Solar EMpowered Communities
This idea offers solar microfinance as a tool that, combined with increased social cohesion, might effectively empower communities to enjoy a better quality of life, locally and sustainably. It attempts to directly address physical elements of unsafe spaces with solar-powered, public lighting and also the social and economic challenges that too often coincide. The ideas presented here are far from new: solar microfinance is successfully practiced around the world in recognition that more money in people's pockets can go a long way in improving their quality of life; decades-old theories on public safety from Jane Jacobs and public space design from Jan Gehl and W. H. Whyte tell us that well-lit and actively used public spaces are safest.
Essential to the process of developing pilot programs, and eventually scaling up, are the elements of local control and customization. An initial process by which community members are engaged and trained in co-developing local projects will reveal the motivators, barriers, and potential synergies that make each community unique. For example, in the dense, low-income, coastal community where I live in Costa Rica, though safety is a serious concern, interviews and observations reveal that any related financial incentives would be of top priority. Other communities that have implemented similar programs in India have reported that better access to electricity for home use, resulting in improved grades among their children, was the most noteworthy result. For some communities, solar-powered lit bicycles or other mobile units are practical and in line with the geography. For others, a fixed location of lights with emphasis on corresponding social activities is more appropriate. Different climates present distinct challenges to solar panel upkeep resulting in varying levels of necessary maintenance from place to place. Ultimately, a participatory process of co-development grounded might offer the most sustainable benefits, for example:
Local Control (“True participation”)
- Provides community members with decision-making power over the distribution of resources (Offer benefits similar to those of participatory budgeting)
- Local ownership and workforce training allows for timely maintenance and repair of lighting to be conducted by local residents rather than large, bureaucratic public utilities
Promote activation of public spaces in evenings through activities that are already popular
- Identifies, in addition to public safety, the major concerns and hopes that residents have for their community and/or family
- Allows for development of complementary products for local use
Step 1: Form a female-led, intergenerational, local committee to identify and vet trusted community residents to receive solar panels and to determine the the local program design and any relevant rules.
Step 2: Select local organizations, businesses, and/or residents to receive solar panels and additional residents to receive workforce training on panel maintenance and repair.
Step 3: Install solar-powered, motion-activated lighting in strategic locations around the community. Equip panels to provide electricity to owners´ buildings and to neighbors, as desired.
An example of how this might play out in a community like mine…
In Chacarita de Puntarenas, Costa Rica, safety is threatened not only by a lack of inadequate lighting in certain locations, but also a lack of social capital and limited opportunities and motivation for neighbors to work together. Within an area of approximately 3 square kilometers live around 23,000 people, their homes divided into a series of neighborhoods that originally formed as squatter settlements that were eventually razed to make way for government housing projects organized into dense residential blocks with some retail built into homes.
Unemployment in the area is around 25%, though women and men participate in the informal economy, either making food for sale or doing odd maintenance or light construction jobs, respectively. The minimum wage in Costa Rica is around $500 per month yet many residents compete arduously for employment in a government-sponsored workforce training program that offers just 40% of that amount for full-time work. The average electric bill is around $60 per month, around one-third of the earnings of program participants.
Each neighborhood of around 2,000 people has the opportunity to form a neighborhood association and receive government funding for improvement projects. Many of such organizations exist within the broader community and are most often headed by female women who are either retired or have adult children. Neighborhood associations have little participation from mothers of young children, largely due to the demands of children’s schedules and limited time available for non-childrearing, non-income-generating activities.
Despite limited participation, neighborhood associations have been effective in making improvements such as parks and hosting community events. A few years ago, one such neighborhood association successfully solicited assistance from the public utility company for street lamps. While a sufficient number of lamps were installed, a year or two later, perhaps one-third of them are non-functioning. And, like the streetlamps, it is not uncommon for the leaders of these neighborhood associations to burn out, often expressing frustration at the lack of participation from younger residents. If Chacarita were to become a Solar Empowered Community, providing solar panels and lighting to younger mothers might be a way to not only make their streets safer and potentially more attractive for food customers, but also strengthen their connection to neighborhood associations, which would likely be tapped to manage such a solar microloan program.
- More reliable lighting of public spaces
- Safer, activated public spaces through possible evening food markets formed to take advantage of existing food production activities
- Improved social capital generated from involvement of parents (esp. mothers) of children and adolescents in the project
- Guaranteed savings and/or additional income to solar panel recipients and trained techniciansPossible additional income from increased market for informal economic activities
A few suggestions at "rules" to consider:
- Recipients of panels must be open/available to public at least two evenings per week to serve an additional function of "eyes on the street".
- Local committees must work with local organizations to host public, free events at least one evening per month.
- Solar panel "loans" must be repaid with electricity cost savings and/or income from sale of electricity to neighbors.
Possible challenges for community feedback:
- How to prevent theft of solar panels and lighting equipment?
- How to ensure compliance among solar panel recipients?
See "Additional Files" for complete slide deck on Solar EMpowered Communities.
Explain your idea in one sentence.
A community-managed solar microloan program to build local skills and social capital, create well-lit streets, and reduce community electricity costs.
What is the need you are trying to solve?
This idea is an attempt to empower women to feel and BE safe in the places they live, work, and play. It will address the need for increased lighting by offering locally-owned, solar-powered lighting; the need for additional "eyes on the street" with increased evening activity; the need for social capital with a local committee to lead the program; and the need for economic opportunities with training on solar panel repair and maintenance and solar panel infrastructure to lower electricity costs and generate local income.
Who will benefit from this idea and how would you monitor its success?
While this challenges focuses on women´s safety, this idea hopes to offer improved quality of life for all community residents. Compliance with the program among the recipients of solar panels might be enforced by the local committee and with opportunities for residents to observe and report non-compliance to the committee using mobile technology. In terms of the impact on crime, equipment theft, and general public safety, data from from local police, the guiding committee, and local residents could offer insights as to progress in actual and perceived improvement in public safety. Finally, data on income generation and electricity cost savings can be collected from solar panel recipients and those who have been trained on repair and maintenance.
Who would be best equipped to implement this idea in the real world? You? Your organisation? Another organisation or entity?
The implementation of this program requires initial investment of solar panel and lighting equipment along with training in leadership, project management, and repair and maintenance of panels. It could be implemented by any development organization or consultant group with experience in this area and with the capacity to engage and train local partners. As a urban planning and public health professional with over ten years of experience in development program implementation and evaluation, I would be available and honored to be a part of any implementation team. Further, I am prepared to make recommendations as to additional qualified partners in the field, as needed.
Where should this idea be implemented?
This idea can be implemented in any community within a climate that can support solar-powered electricity. The program elements can and should be tailored by the guiding committee to best fit the community.
How might you prototype this idea and test some of the assumptions behind it?
This idea could begin as a pilot program in a set of 3-5 communities selected for particular characteristics that could be helpful to observe, for example, a certain prominent building type or climate, or existing community group that could prove to be an effective vehicle. A pilot program should last at least six months in order to effectively gauge impact.