Forging Common Ground – Series of Oxford Student Insights to the Skoll World Forum 2017.
Oxford MBA Candidate 2016-17 at the Saïd Business School, Devin Rebello, gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum session “Designing Sustainable, Inclusive Cities of the Future”.
The story of a broken city began as a fault line of inequity and exclusion ripped apart the urban centre of Medellin, Colombia. Faced with rapid urbanisation and population growth, the city was sent into extreme economic upheaval spurred by lack of jobs, failing infrastructure, and inadequate city services. The most disenfranchised and vulnerable populations fled into the mountains where they were soon preyed upon by drug cartels and caught in cycle of violence and extreme poverty that made Medellin the most dangerous city in the world. As Liz Agbor-Tabi, Associate Director of 100 Resilient Cities, tells it, Medellin was a city with a master plan. Local leaders had gone through the exercise and set a vision. Unfortunately, they had planned for the city they had, not for the city they would need. This story, though extreme, is all too familiar to those working to design sustainable, inclusive cities of the future.
As I sat in the room and listened to the tragic impact of failing systems and the hope for a better way forward, I was struck by the conflict between formal and informal communities and the role of government in creating their own problems. The outstanding, passionate panellists drove a resounding point home: there are social structures, laws, and physical spaces within growing cities that inherently expel people to the fringes. The more a city treats the marginalised like a problem, the larger the problem becomes. A city cannot ignore the pain and suffering of those existing in informal spaces, such as slums, nor can it take a wrecking ball to these informal communities and expect them to go away. The marginalised will not disappear by being ignored or physically threatened; instead, like in the example of Medellin, they will find ways to try to survive that can be devastating to formal structures.
The big question is, how do you change this? How can cities get out ahead and build something that will grow with a surging population? The overall sentiment in the room was that we need to break through silos and take a systems approach to building more inclusive cities. This starts by bring those living in informal spaces to the table and including them in the planning process. It starts when we demand governments change arbitrary laws that lock the marginalised into poverty by disallowing them from being entrepreneurial. It starts when we recognise that natural disasters disproportionately devastate the marginalised and fight to change systems that currently make them ineligible for aide. It starts when we design cities that focus on creating easy access to education, health care, and transportation for everyone. And it continues when we constantly remember that design is not neutral – it can help or it can hurt.
What is most inspiring is that this can be done. Looking back to Medellin as our example, it is an amazing story of a phoenix rising. Liz Agbor-Tabi told us that from the ashes of violence and extreme poverty, the city was able to turn things around by bringing marginalised citizens into the planning process along with NGOs, businesses, and civil society. Medellin built infrastructure to physically connect those living in the mountains to the main city allowing easy and safe passage between locations, which led to more employment and more spending that would boost the overall economy. They also put a deliberate emphasis on creating community spaces to rebuild the connectivity and trust between and among citizen. Medellin is now a rising hub of social entrepreneurship that has an intentional focus on poverty alleviation and inclusion.
This last thought is an interesting one – with the government taking the first steps to build an inclusive foundation to alleviate violence and poverty, local businesses are emerging that are determined to take care of the community. But does it really have to get that bad for businesses to take responsibility for the communities in which they work? Do we really have to rely exclusively on NGOs and social entrepreneurs to be the ones to take action to prevent another city from falling?
I think back to the opening plenary of the Forum when Hamdi Ulukaya, Founder and CEO of Chobani spoke about employing refugees within his factories well before the current refugee crisis hit. In the process of employing those in need of a job, he built critical foundations that enabled his employees to become thriving citizens. Hamdi learned that transportation was a challenge, so he provided buses. He learned that language was a barrier, so he provided translators. He learned that factory skills were lacking, so he provided training. And in doing all of this, he removed large numbers of refugees from the fringes and helped them integrate into the formal economy. This, in turn, supports the job markets and overall health of the cities in which his factories operate. We applaud Hamdi for his work because it is truly remarkable. But we cannot simply view Hamdi as a caring heart amongst stone-cold corporates. His actions made economic sense to his business and, even with the additional expenses of transportation, training, translators, and paying his staff twice as much as what his competitors were paying, he is still making a profit. Chobani is the example that we need to point to and demand that all businesses responsibly participate in the health and safety of their communities. This is critical to the design of sustainable, inclusive cities of the future. We cannot speak about an inclusive planning process for the future of our cities and give big businesses a pass from sitting at the table side by side with those most in need of employment.