Overcrowding Innovation: How informal settlements develop sustainable urban practices

Overcrowding Innovation: How informal settlements develop sustainable urban practices

Jota Samper


Ten thousand years ago, climate change initiated the desertification of the Sahara Desert, pushing ancient communities away from their land to areas where they could survive. The migrating populations arrived in mass at the rivers of the Nile River, where they filled the ranks of surplus labour that fuelled the first nation-state of the world, the Egyptian empire (Brookfield, 2010)[WJ1] . A critical path of this process and one that would continue over thousands of years is that societies with larger populations would become more successful due to the opportunity to extract value out of surplus labour.

However, under the industrialisation success of the 19th century, a new idea emerged. Population growth was starting to be seen as unfavourable, possibly resulting in the world's end, with ideas of  Thomas Malthus seeking to determine the planet's capacity to support growing populations. Malthus concluded that planet population would eventually surpass food supply capacity, basing his conclusion on the incongruence of the continued exponential population growth vs. arithmetic growth of planet food production (Malthus, 2018). Eric Ross proposes that this way of thinking was rooted in the good living conditions of the Malthus’ contemporary wealthy London elite more than an argument against population growith, with Malthus concerned with London's overcrowded slum populations.

Ross argues that Malthus’ writing "continues to produce in the West and among Western-influenced elites an unremitting anxiety about 'over-population'" (1998), the argument centring on world population and resources limitation continuing to today. More importantly however, this alarming argument continues to be directed to the world's poor populations, now not living in London but those of the Global South where the concept of the slum has been applied to countless communities.

Contrary to Malthus and followers' predictions, the planet is not on an infinite population exponential growth path. Instead, we are approaching a maximum population peak somewhere in the next fifty years of this century (Vollset et al., 2020). Most estimates place the planet on a downward population track by the end of the century. Some scenarios suggest that the world population at the end of the century might be lower than today (Samir and Lutz, 2017). We also know that planet food production surpasses population estimates—today we produce enough to support our population, the billions suffering from starvation suggess that the issue is not food production but resource distribution.

Most population growth over the remainder of the 21st century will occur in African countries as they reach peak urbanisation. As a result, access to education and changes in quality of life suggest these populations will adopt fertility modes similar to those in the Global North, until an expectation that all nations will follow similar mortality and fertility trends by the end of the century. Using the UN 2019 Revision of World Population Prospects, Max Roser concludes, "One of the big lessons from the demographic history of countries is that population explosions are temporary. For many countries, the demographic transition has already ended. As the global fertility rate has halved, we know that the world is approaching the end of rapid population growth" (2019). However, we regularly observe alarmist predictions for the future of developing countries.

These Western ways of looking at development and urbanisation have their foundations in colonialist academic perspectives about growth. The alarmist perspective dismisses enormous advances countries like those in Africa have gone through in the last forty years, dismissing the challenges and the resilience of such communities and countries that have improved the quality of life for millions living in informal settlements across the world.

Informal settlements can be broadly described as self-built neighbourhoods outside of city regulations in conditions of extreme poverty, with over a billion people live in informal settlements worldwide (UN DESA, 2013) today. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs projects the world’s population to be 68 percent urban by 2050, with an urban population of 6.7 billion, of which 3 billion would reside in informal. Informal settlements are emerging as a dominant and distinct urban typology in developing cities, environments which will be home to one in three of all people by 2050, often without potable water, adequate sanitation, and in conditions of extreme poverty (UN DESA 2017). The scale of this issue makes informal settlements the most common form of urbanisation of the planet.

The paradox of informal settlements is that while they are vast and commonplace, they and their residents are almost invisible. The Global North does not deeply know about informal settlements, an ignorance which creates barriers to the development of supportive tools. A first step to make these populations visible is to document their conditions. However, many countries where informal settlements are do not have the resources to map these populations, and the countries that do such resources often have legal restrictions impeding state organisations from supporting work on informal settlements (Samper, 2014). Informal settlement data unknowns create vacuums of understanding, which can increase misconceptions about such developments’ actual challenges and opportunities.

Most of our understanding of informality comes from separate and unreliable sources, and there is no single database containing all global informal settlements. As an alternative, I created the Atlas of Informality (AoI) alongside hundreds of collaborators (Samper, Shelby, & Behary 2020) to initiate the conversation. The AoI is a creative attempt to visualise these invisible populations in order to understand the unique process of informal city-making. We wanted to resolve a crucial question: how do these places evolve over time? Understanding settlement expansion is essential to understanding both the past and—more importantly—the future of such settlements, and consequently the future of all world cities.

We created a protocol with open-access software, remote sensing tools, and direct mapping to identify and map changes to global informal settlements over the last twenty years. The key was to develop a simple to use a measuring tool that allowed us to reach most places and enable us to compare across sites. The AoI currently provides data on more than 446 informal settlements in 149 cities, 89 countries, and five continents worldwide, and in the process we have realised how these places are changing and expanding due to the arriving populations.

We have data to confirm observations: regions are expanding at different rates, with informal settlements in Latin America and Africa expanding more rapidly than those in Asia.; importantly, we also discovered that the entire sample is expanding at a rate of 9.85 percent (Samper, Shelby, & Behary, 2020). Such a growth rate means that informal settlements are growing by 2,300 km² each year, an expansion larger than some of the world's largest cities, including Moscow, Houston, or Tokyo. As these places continue to grow under-reported, we are blinded to the developing sutuations.

With such darkness and damaging Malthusian thinking around the growth of informal settlements, many jump to fears of the planet's impending doom, a kind of apocalyptic scenario books such as Planet of Slums by Mike Davis has predicted (2006). The publisher, Verso, summarised the book as a portrayal of  "A vast humanity warehoused in shantytowns and exiled from the formal world economy. [Davis] argues that the rise of this informal urban proletariat is a wholly unforeseen development, and asks whether the great slums, as a terrified Victorian middle class once imagined, are volcanoes waiting to erupt" (n.d.). The problem with such a portrait of informal settlements is that the “apocalyptic rhetoric feeds into longstanding anti-urban fears about working people who live in cities” (Angotti, 2006). Furthermore, the connection between slums as a planetary security threat pushes older ideas of urban poverty density as a danger to the planet. However, I want to present a different notion about such urban density.

From a 2019 perspective, we might have expected that a world pandemic would have hit informal settlements many times harder than the developed areas of our planet. However, our experience with the current pandemic indicates that this is not the case. What we have seen between 2020 and 2022 is something entirely different than much literature tells us about their fragility, that informal settlements have proved far more resilient than formal areas over the pandemic. Residents of such undeveloped areas have deep expertise in dealing with poverty, disease, and constant change. This is not acknowledged to glorify or romanticise what it means to live in such conditions, nor are reasons vast numbers of the world's population are displaced and forced to construct and reside in them. I emphasise that this pandemic experience shows how we have a lot to learn from informal settlements in terms of how they cope in the face of a significant challenge. The discrepancy between our expectations and the evidence of the resiliency clarifies the need to study informality instead of imposing foreign frameworks upon them.

The first important question to resolve is why informal settlements even exist. One reason is that housing is an inflexible commodity, with a theory developed by Eduardo Rojas speaking to Latin America suggesting that only 5% of the population can access housing through their economic resources. Proposing house financing as a population pyramid, Rojas states that another 25-30% access housing through savings and mortgages, leaving the remainder of the population in to rely on informal solutions (Rojas 2005; 2011). Rojas's Housing pyramid demonstrates the challenges that governments, international lending agencies, and developing institutions face in providing systems and structures of housing supply within Latin America. Research suggests Latin America is similar to other regions including Asia and Africa, while also demonstrating the immensity of the challenge globally where most arriving urban populations have no alternative to informal housing.

The scale of the housing issue is why most lending agencies, such as the World Bank, have moved away from supporting physical projects as tools of intervention with urban poverty. An important conclusion from mapping informal settlements is evidencing that their growth is equal to global urbanization growth[WJ2] . Most cities are today expanding through new informal settlements, though Janis Perlman’s seminal work shows that such populations are not living in poverty but migrated to cities to try to get out of poverty (1976). She further emphasises that they maximize the quality of life by minimizing housing[WJ3] . Finally, I want to argue through the development of informal settlements we can observed improved sustainable paths of development, potentially supporting alternate urban models to alleviate poverty.

We are living in an era of environmental crises. Current urbanisation models are partially at fault for the challenges posed by climate change and our abuse of the planet's resources (Grimmond, 2007). As countries increase the capacity to supply the needs of their citizens, they develop through modes of urbanisation initiated in the early years of the 20th century. In other words, the existing model of formal urbanisation applied globally is also the mode of urbanisation killing the world. A simple example of such a process considers the United States' use of energy resources. With under 5% of the planet's population, the US uses 25% of the world’s energy resources (GFN, 2016). With almost 20% of the planet's population, China also uses 25% of the world’s total energy resources, however as China continues its development plan toward parity with the Western countries we could forecast that China alone will soon account for the planet’s total energy resources. This urbanisation process of resource depletion is a result of using 20th century development logic. Following such trends and models presents global challenges when applied to the urban growth of today’s China.

However, though China is an example it is clear that while most of the Global North is to blame for our situation, we can look to the billions of people in informal settlements, experimenting with new and more ecological models of development, who are producing the kind of urban transformations that might eventually save the planet. The technologies and forms of organising they adopt embrace sustainable practices and present opportunities for a more sustainable future.

A great example of how technology can enter the discussion is the introduction of mobile phone technology within a development context. Jeffrey Sachs has said that "the cell phone is the single most transformative technology for development"( 2006), and they can offer a great example of how technology can radically change the lives of poor populations. For instance, in the late 20th century, organisations determined the level of development of countries via the coverage of land telephone lines. Low coverage was a proxy for a low levels of development, and countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and Uganda, with less than 1% landline coverage, represented areas with giant development gaps. These gaps were significant compared to countries like the United States which had 60% landline coverage. However, by 2014, the pervasive expansion of mobile phone technology radically changed standard understanding of development. Mobile phones achieved vast coverage in developing countries, territories such as South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana—with 89, 89, and 83% of coverage respectively—was near parity with the United States’ 89% (PRC, 2015). This goes to demonstrate that by absorbing technological processes, poorer economies could match advanced countries for uptake and impact.

The data suggests that such countries could go beyond parity, and leapfrog developed countries. For example, in 2011 Kenyan mobile phone users accounted for more than 50 percent of all money transferred via mobile phones globally, totalling over $11billion, according to Dr. Bitange Ndemo, Permanent Secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communications (NBC, 2015). The incredible statistic here is that the accomplishment of developing a digital banking system to resolve problems of poverty happened three years before the introduction of Apple Pay (Liébana-Cabanillas et al., 2020). Furthermore, THINK Economic and Financial Analysis ING expects that 2022 will be the year mobile banking becomes the predominant form of banking in Europe, a decade after it Kenya reached this level (Nijboer and Slijkerman, 2022).

Adopting transformative and innovative technologies in the context of scarcity presents opportunities for the rest of the planet. Today, many other innovations are emerging, including: the Metrocable in Medellin, Colombia, cable car public transportation operating since 2004 (Brand and Davila, 2011); or water purification and solar electrification in informal settlements. These forms of innovation share a bypassing of existing models of wasteful infrastructure to supply the needs of populations with scarce resources. As a result, these new innovative solutions require strategies to be more efficient and sustainable.

One-third of the world’s population bypassing wasteful and outdated technologies could be the most outstanding contribution this group of informal dwellers have made the survival of the entire human race. Informal communities have created unique urbanisation and economic models both supporting and contesting the current neoliberal system, and there is much to learn from these informal innovation processes.

Scholars and agencies have traditionally approached informal settlements and economies as spaces of scarcity—with insufficient services, goods, and even ideas. Modern approaches to addressing urban informality improve inadequate qualities of such spaces, whether this is housing, products, markets, or services, and while at some level such approaches can help, this one-sided view erases the significant reality that informal settlements are an urban solution to the incapacity of the formal market to provide for one-third world's urban population. The informal economy is the source of income for over half of the world's working population (ILO, 2018), and is the most common vehicle for income generation, suggesting informality is not a pathology but a norm. This should lead to a reframing of the way we look at informality.

The reality of informality is then more nuanced. This context of scarcity and need creates the milieu for innovation in which products and services are invented without ties to modern and cumbersome infrastructure, or lengthy and problematic bureaucratic processes. This inventiveness, which we sometimes call ingenuity, results from a calculated invention strategy in response to scarcity and away from traditional power structures. Products that result from such methods have the possibility of becoming tremendously transformative. For example, we see new products developed in this 21st century that blur the line between formal and informal processes, regulations, and markets. Products like Uber, Airbnb, and the likes are challenging well-established markets by capitalising on the flexibility of informal procedures. Cities worldwide are grappling with how to respond to these flexible dynamics embodied by both large corporations and people-led structures in informal settlements and informal economies. I count myself among a group of scholars interested in contributing to revealing such knowledge, products, tools, and markets emerging from communities working in these places. By living under these challenging conditions, informal dwellers are pushed to invent out-of-the-box solutions to modern needs.

To better understand these creative processes, I have begun co-production with informal settlement communities not only to find ways of improving their living conditions but also to learn from them about their unique processes of informal city-making. Working with families and community members over the decades, I have learned that new cutting-edge strategies are needed to solve informal settlements' most challenging problems, and that the source of innovation already resides within these communities. I have learned that there are community-based solutions for each and every problem spearheaded by those experiencing the circumstances. For example, we have heard from communities like Carpinelo or Manantiales de Paz, both in Colombia, who collaboratively organise the construction of infrastructural improvements. What they call "convites" vary from water systems to stairways and roads. At the family level, we observe incredible financing mechanisms, like renting rooms to pay for home expansions, or the creation of micro-businesses tailored to the surrounding populations’ needs—an example being unofficial Motorcycle-taxis as private vehicles serving public functions, responding to the lack of affordable transportation networks (Ehebrecht, Heinrichs, & Lenz, 2018)

One of my goals is now the emulation of these strategies on larger scales. Creative, informal solutions follow disruptive process that breaks away from traditional ways of thinking about urban issues. Planners, city officials, and architects tend to operate and consider cities in similar ways as those at the beginning of the 20th century, considering informal settlements as a pathology or disease to be eradicated. This old-fashioned way of looking at such urban areas forces the use of obsolete strategies, and as a result, slum eradication programmes have left millions homeless and only served to display the problem to other, distant places. In unbelievable contrast, informal dwellers find solutions to these same problems in unconventional ways, and as a result their solutions are less environmentally impactful and rely less on the need for extensive infrastructure improvements. Moreover, these solutions could be as physical as creating pedestrian-friendly compact neighbourhoods or as strategic as forming community-based banking systems. These solutions could work for informal settlements with fewer resources, or cities searching for more sustainable development.

Making these places and solutions visible is essential to helping impoverished communities, but also vital for the rest of us. Informal communities thrive and find new opportunities out of necessity.The aforementioned approach of informal settlement residents renting rooms inside homes to pay for housing expansions in informal areas (Leite et al. 2019; Sheuya 2007) is a radical approach—instead of getting a loan to fund improvements, the home is the business paying for its own work. All these appear simple but are transformative ideas resulting from innovative processes, though it is important not to romanticise such solutions. These are innovations born from dramatic suffering.

However, there is much we can learn from them, and I many are already learning. I suggest that some of the more celebrated digital-urban projects can be traced to informal solutions developed decades ago. Approaches such as ride apps such as Uber borrow from the transportation systems operating in most of the developing world, including the unofficial Motorcycle-taxis mentioned earlier. Another example is the now pervasive home-sharing economy illustrated by Airbnb, similar to the self-financing urban model of informal settlements. All can be traced to the confines of informal settlements and I argue that if we pay more attention to making visible such invisible populations, we will not only have the opportunity to support the effort of billions, but we could learn from them with ideas to change the planet.

We continue, however, to follow Malthusian western apocalyptic perspectives seeding fear of poor population densities. This perspective leads to a misunderstanding of the efforts of billions to improve their lives. By following such a perspective, we also lose the opportunity to discover and test technologies that might move us away from wasteful and unsustainable approaches we have adopted in city-making. I propose we turn our gaze to informal areas with a curiosity rather than disdain, and in doing so I suggest that there are three things we need to focus on now.

The first: we need to make these communities visible, they are part of our cities and planet, and deserve to be respected and recognised. Second: we need to pay more attention to the creativity and innovation that happens in such places, the next billion-dollar business or urban sustainable solution has already been invented an informal settlement somewhere. Finally: we need to apply our learnings for the future of us all, when one-third of the planet lives in informal settlements they could be the saviour of the rest of us.




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 [WJ1]Similar to other comments - I am not sure what the book series styleguide is for in-text citations/footnotes. I will leave as is for now and in second parse can tidy so all match.

 [WJ2]I am not 100% sure what this sentence means - does it mean that the rate of growth is the same percentile as global urban growth generally? As it is it reads that ALL global urban growth is in informal settlements...

 [WJ3]I am unclear what this means. As it is written, it suggests that the less housing there is the better the quality of life, which makes no sense. But I don't know what the author is suggesting.