainable Infrastructure

Dr Jaideep Gupte, Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Challenge Leader for Cities and Sustainable Infrastructure explores how COVID-19 is reinforcing the world’s need to ‘think’, ‘make’ and ‘live’ our urban environments differently over the next 10 years.

Inspired by the rallying call of the Executive Director of UN-Habitat, Madame Mayor Maimunah Shariff, at the tenth World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi in February, Jaideep says we must craft cities differently to achieve a safer future for billions.

The very nature of pandemics is that they are dependent on the interactions of humans with their environment, and with each other. These interactions can become intensified in the built environment, making epidemic control a key consideration in city making. Nearly one billion people live and work in informal, under-serviced and precarious urban conditions worldwide. Billions more living in the cities of  lower and middle-income countries can just about afford homes with formal services such as piped water, electricity and access to healthcare, but these services are patchy and reliant on deteriorating infrastructure. As Annie Wilkinson, a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and a UKRI ESRC New Investigator grant holder explains, responding to the threat of COVID-19 in informal settlements is doubly complex. Water for basic needs is in short supply – let alone 20 seconds worth for hand washing – and living space is severely constrained.

In this era of anthropogenic climate change, where cities account for 60% of carbon dioxide emissions, where the number of urban residents exposed to multiple hazards like earthquakes, landslides, flooding and fire is set to double from two to four billion people, and as we are currently experiencing the heightened threat of health emergencies, what might a course correction look like?

A course-correction in how we think urban

There is nothing like a crisis to force us to re-focus and recalibrate how we live our lives. But with more than half of humanity now living in urban areas, even before COVID-19 took grip, some of the world’s best minds have been searching for the next big innovation that will leapfrog us from the past into the future.

In a context of major social and environmental challenges such as tackling climate change, improving public health and well-being and adjusting to demographic changes, it is “mission-oriented” innovation that propels the required changes in mind set, theoretical frameworks, institutional capacities and policies. And there have been many such cataclysmic innovations from water mills to the printing press and steam engine, through to space flight, the internet and mobile technology. Innovations that have transformed  lives in ways that were previously deemed impossible.

And now there is another staring us in the face – ‘informality’ as the leading ‘mission oriented’ innovation of our times.

Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing & Organizing (WIEGO) define the informal economy as “the diversified set of economic activities, enterprises, jobs, and workers that are not regulated or protected by the state.”

61% of the world’s workers, that’s two billion people, earn their living in the informal economy. In cities and towns in developing country contexts, nearly 80% of all employment is informalInformal healthcare providers comprise a significant component of global health systems.

If you pay close attention to the billions who live and work informally, you see that their mission is to make a good life for themselves and their loved ones in cities. And yet, cities continue to spend billions to erase informality as an innovative way of life, rather than directing those resources towards ensuring the health, wellbeing and rights of all those who seek to contribute the urban way of life[i]

Mariana Mazzucato, Professor of Economics at University College London triggered a system-scale re-think of the financial markets in 2011 with her book ‘Entrepreneurial State’. We need to take this thinking and apply it to informal economies thus recognising informality for the enabling innovation that it is, and the role it can play in aiding our response to pandemics.

A course-correction in how we make urban

More than 60% of the area expected to be urban by 2030 remains to be built[ii], meaning we can reduce disaster risk and improve the quality of citizens lives  in tomorrow’s cities by design.[iii] However, the construction sector has not kept pace with overall economic productivity, and it continues to be one of the least digitised sectors, only marginally above agriculture and hunting. If you compare the processes of material production in the city in the 1950s to now, they are essentially the same. The skyscrapers are taller, and spaces within them tend to bring in the light better, but little else has changed; the same mistakes have been repeated around the world in cities that continue to be designed and built by men.

In this decade of action ahead of us, let us not leave urban fundamentals behind. Development of the built environment implies winners and losers, and this in turn implies complex relationships between politics (social relations), materiality and urban engineering that often produce unsafe spaces:

60% of all urban residents in developing countries have been victims of crime at least once over the past five years, 70% of them in Latin America and Africa. A multi-dimensional focus on urban crime-prevention must therefore sit alongside city architects, planners, engineers, community organisers, and researchers in the production, contestation and mediation of the built-environment. We need to work with residents to create plans that advance their long-term visions for equitable and productive communities to transform unsafe and under-used sites.[iv]

Let us course-correct by placing interdisciplinary, multi-scalar and gender-sensitive ways of working into the crafting of cities.[v]

A course-correction in how we live urban

We have to address technology here. Cities are producing digital infrastructures that replicate in data and bytes the mistakes we have made in concrete. Digital technologies are playing a major role in shaping cities but according to the UN-Habitat, there are still 3.6 billion people without affordable access to the internet. Among the world’s 47 least developed countries, more than 80% of the population is offline. And the gender gap in connectivity continues to widen. We need a course-correction to ensure cities do not remain simply for the rich and to ensure cities remain inclusive to those who may otherwise be excluded on social, cultural or economic grounds. We need city planners to be cognisant to the complex patterns of human movement. People are not simply moving into cities, they are also moving out of cities, moving from one city to another, or moving within cities. We need this course correction to ensure that the infrastructure that supports urban living is more democratic than it is technocratic.

Finally, urban land is a valuable asset.  Cities around the world are experimenting with digitising land-records and titling. This puts the land under the strict control of the political machines that are delivering an entire range of actions, from the ward/neighbourhood level, to the city, sub-national region, and even national level politics. It is clear that unless technological innovation speaks clearly to, and is understood by, all citizens at these levels, it will eventually fail We urgently need to course-correct technological innovations to be more people centred, and to respond to people’s everyday needs as well as their aspirations for the future.

The reality of COVID-19 has forced millions globally to isolate and consider a new way of living. Course-correcting the ways we think, make and live urban, may be our only hope for successfully navigating crises in the future.  

[i] This is the central focus of the GCRF Research Hub on Accountability in Urban Health.

[ii] For a recent review of research on the built environment, see Lucy Earle and Kate Goh’s paper for UKCDR

[iii] GCRF’s Tomorrow’s Cities Hub seeks to catalyse a transition from crisis management to multi-hazard risk-informed planning and decision-making, for cities in low-and-middle income countries.

[iv] A great example is the Kounkuey Design Initiative.

[v] Three ambitious GCRF-funded programmes focus on this by strengthening research capacities and knowledge partnerships to foster a sense of equality between researchers and practitioners (PEAK UrbanKnowledge in Action for Urban Equity; and the Centre for Sustainable, Healthy, Learning Cities and Neighbourhoods)

Dr Jaideep Gupte is the Principal Investigator on Smart Data for Inclusive Cities funded by the European Commission; and Co-I of the GCRF ARISE Research Hub. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Development Studies, at the University of Sussex, where his research interrogates urban violence and wellbeing. Formerly a Prize Fellow of the Urban Design Research Institute, Mumbai, India, Jaideep is interested in using multi-disciplinary approaches and local data to understand material, temporal and political aspects of urban informality. Jaideep also leads the Cities and Sustainable Infrastructure Portfolio of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), UKRI, and acts as a champion for a multi-sectoral and transdisciplinary approach to the Built Environment on behalf of UKRI.

Twitter: @JaiGupte