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Digitally empowered masons for safer housing in slums. Update: Expert Feedback, 22Dec2015

Providing construction technical assistance to masons and homeowners engaging in incremental construction in slum communities.

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EXPLAIN YOUR IDEA

With rapid urbanization in India, the urban population is expected to double to 590 million by 2030. With no affordable alternatives, slums offer housing options to low-income households in urban centers. However, apart from lack of basic services, current construction practices in self-built slum neighborhoods lead to precarious structures with high risk of collapse due to natural disasters. These units suffer from a poor quality of living, and are susceptible to chronic effects of climate change such as flooding &extreme indoor heating. There is an opportunity to improve the built environment and make slums more resilient through innovations in delivery mechanisms and provision of widely accessible technical & design construction tool-kits.

Leveraging digital technology, our objective is to bridge access to technical know-how in low-income neighbourhoods targeting self-employed masons. The idea would be implemented in the form of kiosks located within urban slums across Indian cities. Kiosks would be located at existing service centers of partners (NGOs, material suppliers) frequented by the users and equipped with mobiles, computers and printers. Masons (and homeowners) would now have improved access to inputs such as a) cost-estimates for construction, b) 2D/3D designs and c) customized construction services based on feedback and requests. To enhance outreach to semi-literate users, the technical information would be a combination of graphics and audio-video content.

WHO BENEFITS?

The beneficiaries are masons and homeowners living and working in dense and rapidly expanding slum communities. Leveraging technology, the kiosks will dramatically cut the cost of delivery of construction technical inputs to low-income masons and homeowners. The pilot is planned to be implemented in informal settlements in New Delhi through the service centres of the national NGO SEWA Bharat, part of the national movement of over 1.9 million informal women workers across 13 states in India.

HOW DOES YOUR IDEA TAKE INTO ACCOUNT THE CONTEXT OF URBAN SLUMS AND CLIMATE CHANGE?

Our idea addresses the negative impact of climate change and urbanization on the quality of life of poor residents. Sub-standard housing has affected health and education outcomes for adults and children that are exacerbated by overcrowding. In Delhi over 60% of low income households have over 5 persons sleeping per room (National Family Health Survey 2010, USAID). Guidance and inputs on construction practices would influence the quality of construction reducing the health problems associated with water seepages, increased humidity that is currently leading to high maintenance and energy costs. These efforts will enable cities to have a seismically safer housing and resilient built environment.
SEWA Bharat one of our pilot partners has created a movement of 1.8 million informal sector workers. With a focus on women’s empowerment they engage in skill development and organize community advocacy efforts. Their role would be pivotal in setting up the kiosks and engaging women in the implementation process. The mHS team strongly adopts the values of “Designing with” based on human centered design approach. Our projects on Modular Homeless Shelter and Design Home Solutions were selected for The Cooper-Hewitt Exhibition, Design for the other 90% in New York in 2012. The current idea has the ability to inter-weave with other efforts for resilience building. The final scope is that the kiosks continue to offer innovative services, for better quality and safer housing, that are dynamic and responsive to the rapidly evolving situation of housing in slums.

IN-COUNTRY EXPERIENCE

  • Yes, for two or more years

EXPERTISE

  • I’ve worked in a sector related to my idea for at least two years

GEOGRAPHIC FOCUS

  • Yes

TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF

mHS City Labs is an interdisciplinary action-research team co-founded in 2009 by Harvard Business School graduate, Rakhi Mehra and urban designer - architect, Marco Ferrario with the mission to foster socially inclusive and resilient cities.

IS THIS A NEW OR RECENT IDEA FOR YOU OR YOUR ORGANIZATION? HOW DOES IT DIFFER FROM WHAT YOU ARE ALREADY DOING?

Since 2010, mHS has applied an interdisciplinary approach to address the challenges of housing in slums. Past projects focused on delivering door-to-door customized technical assistance to homeowners offered as a bundled service with microfinance institutions. While this pilot validated the need for construction assistance and willingness to pay, for scaling-up we identified 4 next steps: a) offering technical services that were demanded (pull strategy) b) directly engaging the mason c) designing a low-touch delivery mechanism and d) ensuring a community based initiative that was readily accessible.
Offering a construction tool-kit targeting the end-users through the medium of digital technology is a new concept. The innovation lies in the audio-visual interactive content and delivery model. We have tested few prototypes and are currently gathering feedback on the digital interface from masons and homeowners in informal settlements within Delhi.

HOW IS YOUR IDEA DIFFERENT FROM OTHER SIMILAR INITIATIVES? WHAT ARE YOU DOING DIFFERENTLY? WHAT UNIQUE ADVANTAGES DO YOU HAVE?

The most widespread effort in mason training is that of national skill development programs and NGOs in urban, rural and post-disaster locations. These projects are heavily subsidized and have mixed results as they have an expensive delivery system; being attractive and accessible to a small sub-set of selected masons. Often, the primary objective is job creation. In parallel, initiatives to improve and upgrade housing in urban slums get designed as one-time efforts, requiring close coordination and negotiation with the municipalities, collective communities’ agreement and incentives through subsidized financing.
mHS’ offering differs as it directly targets self-employed masons and home-owners that are the drivers of the construction process in slum communities. Working on a bottom-up process, digital tools will empower the users and inform their decisions related to safety and quality construction. The focus will be on a package of services that are valued (pull strategy), partnerships with agencies in high contact with target groups (NGOs, cement companies, material stores) and incentivizing users with easy access to expert advice embedded in the service.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR IDEA?

For this idea, the initial focus has been on the key potential users - masons and homeowners. Based on the data collected as well the marketing and distribution strategy, the questions that we seek answers to would be better understanding other potential stakeholders, users and their profiles. We are currently evaluating different pricing and financing mechanisms for the project based on the up-take and success of the first digital tool.

WHY DO YOU THINK THE PROBLEM YOUR IDEA SOLVES FOR HASN'T BEEN SOLVED YET?

Improving resilience and safety in slum communities is a complex issue requiring alignment of different interests of multiple stakeholders. While access to services at household level – water-sanitation, electricity, micro-finance – has been tackled successfully, regulating and improving the built environment in slums with a top-down approach, require strong political will, community engagement processes and a patient capital to scale for city wide impact. Currently there is no approval process for slums despite over 50% of them have some basic security of tenure. The reliance on financial subsidies is another reason that prevents this solution to work at scale.

HOW HAS YOUR IDEA CHANGED BASED ON FEEDBACK FROM YOUR COMMUNITY?

Our team engaged in community level feedback in 3 areas: 1) Identifying areas of conflict between home-owners & masons 2) evaluating the perceived value of the service and 3) understanding if the digital interface would be easy to use by the target group.
For this, we conducted two types of interactions – focus groups with masons at local service centers in slums within Delhi and field surveys of homeowners currently engaged in construction. With the help of a laptop and a smartphone, users were given prototypes of a basic cost and materials calculator, as well as simple 3D graphics translated from complex engineering drawings.
The process helped further define the user groups, co-design the proposed service and confirmed a willingness to pay. On areas of conflict, contrary to our hypothesis, the masons viewed the technical inputs and service as a tool to validate and formalize their offer to potential homeowners. They believed it would reduce the conflict by bringing transparency and managing expectations, as well as formalising the trade resulting in ethical practices. In terms of the interface, while the mock-app applications were easy to follow, they required some facilitation. This feedback was integral to include trained capacity to guide users at each kiosk and the idea to hold workshops for interested users at the launch of each kiosk. Kiosks can also serve to link potential customers to masons, creating a marketplace with user based ratings.

WHAT WOULD YOU ULTIMATELY LIKE TO ACHIEVE WITH THIS IDEA? WHAT IS YOUR NEXT STEP TO GET THERE?

Our ultimate aim is to enlarge the repository of digital tools through mobile-based applications for individual and institutional users. We are already developing the content of our services to be accessible to smart-phones and other mobile devices. mHS was recently awarded a partial seed grant from Internet.org to engage in product development. Kiosks will act as critical community hubs for technical inputs and provide key inputs to develop our services/tools (using a lean-start-up approach). While mobile penetration and use of internet is still limited, adoption is fast growing and we are positioning ourselves to tap this opportunity to reach millions of users.

How does your idea connect to the broader system of the city where you plan to implement?

In slum communities, construction is a un-regulated activity with no process for seeking building plan approvals. The process of slum-regularization takes place, if at all, years after most construction is complete, making it tough to influence the quality of construction then.
Our hope is that, after proof of concept of our solution, the local government will see value in the idea. The services could simplify and thus bring building approval processes to slums.
Formal financial institutions in India are working to push the frontiers of housing finance by lending to households with informal tenure. mHS has advised the LIHF (Low Income Housing Finance) credit facility of World Bank with Government of India to include informal settlements, while highlighting the social and environmental risks. mHS also engages in policy research & advocacy and as resource agency on social housing with the task force of Delhi Development Authority (DDA).

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Photo of Chioma Ume
Team

Hi!

Below is some feedback from our experts. We'd love to hear your responses!

It'd be great to clarify their payment model and how they hope to introduce this and implement this over the long run.

Have you thought about integrating live trainings, as an added interaction, to the kiosks? I think this is a great idea -- one that already seems to be proven (in some ways).

I'd like hear more about the immediate value proposition to a mason or homeowner. Also, can you share information about your understanding of cost barriers and existing incentive structures?

Photo of mHS CITY LAB
Team

Dear Chioma,

Thanks a lot for the feedback,
below our answers to the experts questions.

The first tool being offered in the technical kiosks is a cost-calculation service with detailed project budgeting with material and labour costs. The immediate value proposition to the homeowners in seeking a cost-estimate and other technical expertise is savings and financial planning. More accurate information will help to minimize cost over-runs, validate budgets while applying for financial loans, or tap into one’s savings. Additional tools such as 2D and 3D customized designs led to perceived increase in the future resale value of the unit making it a highly demanded service. The construction project would be broken into phases of construction with graphics/videos embedded that highlight best construction practices for each phase and the essential steps to ensure for safe construction.

For the masons, the expert service would validate their costing and provide technical inputs in a non-patronizing and un-threatening approach. Often the verbal understanding leads to disputes between masons and homeowners. The current cost estimation service –as we learned during our interaction with the customers, is seen as a great system to validate the engagement between masons and its clients (homeowners), . It can help to negotiate contract and act as a form of proof between the two parties. In addition and in future services, training videos will enhance knowledge on construction best practices, enhancing the demand for better qualified masons.

Through the feedback we are currently gathering, we have come to realize that the masons are willing to pay much higher fees than we had initially anticipated, indicating the huge need for such a service in slum communities. Despite this willingness to pay, the scope of the project at this stage is to attract and acquire a large pool of first time users.
We are currently studying the revenue models based on value proposition to users and other private sector agencies to determine the pricing.
The aim for the project is to incubate an independent social enterprise that in 3 years is financially self-sustainable and thus in a position to invest in R&D and scale.

The suggestion of live trainings has been well received and a key area of feedback from the community interactions. The live training component will be a more deliberate design factor for our partnerships. We will initially select organizations for partnerships that already offer vocational skill training and thereafter could be engaged to provide advise in new locations where kiosks are located and leverage our services/tools.

Photo of Chioma Ume
Team

Wonderful, thank you for your detailed response! 

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