December 6, 2012 5:00 am

Compare and contrast

View of the financial district in Makati City; in the foreground are shanty homes built around a lake in Pasay City©Eyevine

On the fringes: as cities grow many struggle to cope with the influx of migrants

Cities are simultaneously both the zenith of civilisation – a word that derives from the Latin civitas for city – and incubators of some of the worst poverty and injustice on the planet. As more than half the world’s population is now urban – a figure expected to rise to 70 per cent by 2030 – the city has become universal.

The experience of the city, however, is very far from universal. As our world urbanises, the gap between wealthy and poor widens. Cities attract the adventurous, the ambitious, the chancers and the crooks just as they do the wealthy, educated and inventive. There is no single solution to the problems of urbanity. Instead there are myriad small innovations – surely many yet to be discovered – that can slightly improve the lot of city dwellers in particular places. There are seemingly simple ideas that can radically transform the everyday lives of those for whom fresh running water, sanitation and electricity are still far-off dreams.

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IN Urban Ingenuity

The FT/Citi Ingenuity Awards: Urban Ideas in Action programme is an attempt to find the cream of those ideas, inventions and innovations. It is an effort to gather the most ingenious solutions to the most ubiquitous problems and to encourage those with ideas to roll them out and export them, to help as many city dwellers as possible improve their experiences of urbanity.

This first year for the awards attracted a huge raft of entries from a truly international spectrum. The ideas addressed everything from cycling to recycling, from smart cities to simple school books. There were complex and high-tech ideas aimed at incrementally improving the lives of commuters in wealthy cities and the quality of air, transport and life in those cities. There were ingenious, low-tech ideas aimed at addressing the basic needs of the one-third of city dwellers who currently survive in slum conditions.

The discourse around cities is often polarised into developed and developing worlds, high-tech solutions for the global north and worthy low-tech innovations for the global south. The middle however – where the real growth is – often remains absent. The exponentially growing middle-tier cities being built in China and elsewhere for an emerging middle class have their own issues of incubating urbanity. They are also being required to absorb millions of migrant workers whose status is uncertain. It was good to see some entries looking to alleviate some of the many problems, from health to education, that these shifts in populations can cause.

The four categories – healthcare, education, infrastructure and energy – were intended to address the issues most fundamental to the growth, development, sustainability and success of cities. They also cover the issues that apply most broadly to citizens of every nationality, class and income bracket. A lack of intelligence, investment, ideas or progress in any of these fields can be enough to cripple a city or to prejudice life for millions living in them. Those four categories did indeed throw up a remarkable range of ideas and it was heartening for the judges to see such a wide spread of programmes, innovations and inventions spanning global south and north.

That same spectrum, in its remarkable diversity and richness, also threw up a number of difficulties in the judging process. We found ourselves attempting to compare Barcelona’s high-tech Bitcarrier with iKhalayami’s attempts to rehouse slum dwellers. One improves traffic congestion in a sophisticated city with a smart city system while the other radically transforms the lives of some of the planet’s poorest people.

Energy is another broad category, one in which the judges ended up comparing an admirable programme attempting to make more efficient commercial office space in Houston, Texas – perhaps the least green city on the planet – with the Community Cooker Foundation that aims to supply basic facilities to communities with no public infrastructure, and few opportunities even to create a carbon footprint. It transpires that those living on the least spend an inordinate amount of time each day simply foraging for fuel. Freeing up that time allows them to do other things. It is a small advance but a life-changing opportunity.

The contrasts between Houston, the air-conditioned and gas-guzzling capital of the world’s energy industry, and the conditions in some of the world’s biggest and worst slums like Kibera are shocking. Arguably, that means it is all the more important for the future of the planet for the global north to change its ways than it is to make changes in the slums.

The cooker project was selected as the overall winner because it managed to ingeniously address two huge problems afflicting the slums. Rubbish is the bane of the informal city. With no organised collection it piles up and becomes a magnet for disease and pests. The cooker addresses the problem of rubbish disposal as well as energy, at the same time creating a real community resource that brings people together. It is an extraordinary and deserving winner that emerged to unanimous acclaim.

The debates we had during the judging process have prompted us to make some changes to the categories for next year’s submissions.

We have decided to take a more regional approach for the future, inviting submissions on a geographical basis that will, we hope, allow us to make clearer comparisons. The principle will remain the same. This is a competition to find the finest, most ingenious and innovative ideas able to touch the most people and make the biggest difference to the quality of the everyday lives of city dwellers.

The trend towards urbanity is entrenched and inevitable. People come to cities to make better lives for themselves, whether those cities are the nearest centres of industry and employment or whether they are halfway across the world.

Now that they are established, the FT/Citi Ingenuity Awards will, we hope, continue to be a magnet for the best ideas and a mechanism for disseminating the innovation and ingenuity that those cities foster.

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