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$300 slum house? Worthy but worthless

Jason Corburn, associate professor, city and regional planning | June 3, 2011

The Economist published an article last month on the competition to build a $300 house intended to improve the lives of slum dwellers.  The article came from a blog post in the Harvard Business Review by Vijay Govindarajan, of Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, and Christian Sarkar, a marketing consultant, who set out to explore the possibility of Govindarajan’s idea of  ‘reverse innovation’ – or an idea that starts in the Global South and makes its way to more wealthy nations (many of us know this already happens through stolen intellectual property, but that is a topic for another post).

What is the problem you ask? Well, for starters, the response, Hands off Our Houses, in the NY Times captures why this is fundamentally a bad idea for the urban poor – it doesn’t include those intended to live in these houses in the design process.  This is a also a BAD idea because it fails to grapple with the complex relationships in informal settlements between housing, land rights, economic opportunities, gender rights, health and safety and a host of other issues.  With worthy intentions, this idea is likely to redirect resources toward a worthless outcome – a rational and nice looking house that will not improve the lives of slum dwellers.

A fundamental error here is that design alone is NOT the solution – despite what green builders, architects, entrepreneurs and others continue to say.  The solution is an urban planning process where:

  1. slum dwellers drive the process;
  2. designs are not one-size-fits-all – but flexible to accommodate different uses, can expand and improve the existing social and cultural fabric of a community;
  3. donor & private sector resources support improvements to basic infrastructure (i.e., water, sanitation, roads, electricity, etc), schools, health care facilities AND housing, and;
  4. the process offers jobs, new skills, and builds community power.

Well, this isn’t easy either, but it is being done.  Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) has been doing just this in tens of countries around the world.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, our team at UC Berkeley has been working with one SDI-affiliated network, Muungano WA Wanavijiji, since 2008 to support community-led planning in the Mathare Valley informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya.  Our process aims to act as an alternative to other planning and housing improvement schemes in Kenya, particularly the Government of Kenya’s slum upgrading project in Kibera – –  where the government built housing for the urban poor, but local people prefer to rent out the housing rather than live in it!

We must avoid the boutique design and technological quick-fixes promoted by business schools and the global elite in the donor andentrepreneurial community and invest in complex, messy, people-centered, locally-driven processes.

Cross-posted from Jason Corburn’s blog Healthy Cities.