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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.