Real Leaders

The 21st Century City: Future Opportunity Or Future Threat?


International affairs columnist Doug Saunders notes that slums give rise to much of the conflict and social unrest we see around the world. Even in those slums where conditions seem impossible, a simple and cruel logic keep hopefuls walking in: the belief that life in the slum is still a sliver better than life in the village, says Michael Keith, Director of the COMPAS center at Oxford. He suggests that slums should not be seen as a problem in and of themselves. Rather they represent stunted progression in the journey of those hoping to make a better life in the city.

The fact that they stay in the slum is the real failure. This means that their progression is halted and that ways onwards, into work, education and toward a proper roof overhead— are blocked. For this reason, Michael suggests, the slums should not principally be targeted for infrastructural and social programs that risk institutionalizing them. Rather, interventions should focus on keeping the migrants moving, into work and education toward the goal of social and economic integration. We would do well to avoid repeating the mistakes of Europeans and North American towns of regarding slums as an uncomfortable but unavoidable and permanent necessity. The slum is a symptom, not the disease.

Most urbanization is happening in towns of 500,000 or less, with very little institutional or infrastructural capability, says Joel Bolnick, coordinator of Slum Dwellers International. Nevertheless, slum dwellers feel excluded from the societies they seek to enter. This is because they are in fact excluded, their voices drowned out by experts. He adds that the level of democratic maturity does not matter, governments pro and anti poverty management both result in exclusionary and status quo policies.

Melanie Edwards, CEO of Mobile Metrix, illustrates the disengagement of governments who report prevalence of slum dwelling in the low single percentages whereas the real numbers, even those reported by on-the-ground government officials, are closer to 40% in Rio for example. Ossama Hassanein, Chairman of TechWadi concurs and adds that the Egyptian government reports 300,000 living in Cairo’s slums, the figure estimated by non-governmental organizations being closer to 1.2 million slum dwellers.

Stanford just had a conference on the topic where McKinsey & Co, a consultancy, projected that 22% of the world’s population will soon live in the informal economy. That is one in five humans globally living in an economic environment that eschews tax, public service, basic social and private security—an environment that fuels crime and cements social inequality and conflict.

As I listen to the discussion, I think of the post financial crisis narrative around the “new normal”; a world filled with stark and pressing risks and opportunities, interdependence versus systemic contagion, rapid economic growth versus rising inequality, the rise of new global middle classes versus concentrating accumulation of wealth, increasing globalization versus geo-politicization and securitization of resources from the Internet to drinking water.

More than 100,000 people move into slums every day. That does sound like a sizeable number. One out of five people will soon live in slums. That does make food for thought. But what if this is just the new normal. The new reality as it has been creeping up on our doorsteps for some time. Economies are moving, resources are moving and people are moving. If we call them migrants, does that make them less like us?

Aren’t we all on the move in one way or another? The seminars most poignant remark is offered by Michael Keith. Migration is people moving, it is not a question of us and them, “it’s a question of human progression, journeys that are either enabled or halted, human progress stunted”, stunted by our inability to make space and opportunity for the venturesome.

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, Tempest-tossed to me I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

I think that the “lamp” is not a border fence on the Mexican or Moroccan border. The lamp is not unfortunate but permanent slums. I suggest the lamp might be something more like a social impact metric. A metric for how migrant journeys, wherever they take place, cross borders, into and out of slums—progress or get stunted. Such metrics might give us data to describe the limits to human progress and suggest remedies rather than separating us from them.

Henrik Storm Dyrssen is the CEO of Leksell Social Ventures (LSV), a private impact investment company based in Sweden initiated by billionaire Laurent Leksell, founder of Elekta AB, inventor of non-invasive cancer therapy radiation knives. He is a Goldman Sachs Global Leader Scholar and McKinsey & Co Awardee that has worked an lived in Saudi Arabia, Iran, USA, UK, France and Sweden.

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