January 23, 2013 11:53 am

Local answers to global issues

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Cities are expanding because they are incubators of opportunity. Mass migration from country to city is driven by a desire for progress, wealth, health and the chance of change.

But arrival in the city is often a harsh disappointment. Just as millions of migrants come with hope of riches and an escape from the drudgery of subsistence agriculture, millions of established urban dwellers dream of a peaceful, friendly idyll of rural life.

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IN Urban Ingenuity

Cities are a paradox. They are a place where social structures are smashed to pieces and inhabitants can find themselves alienated and alone. But they are also a fertile ground for the creation of new social networks far more powerful and creative than anything we could have once imagined.

The city is a laboratory for invention, with each generation, community and neighbourhood reinventing and reworking ideas of organisation, sociability and business.

That invention and innovation might come from local government or international organisations, or from the business sector, third sector or non-governmental organisations, or it might come from the communities themselves.

Most thrilling of all, there is no monopoly on innovation – wealth does not confer advantage. In fact, many of the most exciting, innovative and surprising ideas come from communities themselves, from city dwellers who are forced to negotiate the trials of everyday life and create solutions for problems that might be new or as old as cities themselves.

The FT/Citi Ingenuity Awards: Urban Ideas in Action are all about recognising the freshest, brightest, most innovative ideas, wherever they come from.

The awards are trying to attract those ideas that address perennial problems of urban life – health, education, housing, infrastructure, energy, governance and so on – and that propose solutions that might easily and fruitfully be adapted in cities around the world.

Each city has its own problems, but all cities face similar challenges. From migration to suburbanisation, from transport to childcare, the wealthiest and poorest of cities – as well as those urban areas where great wealth and crushing poverty exist side by side – face similar issues. With one population depending on the other for services and wages, their fates are often intertwined.

This interconnection of interests means a successful city can only be one in which the needs of all its inhabitants are being met and a civilised life can be lived at each end of the income scale – a life in which the fundamental benefits of urban life can be enjoyed by all.

There are, of course, specific factors that affect each region. The problems of the growth of informal settlements in the global south, for instance, can often seem intractable as each new solution brings new problems of its own. The scale of migrations from country to city in south and east Asia can seem overwhelming. Yet there is no reason why a clever idea to provide something as basic as cooking facilities for the poorest communities could not inspire something in the wealthy cities of the global north.

The overall winner of the 2012 awards, the Community Cooker Foundation, based in Kenya, was one such brilliant innovation, addressing fundamental problems of everyday life in the informal city. Women’s time had been taken up searching for fuel to cook, but the informal city, with its lack of infrastructure for things that are taken for granted in many cities – such as rubbish collection and disposal – presented an unexplored source of fuel.

The cooker’s innovative design uses rubbish as fuel while detoxifying and removing some of the worst pollutants. Women now have more time to care for their children or to work, and residents are given cooking hubs around which to reinforce social ties and create new communities.

This is an invention that works across a plethora of problems and enhances life for some of society’s poorest. There is no reason why similar technologies might not be applied elsewhere.

Last year’s awards attracted an extraordinarily diverse and intriguing selection of entries. These ranged from children’s education in hospitals and the problems of providing healthcare to shifting migrant populations, to green buses and urban agriculture.

This year we continue to encourage entries from as wide a spectrum of innovation as possible. What are the most fundamental problems facing the contemporary city? Education? Healthcare? Energy or food production in an age of scarcity? Infrastructure? Communication?

Each of these is a pivotal component of civilised city life, and even the wealthiest and most successful of cities could find ways to improve their citizens’ everyday experience.

There are no barriers to where these ideas can come from. Whether corporate or charitable, from individuals or institutions, any ideas that have been put into practice with positive results will be considered.

This is an opportunity to communicate the best ideas and the most ingenious inventions. We hope that in highlighting and recognising these ideas, the FT/Citi Ingenuity Awards will continue to encourage cities to improve the lives of all their residents.

To apply for the Ingenuity Awards 2013: Urban Ideas in Action, please complete the form at http://apply.ftcitiawards.com/

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