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The metropolis, once a shining symbol of achievement populated by a lucky elite, is fast becoming the principal model of human organisation for the world.
According to the Population Reference Bureau, in 1800 just 3 per cent of the population lived in cities. By 2008, following six decades in which urban growth had accelerated dramatically, one in two of us were city dwellers.
Once, these urban conglomerations represented safety – the “city on a hill”, whose geographical advantage allowed its inhabitants to repel marauders. In an industrialised age, it came to embody opportunity, attracting the driven and talented, anxious to make their mark.
But “push” as well as “pull” factors have always been pivotal in the development of cities.
Along with the best and the brightest, they have also attracted the poor who, no longer able to sustain an agrarian life, have frequently found themselves on the bottom rung of its harsh economic hierarchies.
It is the latter group on which the entrants to the FT/Citi Ingenuity Awards: Urban Ideas in Action have principally focused.
Through the prism of these entries, the shape of the modern city becomes clear. It is a place where newcomers are often seen as burdens rather than welcome infusions of human capital.
But to a small and inspiring group of leaders, the urban underclass is much more than a drain on already hard-pressed resources. It is full of potential and talents that can make the city better for everyone.
The cities that have spawned the innovations submitted for the education and healthcare categories of the awards could not be more different: from the teeming, sometimes dangerous streets of India, to the almost incomparably more prosperous metropolitan terrain of the US. But whatever the economic disparities between them, each has found a way to harness the resilience and compassion of individuals.
In some cases, the initiative fills a yawning gap left by the failure of the state to meet the needs of its citizens. In others, the state has becoming a willing and facilitating partner in the enterprise.
Innovations in this context do not rely on technological advances or one individual’s “eureka” moment. Instead, they arise organically, from the pavement up. In at least one instance, this is literally as well as figuratively the case.
In India, the Power of Seeing project helps schoolchildren engage with their neighbourhoods. Each adopts a street, focusing on the mess, poor design and danger in a sliver of the city. The initiative seeks to create an army of young “change agents”, connected as never before to the world around them and filled with resolve to tackle what they see.
The twin themes of collective action and empowerment evident in that submission run deeply through all the entries.
In China, the GSK New Citizen Health Care Project integrates migrant populations into city life. These people are disadvantaged in many ways, forced to take dirty and dangerous jobs that others shun and facing significant difficulties in accessing education, health and housing.
In words that sum up the hostility that can underlie the opportunities cities offer, the submission notes that their challenges are those of most urban migrant populations. They “feel afraid and isolated in their new environment”.
One of the centres opened under its auspices has even formed the backdrop to a celebration of the most powerful exercise in tackling loneliness that humanity has yet devised, by hosting its first wedding. Cheng Xiaoping, a migrant worker, says she chose to get married there because “the people here are like my own family”.
An undertone of challenge to the authorities is a feature of several submissions. A project in Peru provides schooling for children of low-income families who are undergoing long stays in hospital. The founder, a teacher, lost her own small son to cancer and resolved to improve the lot of other parents and children in similar situations.
Many of the children came to Lima from small towns and rural communities. Their experience has been of a “large, chaotic and hostile city” where they are often “mistreated and discriminated against”.
The kindness and respect they encounter through this programme can help to shape their view of the city in which they have come to live. In so doing, the project fills a void left by the Peruvian state.
Amid a far more prosperous society, the College Possible project in the US similarly seeks to tackle a sense of wasted potential. Through strong role models, the project tries to prompt young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to realise that they are as entitled to a higher education as their richer counterparts.
Each entrant is asked what is needed to make its ideas work.
In every case, the answer includes “people”. In other words, the solutions to what ails the city can be found not in glittering technology or scientific wizardry, but among its citizens. With vision, compassion and a sense of responsibility to others, they can redefine not only their own lives but the entire urban experience.
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