How to Bring Infrastructure to the People Without Access to it

3 December 2014 | Originally published on Geospatial World
Urban infrastructure has in the past years attracted plenty of innovation and investment. We have experienced how digital technologies have built up smart cities, how building information modelling (BIM) has improved coordination work in the construction of infrastructure, and how new financial vehicles, such as crowd funding, are democratising these once exclusive investments.
Cities have come a long way. Places like Rio or Madrid now have state-of-the-art operations centres to monitor 24/7 municipal logistics, from traffic control to weather analysis. They are brilliant assets for towns but city dwellers are often left wondering as to how these will help them. In a place like Rio, where inequality, lack of sanitation and soaring consumer good prices are common place, it is understandable that people fail to appreciate the advantages of an operations centre – the most tangible service it seems to provide is helping citizens find shelter during rainfall!
Rio Operations Centre, COR

People want their needs to be understood and addressed. Last April, in a Resilient Cities panel discussion at the World Urban Forum in Medellín, the audience overwhelmingly questioned the purpose of investing in preparing cities for a potential natural disaster that may actually never happen. “Why not invest this money in the people? Isn’t the purpose of a city to make its citizens happy?” asked Juán Martín Vásquez, Mayor of Tamesis in Antioquía, Colombia. 
The technology for improving city life already exists. Renewables could make zero-energy houses, for instance, thus eliminating energy bills once the investment is paid off. Yet these technologies haven’t still found their way to the end consumers. It is the same case with waste management. Germany has been recycling for decades while its European neighbour Spain still sends 63% of its waste to landfills (Ecoembes data). It would take a trip to Germany to find out how the technology for zero landfilling works. But perhaps the most notorious example of our inability to adopt groundbreaking technology is the Nikola Tesla case. In the early twentieth century Tesla developed a device for wireless energy transmission and today, some hundred years later, electricity is still travelling through cables.
In the light of this, adoption and market penetration in the context of innovation seem to be at least as important as the innovation itself. Wouldn’t it be sensible then to take resources off innovation and put them in adoption strategies? Or, taking it a step further, perhaps we should stop the pursuit of technology for a minute and work on taking to the market the technologies that already exist.
This last thought may sound regressive but it makes sense if we consider the huge success of the award-winning Solar Bottle Bulb in emerging markets. The solar bulb is a plastic bottle filled with water and bleach which, when pierced through the roof of a house, refracts sunlight and provides as much light as a 60-watt incandescent bulb. The bottle brings indoor lighting at no cost, reduces electricity bills and the use of kerosene lamps. It is extraordinary to say the least that although windows and electricity have both been around for a while, it is ultimately a water bottle doing the job of bringing light to the 1.5 billion people without electricity throughout the world.
The Solar Bottle by

Granted, the adoption of infrastructure technologies isn’t easy. High costs, conflicting interests and inaccessible information are the main barriers. Policy makers are believed to hold the key to unlock the progress of these technologies, yet at a time when grassroots movements are the drivers of change, it seems limiting to accept that the power of anything could be in the hands of politicians. It is the responsibility of us all to try and come up with solutions that can bring infrastructure to as many people as possible.

There are at least three ways to do so:

1. Put people at the centre of any decision
People are the ultimate users; they know what they need and how much they can afford. Ask them and plan the infrastructures starting with the result you are likely to achieve.

The wrap-up at The Economist Urban Infrastructure conference last month in London was precisely this: people, common sense and collaboration for breaking down silos should be the drivers of infrastructure planning.

2. Think holistically
A city is made of many interacting parts. It is a system of systems where each and every one contributes to a common good (see diagram 1). Focusing on a specific and punctual proposal without considering and acting upon its context does not make a sustainable solution. A well-functioning town is a balanced one that gives equal importance to all systems.

Diagram 1: SaC works with 11 systems

3. Go simple and one step at a time
Systems can be built gradually, starting with the more important first. This is easiest done with simple, possibly low-tech solutions, which in infrastructure translates into lowering the standards. They can be upgraded at a later stage when the community progresses. It is important though that space for all systems is provided from the beginning without ever compromising it.

At Send a City (SaC) we believe that this approach could make infrastructure travel far. We additionally monitor the impact and cost of every system. This allows the stakeholders (community and investors) to be part of the process and it helps us not to deviate from the essential. We even encourage systems towards self-organization and seek this way to empower citizens to create their urban and social reality while achieving the goals of land development and capital assets creation.

This post was originally published on Geospatial World on December 3, 2014 with the title How to Make Infrastructure Go Viral

Cover picture by PS. Diepsloot Township, Johannesburg, South Africa.

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