Cities around the world are grappling with issues of livability, more so in the developing world. As new challenges crop up with regularity, the old challenges of housing, mobility, waste management, etc. have grown to menacing proportions drawing responses that are characterised by ‘more of the same’. Rather than getting caged in our past experiences, we need to do things differently or to do different things
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. This quote is attributed to the great Albert Einstein and he should have known. But we continue to do the insane; many of us in our day-to-day lives. Similarly, the approach to our cities’ problems is marked by the ‘more of the same’ approach. As we look around, we can see how evident it is. Take mobility for instance. Cities have responded to the challenge of growing congestion by building more roads, wider roads, more flyovers and viaducts, more parking, and so on. This is not to say that these do not help. Rather to say that these amount to incrementalism – tinkering at the margins while what is required is a transformative intervention that can bring about breakthroughs. Or take the case of solid waste management. Approaches include identifying more landfill sites, setting up more intermediate waste distribution centres, providing more bins to households – again more of the same. These too are required and do help. But these cannot prevent the onslaught of waste that will drown us soon.
Incremental and breakthroughs
If there is one word that can become the central approach to meeting our cities’ challenges, that must be ‘innovation’.There is a need to build innovation in all we do in our daily lives as well as what policymakers do – individually and collectively – to make things better. While we must not cast aside the potential of small improvements (incrementally better) in our search for breakthroughs, the attempt must be on making a significant difference. In other words, constantly make incremental improvements, while looking for breakthrough opportunities.
The following could be an example. We know that the recharging of batteries is a nagging issue plaguing the electric mobility sector. Therefore technology leaders and urban planners are working constantly to increase the range of each charge, reduce the time required to charge fully, increasing the number of charging stations, and so on. These will continue as part of the incremental improvement programme. However, if we were to work out a system where one just exchanged a charged battery for a drained out one, to be strapped on within ten minutes, this practice could provide a breakthrough solution to the electric mobility puzzle.
In the area of mobility again, while cities constantly upgrade and augment roads and other such physical infrastructure, we have made very little progress on water-based mobility. Coastal and non-coastal (inland waterways) cities both offer opportunities in this area. There has been talk on and off about developing catamaran/boat-based public transport including in the city of Mumbai; also a proposal to develop a vehicle that can travel both on-road and water. As of now, there is not much to show, at least not with any big impact.
But such water-based mobility offers good scope to decongest roads and provide a speedy travel option for citizens. One needs to think through issues of access, scheduling, safety, pricing/affordability, etc. using innovation.
In the area of mobility again, while cities constantly upgrade and augment roads and other such physical infrastructure, we have made very little progress on water based mobility. Coastal and non-coastal (inland waterways) cities both offer opportunities in this area
As we noted earlier, waste management effort is concentrated around better and greater segregation, distributing more bins to households, building newer landfills, augmenting fleets to carry the waste, etc. These are all primed towards managing the humongous, growing quantity of waste that gets generated each day. All these actions form the incremental part of the waste management exercise. While these are required, such efforts will not prevent us from drowning under mountains of waste in the years to come; or from the issues of pollution of land, water and air; and public health issues of great proportion. What is required alongside is the elimination of waste.
Take the example of the humble toothpaste, an item of everyday use for each one of us on this planet. Each tube comes in a paperboard pack which we promptly dispose of on opening. Each day, millions of such card paper packs get thrown away to end up in landfills. Can we pack toothpaste and other such commodities (cosmetics, shaving creams, etc.) differently so that no card paper packs are used? Take the case of medicines – tablets and capsules – that usually come in blister packs. Sometimes, these are again packed in a card paper carton which we simply throw away. Yes, we also throw away the blister packs.
UNCTAD: Technology & Innovation Report 2018
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals sets ambitious targets across economic, social, and environmental measures in order to fulfil the ambitions of mankind, and enable improved quality of life for each individual. The SDGs demand unprecedented efforts to result in measurable outcomes in each of the goals and their targets.
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Technology and Innovation Report 2018 outlines that use of frontline technologies and developing innovations, including non-technological and social innovations could be transformative in achieving the sustainable development goals and producing more prosperous, sustainable, healthy and inclusive societies. The widespread use of ICTs and Renewable Energy are quoted as examples of the transformative effects for sustainable development especially in developing economies. Big Data, Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), 3D Printing, Biotechnology and Nanotechnology are mentioned as frontier technologies which can have big impacts. These, often used jointly with each other have the potential for transformative improvements in the areas of healthcare, education, construction, energy, waste treatment, water management, agriculture, medicine and the environment.
The Report, however, cautions about the link between technology and employment, noting that while some jobs get eliminated, others get created; the net impact remains ambiguous. ‘There are also signs that the net impacts may be most unfavourable for women’, the report says. Simultaneously it draws attention to the concerns of citizen’s rights, privacy, data ownership and online security and highlights the need for effective institutional frameworks and regulatory regimes for data collection, use and access. Another concern expressed is the disparity among the developed and developing economies on the technology front, with respect to the amounts of research and development expenditure both in absolute terms and in relation to GDP, and the numbers of researchers. It notes that the share of developed economies is disproportionately high.
Speaking about complementary human skills to benefit from technology, there is mention of behavioural, interpersonal and socio-emotional skills, creativity, intuition, imagination, curiosity, risk-taking, open-mindedness, logical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, empathy and emotional intelligence, communication, persuasion and negotiation skills, networking and teamwork, and the capacity to adapt and learn new abilities – skills that are difficult for robots and machines to emulate. Therefore there is a need to match the supply of skills in these areas to rapidly evolving technologies. This calls for agility in education policies and may mean transforming education and training systems. There are signs that educational institutions are not keeping pace as expected, giving rise to a shortage in skills, especially in digital technologies, the report warns. That women are highly underrepresented in the technology domain, especially digital technologies sector is a major cause for concern and this can serve to perpetuate existing divides. Therefore it calls for policy intervention.
In further discussions, there is a detailed mention of supporting measures for innovation such as financing mechanisms and policy coherence, and for redirecting the innovation towards inclusiveness and sustainability.
Can this be avoided? Yet among the biggest waste problems is polystyrene (also called Thermocol). It is extensively used in packaging as it is light, can be moulded into specific shapes, and is above all, inexpensive. It, however, has damaging effects on the environment and is therefore banned in some forms in many states. While recycling Polystyrene is technically possible, no one cares to do it since it costs so little; so used material ends up in landfills and oceans. An alternate, more environmentally benign material (straw for packaging) can add very greatly to waste management and sustainability.
And what about clothing? The waste being generated out of used clothing is turning out to be a big headache for the whole world. It is exacerbated by the trend of ‘Fast Fashion’, of rapidly changing fashion and preferences. The value lost due to premature disposal, i.e., under-utilisation, of clothing is by some estimates, about US$500 billion annually. At the same time, it impacts the environment hugely. And what about similar household items like mattresses and cushions which we replace once every few years. No one knows what to do with the old ones. The seller of the new mattress takes it away as part of the deal and just dumps it in the nearest stream, river or vacant land. Innovation will become an indispensable lever in our efforts to reuse, recycle and upcycle used clothing and such material.
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) has been talked about since long and needs to be taken up enthusiastically. Participation and active support of the producers must be sought in our efforts to build cleaner, safer cities. For example, manufacturers of FMCGs – cosmetics, personal care products and pharmaceuticals – are highly innovative when it comes to designing, manufacturing and promoting their products. Surely they can be encouraged to design and implement appropriate systems to ensure that used packaging (often plastic) is collected and safely recycled.
Service delivery and housing
As regards service delivery in our cities, technology could come to our aid in improving outcomes and citizen satisfaction. Water supply especially is amenable to several possibilities including individual home level metering. ULBs which approve new building plans could ensure that at least new buildings have individual meters for water supply. Metering and billing for water consumption at the household level is vital to ensure judicious use of rapidly depleting resource. Dual piping for drinking and for other purposes is urgently needed too.
Affordable housing has proven to be a stubborn challenge. We need to house the millions of our urban poor in an equitable and sustainable manner. Yet owning a house seems increasingly difficult for city dwellers. What about renting a house, then? Rents could be brought down with lower capital costs. What about using different materials for constriction – demolition waste, recycled metal and plastic, agri-waste (prevent its burning)? Must houses be built to last 50 or 100 years? The answers to affordable housing may lie in the answers to these questions.
Innovation is a result of deliberate, conscious, rigorous effort; not sitting still waiting for the flash in the pan ‘Eureka’ moment to strike.