Inclusive cities of the future: creative commons, compassionate connectivity

As cities grow in size and significance, they can become sites of complex social problems – but also hubs for exploring possible solutions. While every city faces distinct problems, they all share a need for innovative approaches to tackle today’s challenges.

This essay is one in a series on Future trends for innovative cities, written by the leading thinkers of the Mayor of Seoul’s Social Innovation Global Advisory Committee. Next up: Anil Gupta, founder of the Honey Bee Network, Ahmedabad, India. 

Communities of thought, practice, and forecasting the future shape our individual aspirations and value system. If these communities spur the conversation about the future generation, forge rituals for remembering their share in our current consumption, they foster different kinds of lifestyle and institutions than when we ignore such conversations. Similarly, when communities invoke in us a duty to nurture habitats of birds, ants, squirrels and spiders for instance, in our life, we become responsible for nature, both within and without. 

How do these communities emerge which spur, spawn and sustain the spirit of compassion, creativity and connectivity across spaces, sectors, skills, seasons and social groups? Whenever people come together around common parks, workspaces, playgrounds, open art installation spaces, flea markets, farmers markets, Sunday bazaars etc., they get in each other’s way, then they evolve rules of social and cultural engagement. That’s how different kinds of communities evolve. 

When rural inhabitants migrate to the city, they bring their stories, culture, values and knowledge, but city administration seldom leverages that. I would like to discuss next how knowledge, technology, culture, values, and institutions can be evolved or shaped so that margins of a city don’t become slums but crucibles of creative crafts, frugal innovations and caring and sharing centres. 

The rate of erosion of the knowledge of elders was never so high in the history of human civilisation, as it is now. How do we track, map, catalogue and revitalise it for contemporary and future strategies of coping with risk, climate change, and fluctuations and an increasing loss of self-identity? We can use the traditional knowledge of migrants as well as natives for developing sustainable, frugal and affordable solutions for the not-so-privileged people. 

We can create connections between grassroots knowledge banks and the formal scientific and technological institutions to create sustainable, frugal and inclusive products and services, a la the work of the Honey Bee Network for over 30 years. SRISTI’s natural product lab has tried to do this over the last 25 years, and GIAN has developed a platform over the last 20 years to reduce ex ante and ex post transaction costs of innovators, entrepreneurs and investors in urban and rural areas. 

Special policies and institutional arrangements must be created by city councils to pursue the following knowledge, spatial, skill, and sectoral commons:

a. Awards and prizes can be announced for sharing knowledge, innovations, and practices in open source which enrich community life, help poor people get access to various services and products, and encourage social innovations and enterprises. The database of such ideas will encourage formal and informal institutions to create many more open source knowledge commons. This may also target migrants’ communities to share their knowledge and ideas for common good.

b. Challenge awards for solving unmet social urban needs: how to cool a top floor room in summer without using an air conditioner, for instance; how to segregate, recycle, repurpose and rejuvenate waste so that sanitation and livelihoods are connected in a circular economy space. 

c. How do we make urban common space attractive for artists to showcase their art, installations, sculptures and all other creative forms to share with society? Such spaces are needed all over the city. Art and culture define the civility of a society. Unless we provide free, open and engaging spaces for such displays and if possible stable installations, how will dialogue about dissent, diversity and democracy take place? 

d. Community food kitchen labs (see GIAN, 2016 at the Sattvik-Tradition food festival), where elders can come and share with the younger generation about traditional and organic food and how to keep families happy and healthy. City councils can encourage Sattvik festivals to connect urban communities with rural organic and traditional food communities. 

e. Educational inequality is a very serious discriminator among children and youth in many urban communities around the world. Open source content, reading and study rooms for children from families which can’t provide a peaceful place for children to study. Public libraries with software, apps collections, mobile phones, tablets on hire, besides books are needed on an unprecedented scale. This will help trigger entrepreneurship and overcome job inequalities. 

f. Children’s creativity has not been given enough attention. Children are often treated as a sink of advice and assistance rather than a source of new ideas. Children creativity workshops and idea contests during shodhyatras – learning walks – have a great potential of moulding the mind and hearts of future leaders of our society, by connecting them to society and nature. 

g. Mobile libraries, wi-fi hotspots in common co-working spaces, playgrounds, gardens, and walking stretches, can overcome some income and opportunity inequalities. 

h. Risk funds/micro venture funds to help citizens convert their ideas about overcoming problems of disadvantaged communities are needed to encourage social innovations and entrepreneurship. 

There can be many more ways in which we can revitalise cities and help shape the future of frugal and compassionate spaces for fulfilling the aspirations of common people. The key driver is revitalising urban commons. 

Anil Gupta is a Visiting Professor at the Centre for Management in Agriculture, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and IIT Bombay. He is the Founder of the Honey Bee Network, SRISTI, GIAN and National Innovation Foundation. He is the Coordinator of the Society for Research and Initiative for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions, a CSIR Bhatnagar Fellow and organiser of the ICCIG.