Decoding Design

New trend in emerging-market innovation: slums as inspiration

New trend in emerging-market innovation: slums as inspiration

Posting in Architecture

Emerging-market innovation has been a hot topic in business circles over the past couple of years. A new trend within this field: looking to slums for inventive designs to adapt elsewhere, says Cynthia E. Smith of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt museum

In the last two years, there’s been keen interest among business leaders in the topic of so-called emerging-market innovation, sometimes also called "trickle-up innovation" or "reverse innovation." Generally, this concept refers to the practice of adapting inventive low-cost products and services initially created for developing-world nations for audiences in wealthier regions of the world. A new exhibition at the United Nations titled "Design with the Other 90%: Cities" presents a fresh twist to the global narrative on emerging-market innovation: looking to the world's largest and often most resource-challenged slums for inventive architectural, product, and service designs that could be used in other parts of the world.

I spoke with the show's organizer, Cynthia E. Smith, the curator of socially responsible design at the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, to discuss this thought-provoking idea. (“Design with the Other 90%: Cities” is officially a Cooper-Hewitt exhibition, but is on view at the U.N. while the museum is undergoing a renovation.) Smith spent a year visiting slums, also often referred to as "informal settlements." She met with community groups, architects, designers, and urban planners in 15 countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America while curating the show. We discussed specific examples as well as general trends related to how resource-challenged slum residents are contributing real solutions to global challenges.

Here is an excerpt from our conversation; you’ll find my full review of "Design with the Other 90: Cities" here.

What new trends have you witnessed lately in terms of emerging-market innovation being adapted globally to address urban design challenges?

There is an ongoing dialogue through "South-South" exchanges - global south countries sharing information and ideas with other countries in the global south.

One example: Brazil went through a transformation to a nation with over 70% of its population living in urban areas. Now, designers and urban planners in Sao Paolo and other Brazilian cities are sharing design solutions with other cities that are now just beginning to grow very rapidly. India’s cities are growing and experiencing a similar massive urban migration. There is much that India could learn from Brazil and Colombia.

Are you seeing governments and designers alike in other parts of the globe coming up with low-cost, sustainable services that could be adopted in a variety of settings—and not just in informal settlements?

In my recent travels for the exhibition, I found that some innovative solutions in emerging economies are essentially exchanges between formal, planned parts of cities and informal cities, or slum settlements. This has become more necessary because local and regional governments cannot keep up with the rapid urban expansion. There is a reciprocal exchange and sharing of design information between people living in the informal city, designers, and formal stakeholders.

There is a lot for the rest of the world to learn from emerging economies, not just a global south-south exchange, but also a south-to-north exchange. Specific products or services created initially for use in informal settlements could be adopted throughout the world. For instance, the Community Cooker, which came out of the Kibera informal settlements in Nairobi, Kenya. This could be used in many other resource-challenged areas outside of Nairobi.

It's a large cooker that uses trash as fuel. It burns at a high temperature without emitting toxins. People can create local small businesses using it. In exchange for burning their trash on the cooker, people then have time to cook a meal there. Its capacity is large enough to start a small bakery. Its temperature is high enough to melt metal for a smelting business.

This cooker could spark numerous new businesses. And this could work outside of Kenya, of course, and outside of informal settlements, including in remote areas, say, in North America or other regions which have limited abilities to recycle their refuse and which also need local fuel sources.

Would you say that cities are increasingly being "developed" by everyday, low-income citizens as much as they are by real-estate developers and governments?

I can't say there is equal development between these groups. But I can talk about this in the context of what I've found during the year I spent doing field research for "Design with the Other 90%: Cities."

There is one group that brings both informal communities and designers to the table. This group, Shack/Slum Dwellers International, is a trans-national organization whose members are residents of slums. They have a presence in 33 countries, and are not waiting for governments to upgrade their communities. They are sharing information between slum communities throughout the global south – from Mumbai to Cape Town - engaging designers, architects, governments, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders in how to develop more inclusive cities.

In Argentina, a group of architects from the University of Buenos Aires have created a simple design manual that can easily be photocopied and shared by people just forming a new informal settlement. The manual illustrates how to design and layout the new settlements safely, rather than locate on just any open land left in the city, which is often in former industrial sites or run-down areas with infrastructure challenges. It’s a simple and remarkable tool providing the useful design information for those who most need it, and which can be used in or adapted for many different locations.

Photos: Shack/Slum Dwellers International, SDI; Cynthia E. Smith, Courtesy Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; Community Cooker, Jiko Ya Jamii

Share this

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure