Slum Dwellers Inspire Hope for the Future of Urban Poor

With gray skies and gray economic news, one could feel a bit dismal about 2012 and the prospects for a brighter world. Design with the Other 90%, an exhibit at UN Headquarters in New York City dispels that grayness.

urban poor, Design with the Other 90%, social enterprise, collaborative designIt’s a display that tells the stories of “informal settlements” -- commonly known as slums or squatter settlements -- in which residents have joined together to solve infrastructure and quality-of-life problems. We’re talking big problems: lack of the basics such as clean water, toilets, safe housing, and waste disposal.

The solutions make you shake your head in amazement: garbage into building materials, bicycle parts into water pumps, locally grown materials into insulation … all while creating jobs within the community and using resources within the slum. Who knew the possibilities of cow dung, garbage, sewage sludge, bamboo, and plastic wash basins?

Add to that the byproducts -- savings groups to pool resources, micro-loans, new small businesses, jobs within the slum -- and you have an open-ended upward spiral.

Creativity: That’s inspiring. But even more inspiring is the collaboration and self-empowerment the projects represent. Teamwork, organizing, standing up for what they want and need: This goes far beyond fixing tangible problems. This is a socio-economic-political system that addresses intangibles, such as respect for the intelligence, strength, and spirit of the slum-dwellers as well as reinforcing the power that comes from working together.

And the slum-dwellers are building on it. They’ve formed Shack/Slum Dwellers International, a network of organizations put together by the urban poor. They exchange ideas about assessing problems, negotiating with political organizations, and finding partners to move projects forward.

Which brings us to the other inspiring aspect of the exhibit: the number of social enterprises and nonprofits who work with the urban poor to create products, services, and communities. The keyword here -- as in the title of the exhibit -- is “with.” Rather than impose solutions, these organizations tap the experience and intelligence of the slum-dwellers themselves to come up with solutions that maintain critical social networks, are affordable and realistic, and strengthen communities.

Creativity, collaboration, empowerment, social responsibility: Now that’s a bright outlook for 2012.

What inspires hope for you in 2012?

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Image: © Slum Dwellers International
 

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