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    What can alternative technologies contribute to sustainable development?

    By Jorge Ortiz Moreno, on 6 August 2015

    A few weeks ago the NGO Shelter Global announced the winners of its first annual “Dencity Competition”, focused on fostering new ideas on how to better handle the growing density of unplanned settlements while spreading awareness about this global issue.

    The first-placed project, Urukundu: Slum Factory consists of the creation of a small community-managed construction materials factory for the physical improvement of an informal neighbourhood that is now being partially demolished and replaced by high-priced private housing. All in the name of “enhancing” the city image of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.

    Among the main features of the project is its use of local materials, local technologies and local construction systems like rainwater harvesting, clay filters for water purification and biogas micro-production systems (biodigesters) in order to stimulate the future sustainable growth of the neighbourhood.

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    Out of 300 entries from 50 different countries that sought to “rethink life in slums”, the winner represents a great example of how design can sustainably empower communities. However, what I want to point out here is the relevance of alternative technology to improving living conditions in informal settlements.

    Evidence from many regions of the Global South is showing that more and more successful initiatives are including the implementation of decentralized, locally-managed and sometimes labour-intensive technologies for infrastructure improvement and socioeconomic development.

    As well as the “Appropriate Technology” movement, popularized in 1973 by Ernst Friedrich Schumacher through his influential book “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered”, Urukundu: Slum Factory is characterized by a strong “people-centred” approach.

    Urukundu: Slum Factory board

    Urukundu: Slum Factory board

    Many different conceptualizations have arisen around the alternative technology movement during the last 50 years. Recently, for example, the concept of “grassroots innovations” has been proposed for technologies that come from processes of innovation that are inclusive of local communities, in terms of the knowledge, processes and outcomes involved.

    There are strong research groups in the UK at Sussex University and University of East Anglia that are exploring the role of “grassroots innovations” on sustainability and social justice issues.

    Melissa Leach and her colleagues from the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex suggest that ambitious Sustainable Development Goals are now required along with a major transformation in modes of innovation to meet them. In an article published in the Ecology and Society journal in 2012 they suggest the Appropriate Technology Demonstration and Training Centre (CEDECAP, is its acronym in Spanish) as an example of such “transformative innovation”.

    Rainwater harvesting system and their users, Mexico

    Rainwater harvesting system and their users, Mexico

    This organization works with local communities in rural Peru to identify their priority uses for electricity and then to develop energy schemes that those communities control, run, and benefit from. Furthermore, CEDECAP develops, trains, and pilots alternative forms of renewable energy distribution, focusing on low-cost technologies with low environmental impact, and fostering local research and capacity.

    In Mexico, accompanied by a group of researchers, students and consultants from the Institute of Research on Ecosystems and Sustainability of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) I have been studying and working on another alternative technology approach called “ecotechnology.”

    This refers to technologies that promote a positive relationship between their users and the environment, and are linked to a specific socio-ecological context. In our recent book “Ecotechnology in Mexico”, we describe several initiatives that have been providing small-scale ecological alternatives to meet basic human needs such as sanitation, water, energy, housing and nourishment in rural and urban areas.

    Woman cooking with an improved cookstove of Patsari Project, Mexico

    Woman cooking with an improved cookstove of Patsari Project, Mexico

    From experienced NGOs to recently launched social entrepreneurship initiatives, there are a wide range of actors that are innovating in order to to reach the poor and meet the needs that neither the private sector nor the governments have been able to.

    Some examples of this are the Patsari Project, a participatory and multi-institutional initiative that promotes a sustainable model of firewood consumption by distributing improved cook-stoves in rural areas, and the Isla Urbana Project, which aims to provide sustainable access to water by implementing low cost rainwater harvesting systems in the peri-urban interface of Mexico City and other isolated localities of the country.

    As it is illustrated by the examples given, alternative technologies are playing an important role on development and they should be kept in mind as a vehicle for community empowerment and sustainability in the Global South. A better integration of the research done is needed and, of course, more attention on the issue is fundamental.


    Jorge Ortiz Moreno is an independent consultant with experience in grassroots innovations, clean technologies and peri-urban dynamics. Nowadays he coordinates a program about “Clean technologies and sustainable development” at the Eco-technology Unit of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM). He graduated from the DPU’s Urban Development Planning MSc programme in 2014.
    Although most of his work has been done in Mexico, Jorge has participated in research projects about housing in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the Olympic Legacy in London, UK, and urban infrastructure in Medellin, Colombia. He is interested in how social entrepreneurship can foster well-being and environmental justice for the peri-urban poor and the role of grassroots innovations as tools for sustainable development in Latin America.

    Participatory Photography: a background

    By Laura J Hirst, on 20 January 2015

    Image: Laura Hirst, 2014

    While there exists a broad history of ‘participation’ in visual research methods, participatory photography or ‘photo voice’ has evolved as a specific participatory action research method for development, which involves providing (often marginalized groups of) people with cameras to record their realities and perspectives.

    The process of taking photographs and subsequent group discussion amongst participants and researchers (which can take the form of storytelling, coding, explaining choices taken in making images) can provide new spaces for dialogue, exchange and knowledge production about personal and community issues. The following anecdote illustrates some of the potential of the method as a way of prompting reflexive discussions:

    In 1973, while conducting a literacy project in a barrio in Lima, Peru, Paulo Freire and his colleagues asked people questions in Spanish, but distributed cameras and requested the answers in photographs. When the question ‘What is exploitation?’ was asked, some people took photos of a landlord, grocer, or a policeman. One child took a photo of a nail on a wall. Freire & Boal interpreted it as an abstract metaphor of the hard lives of children who worked long hours as shoe shiners, and had to walk long distances between home and the city.

    The ensuing discussions revealed that as their shoe-shine boxes were too heavy for them to carry, these boys rented a nail on a wall, usually in a shop, where they could hang their boxes for the night. For them, that nail on the wall symbolised exploitation within their community. The photograph spurred widespread discussions in the Peruvian barrio about other forms of institutionalised exploitation, including ways to overcome them. [1]

    In some cases the resulting photographs are themselves used as a powerful advocacy tool, attempting to inspire change through bringing stories and experiences to the attention of decision-makers and the wider public through campaigns and exhibitions.

    As well as having roots in Freirean theories of conscientisation (where a critical awareness of one’s social reality is developed through both reflection and action), the method also draws from feminist theory which advocates research participants as actors rather than objects of study, and identifying the empowering potential of knowledge production for participants. [2]

    In 2014, participatory photography was used as one of several research methods during fieldwork examining neighbourhood planning and urban governance in the city of Kisumu, Kenya, conducted as part of the MSc Social Development Practice fieldwork. Keep an eye out for future blog posts elaborating on how this was used in practice and reflections on its potential as a tool for empowerment and change in communities.

     

    [1] From: Aline Gubrium and Krista Harper, ‘Photovoice Research’ in Participatory Visual and Digital Methods (Left Coast Press Inc, 2013): 69-89 and Singhal, A., L.M. Harter, K. Chitnis, and D. Sharma, 2007, Participatory Photography as Theory, Method and Praxis: Analyzing an Entertainment-Education Project in India. Critical Arts 21 (1): 212-227.

    [2] Caroline Wang, ‘Photovoice: A Participatory Action Research Strategy Applied to Women’s Health’, Journal of Women’s Health, vol. 8, no. 2 (1999), 185-92.

     

    Laura Hirst has been working as the Graduate Teaching Assistant for the MSc Social Development Practice. She has recently left the DPU to join the DPU-ACHR-CAN intership programme in the Philippines where she will be working with community groups in Davao for the next 4-6 months.

    Will 2015 be the year of urban opportunity?

    By Matthew A Wood-Hill, on 16 January 2015

    Here at the DPU we’re bouncing out of what has been a very exciting year, celebrating our 60th anniversary, and into a particularly important one in our collective thinking about urban futures.

    We’re going to see international discussions taking place on cities and human settlements, disaster risk reduction, development finance, the post-2015 development agenda and climate change.

    Image: Matt Wood-Hill, 2014

    Habitat III

    Something I have seen dominating a lot of our conversations in the last year has been the road to the Habitat III conference. Although this won’t be held until October 2016 (in Quito, Ecuador if you already want to start planning your trip), the lobbying and agenda-building has already begun. We saw this at the 7th World Urban Forum in Medellin, and from numerous speakers at our DPU60 conference in July, including Joan Clos, the Director of UN Habitat.

    Habitat III will have a profound impact on the way cities are planned, designed and governed. Given the title of this post, however, perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

     

    The Launch of the Sustainable Development Goals and the post-2015 development agenda; September 2015

    2015 will be notable for the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), announcing a post-2015 development agenda that will supersede the Millennium Development Goals.

    There are currently 17 Goals in total, which have Ban Ki-Moon’s support, but the numerous targets are yet to be finalised. Indeed nothing is set in stone, and much could yet change in the months ahead.

    An Urban SDG

    Several staff at the DPU have been busy working as part of the lobby for ‘Goal 11: Make Cities and Human Settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.’

    Goal 11 is the essence of the ‘urban opportunity’ – the title of the position paper produced by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

    As urbanisation continues globally so does urban poverty. Urban economic output will grow, meanwhile new ways of providing infrastructure and services are required to cater for demand. These concentrated populations represent a vital opportunity that cannot be put off for another 15 years, and this must not become one of those Goals that ‘should have been there all along’. It is in cities that many solutions can, and will need to be found, and therefore this is the optimum moment of ‘urban opportunity’.

    I’m looking forward to sharing two blog posts in the next couple of weeks that give greater insights into formulation of Goal 11 and what it sets out to achieve.

     

    The Post-2015 framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR); March 2015

    The Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) was the first international framework for the creation of DRR policies and plans when it was conceived to cover a 10-year period in 2005. There won’t be a stand-alone DRR goal in the SDGs, but of particular note to us is the proposed Target 4 within Goal 11 for cities to “incorporate climate and disaster risk considerations in their zoning, building codes, and infrastructure investment decisions”.

    DPU staff have been very active in UN-ISDR discussions on updating the HFA, look out for more on this soon. I’m sure that many of us will be following the World Conference on DRR in Sendai closely to see how it relates to discussions on urban resilience.

     

    The Third International Conference on Financing for Development; July 2015

    While this isn’t a topic I can claim much familiarity with, it is pretty clear that the post-2015 development agenda is going to require a renegotiation of financing commitments. When we look at the unconfirmed SDGs as they stand, the 17 Goals and 169 targets are necessarily ambitious if they truly hope to “end poverty, transform all lives, and protect the planet.” But how these will be implemented is far less easy to understand, and I’ll be looking for a few clues in July.

     

    COP21 in Paris; December 2015

    COP20 in Lima might be quite fresh in many of your minds. Personally I couldn’t help but feel a sense of déjà vu – it seems we’re always told that we’re on the cusp of an epoch-defining agreement, but it slips away.

    So could this year really be the year where a global climate deal is finally agreed? And if it is, then so what? We’ve been seeing climate responses increasingly happening at the local level. Let us not forget that the Kyoto Protocol expired in 2012, and if global agreements are the way to go, then the international community has been stalling for too long.

     

    Communications in 2015

    This year I’m looking forward to seeing DPU communications give you greater insights into the key moments above. Staff here have been shaping the debates and will be responding to the outcomes. Ultimately we will continue to work with governments, community groups and other organisations on the ground to support them in implementing these agendas.

    We also have an exciting schedule planned for the DPU blog over the next few months where staff, alumni and other contributors from around the world will share their experiences in development practice.

    Stay tuned in 2015!

     

    Matthew Wood-Hill is the Media and Communications Officer at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit.