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

Photo of Luis Bettencourt

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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.


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.


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.


  • Yes, for two or more years


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


  • Yes


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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)


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.


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


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


Join the conversation:

Photo of Matt Clark

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?

Photo of Manik Kumar Saha

Dear Luis Bettencourt,

Greetings from Bangladesh!

This is Manik from BRAC Urban Development Programme and one of the winners of Amplify resilience challenge (
I was just wondering whether you got any direction from OpenIDEO team regarding our boot camp of Kenya and any visa related issues.

Photo of Luis Bettencourt

Hi Manik,
looking forward to meeting you and hearing more about your project. We did not hear much back... I suggest you email Rob, he was in touch on another issue. best, -L

Photo of Chioma Ume

Hi Luis,
Below is some feedback from our experts. We look forward to your responses!

 Are there cultural and regional considerations/assumptions that will impact how this idea is scaled in different places?

How will you test if the technology approach is working? What are the offline tools to make it successful?

This would clearly be beneficial to governments, but what is the value for the users who provide the information for this idea? What are their incentives for participation? 

Photo of Luis Bettencourt

A1: We have discussed this issue with local communities and NGOs members as part of our prototyping plan exercise:
Many slums in Mumbai are very dense, already have permanent structures and several stories. Government policy is prioritizing the introduction of improved sanitation in these neighborhoods. We discussed the uses of OpenReblock with SPARC (local NGO) and with Mumbai City Ward Engineers. Both found it useful in analyzing the intricate spatial structure of slums and revealing where accesses could be introduced. They stressed that analyses are most useful in 3D, integrating the height of buildings and their structural quality. They also emphasized that the priority in terms of policy are shared toilet blocks. They suggested using OpenReblock to find shortest paths to existing sewer lines for strategic future planning.
In Greater Cape Town, most slums are part of suburban townships. These are less dense and established than in Mumbai but present other problems: most households have their own shack and are less tightly interdependent socially. Most slum areas are prone to flooding as they stand on sandy low-lying ground so considerations of drainage are very important for neighborhood resilience.

By comparing and contrasting these two use cases we derived a number of design requirements for OpenReblock to be co-designed and tested by our users in local communities and NGOs (see attachment). We see the main challenge as being able to create design that makes the use of OpenReblock very easy and accessible for slum communities and NGOs to use.
From the beginning a wide range of local actors, technical and organizational, within communities and SDI NGOs are involved in the process. As SDI does in all its other activities, two or three cities and countries start exploring a new process and gradually others visit them and pressure for refinement and adaptation to serve their own processes. The work of OpenReblock is the next stage of a process, following on the heels of our recent work creating a base data gathering system and digitalizing that data over maps.

A2: The reblocking process already exists and is well exercised as a practice in community organization. Both SPARC (SDI’s Indian Federation) and CORC (SDI’s South African Federation) have performed reblocking processes a large number of times. The OpenReblock project builds on these existing processes. Our digital and physical tools complement and facilitate this personal and interactive process, which can otherwise be very slow, laborious and contentious as hard trade-offs are involved. The planned uses of technology and data fit in strategic places of this process where uncertainty, technical difficulty or coordination become crucial to create a common view and an evolvable practical plan.

We already have open-source data collection and mapping tools that can be used in offline environments. These are already used by SDI Federations and thus are a seamless part of OpenReblock. Once the mapping and data collection is done, the users connect to the internet to upload the data so that we can run the reblocking algorithm that suggests optimal access configurations (this is, at the moment, too processor-intensive to do offline). Users will then be able to download and print out the resulting maps for offline use, so they can share them with the community for discussion. Thus, we believe that we have a robust and well-integrated work flow for the idea and that additional elements can be added in modular ways. 

A3: The primary benefit of OpenReblock is to the local slum community. All SDI efforts are community-led and prioritize the needs of the community ahead of other objectives. The process simply does not work if people do not feel they will derive sufficient benefits for themselves: They will walk away. The reality is that while lots of data is now being collected, it is always a challenge for it to be utilized in the context of slums. Creating visual digital images for a dialogue within the City and between communities is not a process in place and so communities generating this data, getting internal agreements within their members and presenting it to cities is an area of focus of great value to SDI affiliates. It’s a digitalized visual manifestation of what they do presently.

While these advantages accrue to slum communities, it is also important to realize that a virtuous cycle of resilient development is created by the reblocking process that benefits local governments and other people in the city. By facilitating the introduction of services in the home and regularizing land tenure, Cities relieve the burden of maintaining public services that often break down from intense use and that do not generate revenue. Billing of services to households and businesses provides a sustainable economic model for their expansion and real estate taxes allow the City to improve, but also forces it to become more accountable.

Photo of Chioma Ume

Thank you, Luis! 

Photo of Luis Bettencourt

Our pleasure - Please also make sure to see the attachment.

The questions really helped us discuss and clarify design features and functionalities of OpenReblock !!

Photo of Chioma Ume

That's great! As a word of advice, I'd make sure that your answers to the sections are as clear as possible and include what you really want us to know. If an attachment has more depth, it's a good idea to make mention of it in the corresponding answer, so our evaluators know to take a look! Thanks! 

Photo of Giok P CHUA

Cool Idea for Better Community-Village-Town Planning
Should the tasks be to Upsize Capabilities of the Slum Citizen to climb out of the Rat Hole be it any slum or refugee camps?
NO MORE DEPENDENT on Hand-Out Charity...........create apathy and terrorism
So that they have human rights self respect &  the slum could now be for urban renewal?
Singapore Model is copied shamelessly by China over these last 20yrs....
Why Not the rest of the world
Check out

Photo of Luis Bettencourt

Hi Giok P CHUA, Thanks for your comment.
I advise the government of Singapore on urban issues and have had the pleasure to spend time at the Center for Liveable Cities (CLC), who are charged with documenting the historic urban development of Singapore and its Public Housing program, in particular. Singapore has achieved the amazing feat of eliminating slums by housing most of its population in good public housing (> 80% presently) since 1965 and of having done it quickly and integrating all parts of its citizen population. I am a student of this housing model and have asked several people at the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the CLC how their model could be applied, for example, in Brazil or Kenya or India. The answer I got was that they though that the political and cultural structures of Singapore are very unique and very difficult to replicate in any other nation, especially typical developing nations. I hope to continue to study this issue.   But another problem -- much discussed also in Singapore now - is the loss of history and identity that relocating people onto new tower blocks also creates, in opposition to gradual neighborhood development. This issue has been discussed in many famous analyses in planning and architecture, by leading thinkers such as Christopher Alexander, Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford and others: it is much more desirable to create the conditions for neighborhoods to evolve and improve than to build them anew quickly as tower blocks that won't last beyond a few decades. The problem is that we have not known - in planning - how to help neighborhoods evolve fast enough that typical issues of slums can be solved quickly and in holistic ways that help people develop and be resilient. Our proposal - and the body of research that frames it - please check out out research at - will do just that. It starts from a new understanding of cities, slum neighborhoods and human development, to propose an integrated solution for resilient human development in place. It is a bottom up solution, where the integration is provided by new coordination mechanisms, facilitated by design, technology and data as well as community organization and a new shared sense of need and possibility by communities and local governments. We think that this is the only way to create cities for people, by people that will be pleasant and nurturing places to live for many centuries to come.      

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congrats on making it to the Feedback Phase Luis! We would love it if you can take some time to answer the new Refinement questions that we've added to your original idea submission form. To answer the new questions, hit the Edit Contribution button at the top of your post. Scroll down to the entry fields of the new Refinement questions. Hit Save when you are done editing.

Also, here's a useful tip: When you update the content of your post, it'd be helpful to indicate this in your idea title by adding an extension. For example, you can add the extension " - Update: Experience Maps 11/16" to you idea title. This will be a good way to keep people informed about how your idea is progressing!

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congrats on making it to the Feedback Phase Luise! We would love it if you can take some time to answer the new Refinement questions that we've added to your original idea submission form. To answer the new questions, hit the Edit Contribution button at the top of your post. Scroll down to the entry fields of the new Refinement questions. Hit Save when you are done editing.

Also, here's a useful tip: When you update the content of your post, it'd be helpful to indicate this in your idea title by adding an extension. For example, you can add the extension " - Update: Experience Maps 11/16" to you idea title. This will be a good way to keep people informed about how your idea is progressing!

Photo of Catherine Allinson Future Earth Ltd

Hi Luis,
Very happy to talk - please email me at and we can set up a call.

Photo of Chad Balauro

do slum dwellers learn to make this tools? and produce it to sell?

Photo of Luis Bettencourt

Yes. Slum dwellers learn to create data, maps and their own electronic surveys. These are not typically produced to sell, because of the ethos of the work. But could be in some circumstances. Depending on how much a community wants to engage with technically, they can create "apps" to map services, do surveys, and map boundaries and land parcels. These tools work over standard open source services, such as OSMs, ODK, Enketo, Ona and others. We also actively collaborate with these and other open-source developers to respond to needs and design requirements from slum communities, thus co-creating tools that are easy to use and productive. Various communities interested in new specific tools take the role of initial test users, and then help other communities (that may be less technology savvy) to adopt and use these tools, using their experience as users aiming to solve similar problems. So our process is a continuous tight feedback loop between users, developers, designers and researchers. In this way slum-dwellers learn to develop and use advanced technology in ways that are natural and useful in their lives and the development of their communities.

Photo of Catherine Allinson Future Earth Ltd

Hi there, I like your idea and wonder if our model data and information can help you. We have just finished collecting data and information to map the entire water and sanitation system in Accra (which includes the slums) and are also using a process block system to improve planning. Can we combine some of our methods and give the local communities access to our learnings via the proposed Communities Cockpit? Happy to discuss.

Photo of Luis Bettencourt

Hi there, I think what you suggest is exactly how we hope the project to work. We could use your map of water and sanitation together with parcel level maps of structures (one of our starting points, driven by community knowledge) to figure out how to extend the existing network to more places, especially in slums. In the process our methods also consider the minimal physical transformation of neighborhoods necessary to provide emergency access and water drainage in order to deliver a synergetic and complete transformation of under-serviced areas in cities. We have a team and some mapping data in Accra. We know some of your work through Cities Alliance and I hope we can connect. I think that the methods could be combined and extended. Let's talk.