Participants in Innovation Workshops Create Solutions for the Futures of Their Cities

Accra, Bangkok, Chennai, Lima, Manila, Nairobi | 05/09/2013 11:43am
Ariel Muller | Forum for the Future

The cities of the Global South are entering an era of extraordinary economic growth. As the United Nations Development Report of 2013 states, “The rise of the South is unprecedented in its speed and scale. Never in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast.”

Economic growth doesn’t always beget urban prosperity, however. Urban challenges such as the provision of electricity, water, solid waste disposal and waste collection, which are inadequately meeting current demand, will be further burdened by increased migration and rapid urbanization. Current gaps between educational training and job opportunities might limit the number of people that can participate in the opportunities economic growth provides. Climate change, which is already exacerbating chronic environmental threats like flooding, drought and typhoons, has the potential to halt economic development, especially for poor people. Put simply, economic growth and urban prosperity are not sustainable in the long term if better systems and processes for the future are not put in place today.

Generating ideas for these systems was the focus of the Informal City Dialogues’ Innovation Workshops. Participants in the workshops, which are being held in six cities around the world, are attempting to create innovations that will lead to more inclusive and resilient futures for those cities. The Innovation Workshops follow on the heels of the Futures Workshops that concluded a few weeks ago. Two principles guided the design of the process: The use of the future scenarios that were generated in the Futures Workshops to catalyze new ways of thinking, and the value of an inclusive, locally driven process to bring together members of formal and informal communities to explore shared challenges and solutions for their future cities.

Innovation happens when we see an old problem in a new way, and immersion in future scenarios enables just that. Exploring different stories about what might happen in the future allows us to investigate how future factors such as access to housing, livelihoods and civic representation (to name a few) might eventually interconnect and impact people’s well-being. Because future scenarios demonstrate both positive and negative potential outcomes, we begin to approach innovation with more future-oriented questions. How can we avoid negative outcomes and risks? What are long-term systemic innovations that will create sustained change – not just short-term solutions?

After being immersed in the future scenarios, participants in the Innovation Workshops choose a challenge to solve: In some cases, it’s a challenge that lies in the future; in others, it’s a pressing problem that must be solved today. And while participants in Accra, Manila, Bangkok, Lima, Nairobi and Chennai may all identify similar challenges, viable solutions are created through local context, culture and participation.

Choosing and building on an idea may be the most challenging part of the innovation process. Participatory co-created solutions are not easy. People from the formal and informal sectors may have different perspectives about the best way to proceed – or even what constitutes an innovation. But through listening, dialogue and consensus, the wisdom of the different points of view can shape a more viable solution. This capacity for collaboration between members of the formal and informal communities is the foundation for building resilient and inclusive future cities.

But a concept isn’t an innovation until it is implemented, so Rockefeller’s City Challenge Grant will provide the financial support needed to incubate the selected concepts, cultivate a supportive network of relationships and determine the scale needed for implementation. I can’t wait to read about their success.

Ariel Muller, Principal Sustainability Advisor at Forum for the Future, led the innovation process for the Informal City Dialogues and co-facilitated the Accra Innovation Workshop with Farouk Braimah, CEO of the People’s Dialogue on Informal Settlements in Ghana. She is based in New York.