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OpenReblock

Connecting researchers, planners and communities to collaboratively upgrade urban slum communities in India and South Africa.

Photo of Luis Bettencourt

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EXPLAIN YOUR IDEA

Our objective is to produce technologies for optimal reblocking of any slum neighborhood. Reblocking -the spatial reconfiguration of slums to create accesses to each place of residence or work- is a universal requirement for slum development and resilience. It allows each home or workplace to have an address and to obtain urban services, especially water, sanitation and drainage, all essential elements of response to climate change. It also allows for access to emergency assistance, such as in the case of fire or health crises. For these reasons reblocking is the “platform” upon which local resilience to climate change and socioeconomic development both critically depend.
We will develop an ecosystem of open-source tools co-designed by slum-dwellers, technologists and scientists to replan slums with minimal disturbance and cost (optimal reblocking). Our objective is to make it easy for any community or local government to map neighborhoods in great detail: creating an initial map that includes each structure, and then obtain an automatic proposal for new streets and paths, adapt such proposed street plans to their needs and finally use such map as a plan for construction. The tools will automatically estimate the location of existing paths and associated construction costs for new streets, making discussion and comparison of alternative plans easy. Great user-centric design will be crucial to make the generating, analyzing and editing maps easy, attractive and productive.

WHO BENEFITS?

Slum-dwellers and cities benefit by co-designing and obtaining the formal means to map the social and physical conditions of slums and identifying the cheapest, easiest transformations for their resilient development. Ideas will be tested in Mumbai, India and Cape Town, South Africa via our local slum-dweller federations and established collaborations with local governments. Our methods are scalable to slum organizations, city governments or urban planners anywhere via open-source networking.

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

This project arose from visits by SFI/ASU researchers to slum-dweller federations collecting slum profiles data (community-led census). Residents in Cape Town communities were reblocking their neighborhoods in collaboration with the City of Cape Town. People living in slums repeatedly express the importance of providing accesses to their homes, of having an address and, above all, of creating ordinary development, through drainage, water provision and sanitation. They also stress the need to get help in case of fire or medical emergencies and explain how the burden of insecurity and indignity e.g. in the use of shared toilets, falls disproportionally on women, girls and the elderly. The mathematical commonalities of reblocking in different slums motivated our researchers to create a systems-level approach to the problem. We formalized the spatial reorganization of neighborhoods in mathematical language and developed algorithms to suggest the placement of new streets and public spaces that adapt existing layouts minimally and reduce work and costs, thus leveraging resources. The result is a platform to coordinate action within a system of stakeholders and to put planning tools in the hands of slum communities. We now need to focus on human-centric design to make these tools accessible for slum communities to use. The project starts with a prototype (image) and seeks to co-design with slum dwellers a set of flexible planning tools leveraging great science and design to create context specific resilience and help fulfill the aspirations of people in slums and their cities.

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

We are a collaboration of slum-dweller federations (Slum Dwellers International) & researchers (Santa Fe Institute/School of Sustainability-ASU) dedicated to understanding slums and promoting human development via community organization, data collection and cutting edge science, technology & design.

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

Reblocking - the reorganization of slums to provide accesses and services to all structures - is becoming recognized as an essential component for successfully addressing issues of community resilience and slum development. It is already practiced by some slum organizations as advocated by UN-Habitat. But, presently reblocking is done in ad-hoc ways. We currently practice this process in some SDI affiliated nations, but it can be a slow, inefficient and contentious process. The unique approach developed here is to create a platform to align community needs, engineering best practices, and city government capabilities embodied in science and technology. We will integrate mapping at the community level with optimal algorithms from research into a process of community organization and decision making that at once creates better local solutions and a scalable process of learning, improving design, and technical delivery that can be applied anywhere else.

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

Our project's unique capabilities are based on the integration of the best science and technology about cities and neighborhoods with local knowledge from slum-dweller communities and successful community organization from non-profits. We believe that the solution of difficult and persistent problems of human development and resilience depends critically on new and better knowledge, its application and growth. Many past initiatives to tackle poverty and resilience have suffered from being too local and not sufficiently aligned with a holistic understanding of the process of development and the interests of its many stakeholders. Our approach seeks to first identify the common systemic obstacles to development and resilience. We then design coordination tools enabled by cutting-edge science and technology to overcome these obstacles. These tools can help create virtuous cycles of socioeconomic development in households and physical change in neighborhoods, and allow the economic dynamics for such improvements to take root and thrive. Only such systematic approach, combining ideas of complex systems with community organization, has a chance to generate scalable, persistent solutions.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR IDEA?

Our idea creates a platform to re-organize neighborhoods in ways that can help address pressing issues of resilience and socioeconomic development. To be successful it needs to create design solutions that align the interests and expertise of at least 4 different communities: slum dwellers, city governments and agencies, poverty action NGOs and researchers. It is increasingly important to communicate with national governments and international agencies. We have identified ways to use local information, and planned solutions in maps as a common language for all stakeholders, but need to design easier, faster and more transparent practices to make the process really work over different media.

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

Turning slums into resilient and prosperous communities presents a difficult, systemic challenge. Our team brings together some of the best thinkers and practitioners of science, technology and community and international organization. Several pieces of the solution have been already developed but their integration requires collaboration by individuals and organizations representing different expertise and interests & has not yet occurred. Finally, we rely on the quickly growing capability to easily produce good maps- by communities with mobile devices, aerial and satellite imagery, and city agencies. This creates a body of data for enabling optimal collaborative solutions through mapping.

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

Feedback from our partners in slum communities has been essential to a) test the idea's attractiveness & validity b) evaluate its implementation as a practical tool, and c) identify steps in the process where better design thinking is required. We have had a number of discussions with slum-dweller communities and organizations and with city officials in Cape-Town (South Africa) and Mumbai (India). We initially overestimated the "power of technology" to solve the problem, but learned about how to integrate it to aid, and not to disrupt, successful community organization efforts. We learned that any mapping and reblocking tools must be empowering to the user, and that means they must be understandable and easy to "play with". We need to work on interface design, speed and functionality, to show how maps can be acquired, suggested, edited and manipulated. Using maps as a tool for the imagination -"how I'd like my neighborhood to be!"- is powerful and needs to be done well, clearly and with short time lags. For city engineers, the language of mapping is clear and welcome, but certain standards must be upheld for new digital technologies to supplant older practices. This 'precision' and the ability to transition between digital media and paper is also essential. A dashboard showing length and type of infrastructure, its costs and detailed progress in space and time also seems to be very welcome and is a good mechanism to keep everyone onboard. Better design is very much needed!

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

We would like to contribute to the eradication of poverty and the betterment of slums everywhere on Earth, over the next few decades, by providing the knowledge, organizational expertise, and social and information tools that make their transformation and resilience easy, straightforward and relatively inexpensive. In the process, we want to create the means by which every systemic intervention to reblock a slum becomes a way to both "act locally and learn globally". Thus, OpenReblock is an organizing, technological and learning platform to not only address the problems of each specific slum community but also to improve tools and data to be applied and further developed in new places.

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

Reblocking is about connecting slum communities to the systems of the city in as many ways as possible. This includes physical accesses, services (water, power, drainage, sanitation), formal addresses, and civic participation as new working relations with local governments, supported by technology and data. SDI communities often say that "Information is Power". The objective of this project is to provide them and their cities with the power to solve their own problems through better information and better physical, social, and economic connectivity. Our idea is designed to facilitate collaboration between existing networks in the city and beyond: slum communities work with local SDI NGOs and local governments (Mumbai wards, Cities of Cape Town & Stellenbosch) in mapping, planning and construction; data and methods are co-developed with researchers at local universities and at SFI-ASU; designers, open-source developers and international organizations help improve technologies and data.
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Attachments (4)

Answers_Expert_Feedback_Questions_OpenReblock.pdf

This document gives more detailed answers to the questions raised during the "expert feedback" stage. It specifies design elements for our idea, how they will be developed and tested and how we expect to be able to measure success.

Feedback Tools_Summary.pdf

These were the most important points and issues that came up in out discussions regarding a first round of feedback discussions.

OpenReblock_Experience_Map_sketches.pdf

This shows the sketches and Experience Map that emerged from our discussions.

Optimal_Reblocking.pdf

This is a technical paper, authored by the researchers in our team, detailing the mathematics and computational algorithms behind optimal reblocking.

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Photo of Matt
Team

Hi
Firstly, a great project, I wish you every success!
I had looked at similar situations whilst I was living in Bulgaria - there are a significant number of slum areas within the Roma community there, and this kind of initiative could well work for them.  I'm interested to know how you deal with corruption though?  There is endemic corruption on many levels in Bulgaria which has lead to freezing of EU redevelopment funding in the past.  Has this been an issue for you?

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