Turning City Slums Smart

May 4, 2017

Why not bring the smart city thinking and solutions into the world’s poorest cities and slums? Does it make sense – and in that case how? These were the questions asked by Quercus Group, Plan International Denmark and BloxHub when we invited 20 thought leaders to a discussion on Thursday 27th April in Copenhagen.

Today, the world has developed many sophisticated and sustainable solutions that make our cities smarter, safer and resilient to climate change. These solutions developed by leading urban experts are implemented with success in some of the most affluent cities such as New York, London, Dubai, Singapore, Shanghai and Copenhagen. However, almost all cities in the global south are dealing with some form of slum or in­formal settlements that limit these cities’ ability to be smart, sustainable and resilient. The rapid growth of these cities outpaces the planning efforts and hence the informal settle­ments are growing. As a result, slums have become permanent features of the cities they belong to, however without basic infrastructure and civic amenities.


For the world to address the SDGs and global climate change targets, it is imperative to make the slums more sustainable, liveable and resilient and include the slums in the development plans of their city.  The instrument to make this happen is a cluster approach that engages stakeholders across private, public, academic and organizational expertise in various sectors such as health, energy, safety, water, waste management, lighting etc.


Kicking off the discussion with 20 smart city thought leaders


In that spirit, we gathered a handpicked group of 20 smart city thought leaders to kick-start a discussion on how to move our ambition to action. The conclusion was quite simple: Yes, it makes sense to move the smart city thinking into the slums – if SMART in this context is defined as a solution that produces the desired outcome with least interventions .“Denmark is known as a world leader in urbanisation and sustainable solutions. How­ever, most solutions are limited to the rich cities of the world. It is time for Denmark to prove itself in the more difficult environs of urban slums thus creating a larger impact and be recognised as a true global leader in sustainability”, said Nicolai Rottbøll, CEO of Quercus Group that moderated the day. Morten Lynge from Plan International Denmark added that we do not need to think of the slums as a market in itself – bur rather the city as the market and include the slums as part of that market.


The 20 thought leaders, covering private companies, city planners, CSOs / NGOs, universities and organisations, agreed that the smart city agenda is cross-disciplinary and requires a multi-stakeholder approach. “The cities growing the fastest are the poorest. It is absolutely necessary to collaborate across sectors and disciplines including policy, governance, housing, water, security etc.”, Morten Lynge continued.


The need to understand local situations and involve local stakeholders


Jens Holst-Nielsen, Director in the Confederation of Danish Industries (DI) shared several concrete examples on how simple solutions have created large impact and better lives in slums. “If we want to export Danish solutions, we need to understand the local situations and adapt. We shouldn’t sit in Denmark and define everything”, he said. This triggered a subsequent discussion about the importance of two-way thinking. “In many cases slums are very efficient ecosystems managing scarcely available resources, so let’s not think of slums as something the west needs to solve, but also as sources of inspiration for western cities”, said Neelabh Singh, partner in Quercus Group. 


The participants concluded that local stakeholders, especially citizens, should be at the core of any smart city project and that the next step is to make a mapping that will provide the basis for the scoping of the future project.


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