Toward Inclusive Cities 3.0 – aligning public participation with people

Is participatory planning about engaging everyone and making cities inclusive? Or about satisfying those who speak the loudest? These difficult questions affect public participation in cities throughout the world – for better or worse. After a brief discussion of what inclusiveness might be, this post explores how digital technologies for public participation can become more inclusive. planning. It ends by considering the new wave in public participation innovation which merges both traditional and high-tech engagement.

The inclusive city – a promised land?

Wherever you live, there is likely to be room for improvement for making your city more inclusive. But what is an inclusive city? As relevant here, the Oxford Dictionaries defines “inclusive” as: “Not excluding any section of society or any party involved in something”. Inclusiveness is also linked to community. The sense of being part of a community, of belonging, is arguably a primordial human need and aspiration. “No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” wrote English poet John Donne in his Meditation XVII (four hundred years before Brexit, mind you).

The inclusive city, which should be pre-condition of planning, sadly remains an elusive mythical place. Inclusiveness is implicit in the notion of the “right to city” introduced by Henri Lefebvre in the late 1960s, which many authors have mobilised as a call for more equal opportunities and quality of life in the face of growing inequalities and disenfranchisement (e.g. David Harvey, Neil Brenner, Peter Marcuse).


 The Occupy movement, a modern epitome of the right-to-the-city, began with Occupy Wall Street in September 2011 . Picture: wikimedia.

However, we need to clarify the notion of the “right to the city”, and especially explain exactly what kind of right(s) (moral, legal etc.) we are referring to. Transposed to public participation in planning, this implies specifying which “publics” are to be engaged, with the aim of leaving nobody out who may hold a stake. It also implies being clear about the purpose of public participation, and ultimately, the kind of rights on decision-making which citizens are entitled to hold in systems of representative democracy… Unfortunately, public engagement innovations in public participation can be said to have had only limited impact on policies. At the same time, the dynamics of local democracy are shifting, such as in the U.S., the UK, and France.  In the UK, for instance, citizen-led Neighbourhood plans are mushrooming over the country. The future will tell if such Neighbourhood Plans truly help to reconfigure local democracy, and make cities more inclusive.

“Inclusive” also means: “(Of language) deliberately avoiding usages that could be seen as excluding a particular social group”. I interpret this last definition as: “speaking in a way which everyone understands and is not disparaging to anyone”. The lofty aim of collaborative planning is to invite everyone to the discussion table and agree to common goals that will benefit the common good. Such goal-oriented dialogue can help “re-enchant” local democracy. However, current public engagement practices often fall short of addressing social inequalities and making planning processes truly inclusive.

Public Engagement: 1.0 + 2.0 = 3.0

Digital technologies for public participation abound. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and the virtual environment Second Life have been used for engaging residents in urban planning, with varying successes, depending on context and technology. Easy-to-use online mapping software have engaged from hundreds to thousands in the planning of their neighbourhoods and cities (e.g. CommonPlace in the UK, coUrbanize in the US, Carticipe in France, Maptionnaire in Finland, Bästa Platsen in Sweden). Games such as Minecraft have also been used to engage youth throughout the world. A flurry of recent hybrid portals provide multiple functionalities (e.g. coUrbanize, MetroQuest, among many others). These allow simple consultation as well as more active forms of participation. Functionalities include learning about projects (content, timelines, updates), budget allocation, mapping development preferences, ranking development scenarios and planning priorities, voting for proposals, etc. Digital and physical technologies can also be cross-linked: an online map survey, consultation meeting or traditional collaborative workshop (e.g. design charrettes) may be advertised on Facebook or Twitter; and contributions to an online mapping survey may be shared to various social media or advertised via physical mail or early consultation meetings.

The trend is toward compatibility across platforms and devices. Anttiroiko (2012) uses the term “Planning 2.0” to describe confluence of Web 2.0 technologies in the work of planning-related professionals and means of engaging urban dwellers. The data produced through public engagement is increasingly useable in the work of planning and design professionals. For example, 3D city models produced by professionals and amateurs alike can be uploaded to online interactive 3D city environments for public participation (e.g. Google Earth applications, CityPlanner, Urban Circus, etc.). Also, in the age of the Internet of Things, Big Data is being harnessed alongside government Open Data to better understand people’s needs and behaviour. Big and Open Data also create opportunities for ordinary (though often technologically-savvy) urbanites to contribute new knowledge and proposals that can improve urban planning and city life, for example through civic hackathons. Big Data is also about making sense of urban residents’ use of social media, which is really more about data mining then public participation, and can raise issues of data privacy.

Overall, such digital technologies have the potential to reach more people and more diverse groups, and in more creative, participatory ways, than many other traditional methods such as consultation meetings and design charrettes.

Digital technologies display clear limitations, however. First, the worlds of technological innovation and planning do not always converge. Nonetheless, this professional gap is also the sign of ample room for fruitful cooperation between planners and developers. Second, engagement through technology often remains limited. Social media are typically used as one-way communication from planners to users. Online mapping surveys are typically carried out as innovative consultation exercises. Third, empirical comparisons of digital and physical technologies are largely missing however, making it hard to assess the relative value of either. Fourth, planners and decision-makers need to take the lead in improving the outcomes of public engagement. Last and most importantly, the digital divide (lacking access or the skills to use digital technologies) is the Public enemy No 1. of Public Engagement 2.0. Therefore, evidence so far suggests that the potential to “wikify” or “crowdsource” the inclusive city remains only a potential (Silva, 2013). Is technology failing to deliver on its promises of revolutionising urban governance?

The middle-way may lie in combining traditional and high-tech technologies in smarter ways. Dave Biggs, Chief Engagement Officer at the public engagement software provider MetroQuest, summarises his advice to combine “high-touch” (i.e. closer contact with customers through face-to-face participation) and “high-tech” (i.e. reaching the masses with a mix of online tools). He does this with a bowtie.


Public Engagement 3.0: “It’s all in the bowtie”. Adapted from Biggs (2015). Picture: Pixabay / Jackmac34

The message: engage the masses early on so as to design better public consultation meetings and collaborative workshops, the outcome of which can be fed back online to select the best planning options. The benefits: deploying multiple technologies enables to reach different people in different ways, and generate synergetic effects in the process. The approach encapsulates both professional experience and the state-of-the-art in public engagement research, although it would also require thorough assessment.

Epilogue: The Death and Life of Inclusive Cities (version 3.0)

If the “inclusive city” is fraught with many obstacles and contradictions, can we expect technology to solve urban inequalities? Hardly. As Jones et al. (2015, p. 333) summarise succinctly:  “ICT is not a magic bullet for enhancing resident engagement in planning any more than participatory approaches guarantee good outcomes”. In other words: The local governance revolution will not be digitised.

Henceforth the need to combine both traditional and digital means of engagement. Public Engagement 3.0 combined with proactive leadership from planners and local politicians could lead to the Inclusive City 3.0: a city that genuinely aims to be inclusive both virtually and physically.


Anttiroiko, A.-V. (2012). Urban Planning 2.0. International Journal of E-Planning Research, 1(1), 16-30. doi: 10.4018/ijepr.2012010103

Biggs, D. (2015). Public Engagement 3.0. The next generation of community engagement: blending high-tech and high-touch public involvement.  Retrieved from

Jones, P., Layard, A., Speed, C., & Lorne, C. (2015). MapLocal: Use of Smartphones for Crowdsourced Planning. Planning Practice & Research, 30(3), 322-336. doi: 10.1080/02697459.2015.1052940

Silva, C. N. (2013). Open source urban governance: crowdsourcing, neogeography, VGI and citizen science. In C. N. Silva (Ed.), Citizen e-participation in urban governance: Crowdsourcing and collaborative creativity (pp. 1-18): IGI Global.


Posted in Beyond planning, Planning, city, and society, Sustainability and resilience | 2 Comments

Private sector water tanker, water vendor, and packaged water in Indian cities: Innovation in governance?

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Figure 1. Transforming codes of understanding water supply from public sector water supply to water ATM

‘Water’ is understood both as natural resource and public good. Based on certain political positions, the later one is debatable. Most importantly, it is debatable also from constraints in implementability. In academic literature, the term ‘resource’ is criticised to have an implication for economic development, as water is also central to one’s livelihood. The argument is for link between Big water (public sector water supply system: dam, Water Treatment Plant, hard infrastructure like pipes) and Everyday water (users’ water management). The former one, that water is a natural resource, still remains valid. This blog discusses the case of small-scale private sector intervention in water supply, mainly in the city of Bengaluru: the Silicon Valley of India, but also in other cities like Chennai and Gurgaon that largely depend on small-scale private sector water supply.

Bengaluru’s water manufacturers, water vendors and water mafias

Bengaluru is the fifth largest metropolitan city in India (Bengaluru Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (BMRDA) covers the geographical area: 8005 sq km) and is the capital of the state of Karnataka. Being developed as one of the initial IT hubs, the city has experienced influx of population and rising demand in terms of real estate. In past, policy makers targeted for ‘Singaporisation’ of Bengaluru, while it drew criticism from the scholars for channeling formal funding from both the central and state governments in building the global image of the city, while bypassing the low incoming communities and hence contributing towards rising inequality (here). In current situation, the local government is able to supply water only to a part of the population (not always based on socio-economic status), using surface water from the Cauvery river. The city largely depends on private sector water manufacturer and water vendors. For instance, the large well-off population in the suburb of the city has to solely depend on the private sector vendors as the public sector water supply does not reach there. As an interviewee from a private sector water vendor company mentions, water is “commercialised” in Bengaluru. With little investment, one can make large profit in the long run. Hence, small scale private sector actors are largely interested in the “business”. Water manufacturers are those who dig bore-well, extract water from ground water table, treat the water for drinking purposes, and do the packaging. Water vendors deliver the package to households. Water vendors develop their mutual trust with the customers regarding the quality of water, as part of their business relationship. The business is obviously territorial in nature. While Bengaluru Bruhat Mahanagar Palike (BBMP) approves license to some of the water manufacturers and vendors, there is a huge number of informal sector operating in this area. Even the approved manufacturers are known to over exploit the sources. The term ‘water mafia’ is common in Bengaluru to denote those who run the business without permission, and backed by political support. However, as put by one of the professionals working with ground water in Bengaluru, would water security mean such water mafias serving water free of cost to low-wage poor migrants? This is a position taken against legitimizing informal sector and hence in the process making such services inaccessible for the low income communities (also indicating that so-called ‘water mafias’ are not making huge money out of it).

Chennai’s packaged water

Chennai is the capital of neighbour state Tamilnadu and the fourth largest metropolitan city in India (geographical area: 1189 sq km). Tamilnadu shares the Cauvery river for surface water with Karnataka. Chennai had a well-designed lake-canal system that has been destroyed over time (like one Bengaluru had). The city very recently faced the worst case of flood (here). Besides the impact of climate change, the demolition of the lake-canal system was pointed out as one of the main contributors. Chennai too largely depend on packaged water as the surface water supply is not enough to meet the demand.

Gurgaon’s private sector water vendors

Gurgaon is a private city in the northern part of India, in proximity to Delhi (geographical area: 732.2 sq km). The uniqueness about Gurgaon is that the city exists without any local government; it’s a private sector delivered city (here and here). Although the city is supplied with water by Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA), both the quality and quantity are not enough for the city to survive. Specially during summer days, the city has to largely depend on private sector water tankers. What is mentioned in such reports, is that, the private sector tankers charge unreasonable amount for water supply, and citizens pay as they need access to safe drinking water, and they can afford (here). What is not mentioned clearly anywhere, the private sector water vendors over-exploit the ground water table sources (also in case of Bengaluru), for their personal short-term profit, while threatening the long term sustainability. The difference between Bengaluru, Chennai and Gurgaon is that the first two are old traditional cities that have experienced transformation, real estate pressure, demolition of natural resources, and stand here today in this condition. For Gurgaon, it’s a new privately built cities. Such cities are also called charter cities (here). However, the original concept of charter city is inclusive in character, and the example from African context (and Africa as a continent would see variations, here) on electricity supply for low income communities make sense, as it is discussed here. In case of Gurgaon, the rationale behind developing such cities and the target population are different.

Technological code of water

One way of looking at the problem could be transforming technological code (Freenberg, 1990). Traditionally water availability and supply used to be understood in terms of lake, well and canals (e.g. Jaisalmer a desert town in India). Then through modernisation of infrastructure: construction of dam, canal, water treatment plant, and then supply to houses through pipes and taps. Such combinations also reflect the public sector supplied water and known as ‘Big water’, specially the construction of dam, WTP etc. With privatisation of water, specially in terms of small-scale privatisation, as discussed above, communities’ understanding of water supply is changed: it is about small-scale instruments to dig bore well, water treatment machinaries,and packaging water. It is about water tankers. It is about packaged water in different forms. It is about bottled water. A very recent addition is water ATM as discussed in a previous blog. [See Figure 1]

Lights of hope?!

There was a recent news saying Bengaluru will be unliveable in five years (here). One of the points raised by the report is definitely unregulated urban growth and huge disappearance of parks, lakes, trees and water bodies. The study points out real estate pressure as one point. However, what it does not say is that as Indian cities are largely experiencing climate change and extreme hot days during summer, Bengaluru is one of the cities that still have pleasant weather during summer. From the public sector water supply side, they may be running water shortage in some years to serve the projected population from surface water; from the small-sector private sector side, they may have exploited all the ground water table; there is still light of hope (or the spirit of the city) as the end users have religiously adopted pro-environment behaviour, they are recycling and reusing water, and even some private city models (e.g. Magarpatta in Pune) set the example of training housemaids on using limited water in domestic work. These are great examples of adaptation.

City as a socio-technical system

In the ‘big water’ debate, it is well known that transfer of water from source and treatment plant to the consumers involve a large percentage of wastage, and measures are taken to reduce the wastage in public sector water supply. Where are such debates in private sector water supply? There has to be synchronization between policies adopted by varying sectors, like public, private and third (NGOs) sector; and varying levels like water demand (rising demand due to climate change), water supply (by private sector vendor because surface water does not meet the need), and water usage (recycling and reusing at the users’ end and change in habit to use reduced water). As a result of such inter-linkage at various levels, cities are designated as socio-technical system. In addition, questions should also be raised about such emerging forms of innovative governance. Do such arrangements face democracy deficit due to the shrinking role of the government, or is it otherwise? In what sense are such models called innovation in governance?


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East Kolkata Wetland: Seeing through the lens of “Urban metabolism”

‘Urban metabolism’, ‘resiliency’ and ‘sustainability’ are competing concepts. ‘Sustainability’ is the oldest and more like an umbrella term for the rest. ‘Urban metabolism’ is rather the newest amongst them. In this blog, I aim to explore which of the three concepts (used in Urban Planning) could be applied to a case of Ramsar site to make a stronger argument for preservation of the wetland.

East Kolkata Wetland (EKW: here and here) is a 12,500 hec Ramsar site, located in the periphery of Kolkata Municipal Corporation. Kolkata, previously called Calcutta, was the capital of British India and now is the third largest metropolitan area in India. EKW is an asset of my hometown Calcutta that unfortunately even many citizens are not yet aware of. Interestingly, being prominently located next to one of the busiest expressways (Eastern Metropolitan Bypass) that connect the airport to the central part of the city, the wetland is visible to all the passers by, however, without any knowledge of the significance of the wetland. Here I argue two points. First, EKW is a Green Urban Infrastructure in its true sense (contributing towards sustainability). This is in contrast to other popular forms of green infrastructures like city parks and roof top gardens, which are often valued at the cost of such ecological sites. Second, using the lens of “urban metabolism” (here), I argue that EKW is an integral part of Kolkata Metropolitan Area as the absence of the wetland in its existing land-form, land use and function would have an impact on the metabolic system of the city. It is concluded that ‘urban metabolism’ makes the stronger argument.

By definition, wetland is not necessarily water body; wetland is defined as an eco-system. EKW was recognised important in early 1980s, and first officially documented in early 1985. It was declared a Ramsar site on 19th August 2002. My introduction to the project is during 2003-2004, as part of my first Master’s degree dissertation. The dissertation was part of a Department of Science and Technology, Govt of India funded project on mapping and monitoring of East Kolkata Wetland. My one year involvement included frequent visit to the wetland. Here I revisit the subject with new lenses of Urban theory.

The wetland is divided into three sections: core area, internal and external buffer area. Conceptually, the core area is consisted of the main ecological system and any kind of land conversion is strictly prohibited. To certain extent, soft construction was allowed in the internal and external buffer area. The wetland is connected to the Sunderban and Bay of Bengal. Like any other metropolitan cities in India, the boundary of KMC is under continuous pressure of extension. Hence the most challenging part was to preserve the section of wetland, which falls within the existing KMC (Kolkata Municipal Corporation) boundary. The entire wetland falls within Kolkata Metropolitan Area (KMA). The stretch along the E.M.Bypass, which is also inside the KMC boundary, has since long been an eye sore to the real estate developers who can potentially make millions from developing on the land. The property value on the other side of the expressway is high as it locates landmark projects like city-level recreational facility (Science City, Milan Mela), and high-profile real estate developments (ITC Sonar Bangla). The government, being under pressure from the big-name real estate developers, and understanding the potential of collecting huge taxes from large-scale developments, has also been undecided and implicit about whether to preserve the wetland or encourage the development. The city authority’s dilemma in deciding whether to promote the wetland as an important ecological site (and to preserve) or the development potential of the land is, in particular, interesting. In summary, the issue is highly political. While the land conversion is restricted, local brokers always claim that this is temporary and they can negotiate with the (next elected) government.

Two things I came to know recently. First, once the EKW Management Authority was formed in 2004, the supreme court order on restricting land use conversion was automatically resolved, really leaving it in the hand of weak (in negotiating power and financial power) committee members to save the wetland from development. Hence, this is literally open to day-to-day negotiation (here). Second, the land use conversion was restricted, but there was no restriction to sell out the land if a farmer/ land-owner wishes. Now many of such lands are owned by well-known, nationally reputed, real estators who have bought the land as speculative investment and has not really developed the land yet. Developers would find large chunk of land here in close proximity to the city at a comparatively cheaper price. Based on the following points, I argue that EKW is proven to be an integral part of KMA’s urban system in its present form. Hence, insensitive alteration of landform, land use and land right may affect the metropolitan area’s metabolism system.

Natural Sewage Treatment Plant
The wetland functions as the natural sewage treatment plant for the city. During British period, there were hard infrastructure to purify the waste water before disposing this off to the river. However, fishing communities migrated to the region and introduced fish, the ecological manipulator into the system. Since then the waste water is automatically purified. In addition, the wetland is located at a specific latitude and altitude, and it receives sunlight at a particular temperature so that the waster water gets automatically purified. This is the uniqueness of the wetland.

Supply of fish stock
Besides working as ecological manipulator, the fisheries also supply stock of fresh fish to Kolkata, which is the staple food of predominant Bengali population in the city. There are fish markets that operate two times a day, which supply fish stock to the main fish markets in the old city (Figure 3). This shows how the wetland supplies inflow of resources into the city, which is strongly related to its culture. In the absence of the fisheries, there will be two-fold impact. First, the city authority will have to invest huge amount on Sewage Treatment Plant, even if one disagrees to consider this heritage. Second, the supply of fresh fish stock will be disturbed. One counterargument could be that the water in the area contains heavy metal, so the fish stock is not consumable. However, it is argued, since there is no industry, there is no reason to have heavy metal in water.

Solid Waste Treatment
Until late 1980s/ early 1990s, we had known the area as ‘dhapa’ or garbage dump ground. The area with hills of garbage used to smell horrible because all the solid waste from KMC used to be dumped in that part of the city, which is immediate outside the boundary of the city. Over time, the dump disappeared from the eyes of the passer by, and the smell disappeared too. However, it is still there, in a more organised manner, and in the interior part of the wetland. Figure 4 shows a view of the current garbage dump, which is known as ‘dhapa’ in the local language. From all over the city, trucks dispose the waste in the area per day, disposing upto 3500 metric tons of garbage from 141 wards (15 boroughs). One fifth of the total garbage has to be deposited as inert waste, at landfill site. The rest has to be recycled. The garbage is then sorted out manually separating plastics by a group of local people/ waste pickers, who live very close to the dumping ground, are poor migrants, and are not acknowledged in the formal sector of employment. Then the waste pickers sell their waste to waste traders. This shows, on one hand, how the wetland absorbs the outflow of resources from the city, and on the other, lack of acknowledgement of the community who are working in the service sector.

Natural drainage basin of Kolkata
Lastly, the wetland is the natural basin of whole KMA. In times of flood, the landscape is expected to hold the additional water which is finally stored in the interconnected canals and lakes. This also leads to recharging of ground water level. Transformation of the character of the land to urban/ built up area will largely affect the ecosystem, leading to intensive flooding. With experience from other cities, the wetland must be acknowledged for its natural drainage capacity (ignorance shown in Mumbai) and recharging ground water table (ignorance shown in Bengaluru). Whereas Kolkata is a winner in terms of preserving its wetland longer than other cities and resisting the political pressure of development, the long-term sustenance of the wetland is still open to day-to-day negotiation. Whereas the wetland is acknowledged by international organisation for its preservation, many large scale real estate developers and local level politically influenced brokers are set out to settle a deal on the lands. This is evident at the local level. Large-scale real estate developments are already developed very close to the wetland, probably with a promise of view towards the wetland (Figure 5).

Interestingly, I came across the news just two days before the blog is published. The ex-mayor of KMC and the current Minister of Environment does not want the wetland to be designated as a Ramsar site, as the designation is coming into the way of “development”. The local level political pressure is not something new for EKW. The news headline is “Development vs. Environment”. In academic terms this economy/ecology dichotomy has been proven destructive. Before reaching this paragraph, I am sure readers were convinced EKW is part of Kolkata’s (urban) development, contributing towards its sustainability, metabolism, and world-class infrastructure, and NOT a barrier to development. This was a very preliminary attempt to understand if urban metabolism as a concept can put an end to ecology/economy, development/environment debates. This could be developed further to show that EKW is also the backbone of economy of the city and not otherwise.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Dhruba Dasgupta for providing detailed information on EKW, Dr. Dhrubojyoti Ghosh for the interview, and Sujit for showing me around the wetland.

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Framing the right research questions in dealing with Urban Resilience: introducing Urban Resilience Research Network (URNet)

One of the main challenges in dealing with research is indeed framing the right questions. Einstein’s quote “if I had one hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem and 5 minutes thinking about the solution” highlighted that before jumping into solutions we should step back investing time and energy in the definition and understanding of the problems.

This is true for any research field, but I’d argue it is even more challenging when your research topic has to do with some fuzzy and broad concept, like Sustainability or Resilience. In the last decades, such concepts sprawled disciplines and policy domains, and nowadays the Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the forthcoming New Urban Agenda and others multilateral processes are increasingly using those concepts for driving planetary (urban) development strategies and goals. The question is: in the light of those concepts fuzziness, theoretical abstraction and lack of systematic operationalisations are they contributing to further enlarge the existing gap between research practices? How should researchers frame sounding research questions in dealing with them and real life urban problems?

Since I’m not able to provide you with a proper answer to these questions, I’d like to introduce here, to whom is interested, a pathway toward a potential source of inspiration, and hopefully solutions/answers. Indeed, when during my first years of PhD I was trying to frame reasonable research questions in dealing with urban resilience, I found the best answers in the debates and brainstorming processes with colleagues having my same trouble. Strongly believing in the success of this strategy, I’d like to introduce to you an initiative which to me is strongly contributing to the debates toward the integration of different disciplines and perspectives on urban resilience, helping to frame relevant and meaningful research questions. This initiative is the Urban Resilience Research Network (URNet).

This network was born when four PhD students from very different backgrounds, institutes and countries found themselves debating during the International Resilience Conference (Arizona University, March 2011) on why they had a so different perspective about urban resilience. Few months later I proposed to organize an international workshop in order to address synergies and conflicting meanings or perspectives of resilience thinking applied to urban systems, in order to set a common research framework among us. In November 2011, we held the First International Workshop on Urban Resilience in Barcelona, and based on its success we edited a book and stated to set up a network of researchers interested in this discussion. In 2012, the first book titled “Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Urban Resilience” was published launching also the blog of the Urban Resilience Research Network. The mission of this network was, and still is, to support researchers (of any kind, from different background and disciplines) in dealing with the complexity of framing and operationalising urban resilience researches.

In order to help identifying challenging and necessary research questions, a new section in our web has been launched, titled “Viewpoints”. Here a variety of scholars from different disciplines will introduce their perspectives on urban resilience, outlining their own point of view about which is the most pressing research question that should be answered. The section opened few months ago with the contributions from two invited authors, namely Ilan Kelman and Jon Coaffee, which introduced respectively a critique on the concept of resilience (how distant it is from the reality of our world practices) and the challenges posed by operationalizing a “holistic urban resilience”. In the following months we will publish different essays, introducing also viewpoints from not only researchers but also practitioners around the world, and the principal international organizations promoting city resilience initiatives, to explore both the academic and non-academic perspectives about how to frame problems and research questions.

In so doing, we hope to contribute to at least partially filling the gap between research and practices, and at the same time enhancing the quality of future research. However, in order to do that, and coming back to my first words of this post, the best way to pose the right questions, and the best way to find the answer, it through debates, networking and critical research. Therefore, I’d strongly encourage any interested person to enter in touch with us, subscribe to our mailing list, and join the conversations.

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Public participation in the 3rd Millenium: making cities more sustainable?

The UN Summit Habitat III is just months away. At a critical time for climate change and sustainable development, public participation has a vital role to play in our efforts to “square the circle” of urban sustainability. Will the beginning of the 3rd Millenium be remembered for making major headway toward inclusive, sustainable cities?

Planning, people and power: symphony or cacophony?

The media feed us repeatedly with hymns to sustainable development (e.g. “Love Song to the Earth”  or the moving documentaries “Home” and “Human” ) where governments, companies and organisations are urged to work with ordinary people to achieve more equitable, well-functioning, sustainable cities.


An ode to a more sustainable, loving and inclusive world: Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s documentary “Human”

In urban planning, this is partly thanks to landmark contributions by Jane Jacobs, Paul Davidoff, John Forester, Patsy Healey, and Louis Albrechts, amongst many others. The “critical realists”, however, have been playing a somewhat darker tune: they remind us that planners have no intrinsic moral duty to make cities more inclusive, or even sustainable. The work of planning can indeed serve many different ends, from the narrow pursuit of personal careers to serving the political agenda of not-so-democratic governance coalitions (Flyvbjerg, 1996; Tewdwr-Jones & Allmendinger, 1998; O. Yiftachel, 1998). Planners may also become demoralised and lose faith in their capacity to bring about sustainable development (Grange, 2013). In some contexts, the planning apparatus can even mediate a form of neo-colonial development, featuring the colonisation, infringement and displacement of communities through reliance on planning regulation, as presented by Haim Yacobi at the 10th YA AESOP Conference in Ghent last April. In short, there is ample evidence about the non-democratic nature of governance in many urban contexts (Jenks, Kozak, & Takkanon, 2008; Oren Yiftachel, Little, Hedgcock, & Alexander, 2002), also intimately linked to questions of who actually owns cities.  Whereas an ideal aim of sustainable planning is a symphony between people, planning and power, the actual outcome is often embarrassingly disharmonious and unsustainable.

Governing by steering people

Contemporary urban governance is far from straightforward. Erik Swyngedouw warns against the ambivalent, “Janus face” of governance innovations in which the participation of civil society can play a central role (Swyngedouw, 2005) (a definition of Janus face and a history).

Like other authors (e.g. Jessop), he argues that today’s governance networks operate “beyond-the-state”, enabling innovation in the participation of civil society, as well as a significant democratic deficit because governance coalitions largely come about with little influence or control from civil society . On the one hand, participatory planning since the 1980s has sometimes provided unprecedented levels and sophistication of engaging people living in cities , yet on the other hand the whole process is often carefully crafted to ensure that the status quo on urban development is maintained. In the process, what matters for many people or the environment is often silenced or discredited as unviable. In essence, public participation is usually framed in ways which will support and legitimise particular political/economic agendas, at the expense of others. Such is the practice of what Foucault termed governmentality, the “conduct of conduct”. In essence, it is the skilful steering of public opinion, through technologies for public engagement, and argued by rationalities that are often neo-liberal. As Swyngedouw writes (2005, 2003), such innovations in governance often give the illusion of empowering people, when in effect acting as a “Trojan Horse that diffuses and consolidates the ‘market’ as the principal institutional form”.

Exclusion, rather than diminished, is being reworked. Many groups and individuals continue to be routinely absent from public participation frameworks, because of lack of interest, lack of awareness, or distrust in the capacity or intention of local authorities to effectively address their needs. Other groups that were represented or active may now be side-lined, because the state has become more “hollow” in today’s governance networks.

The following image of a ship’s wheel encapsulates some of these issues.


“Deeds Not Words”. The ship of innovative governance, a symbol for governmentality. Photo by Michael Drummond on Pixabay

Etymologically, the term to govern originates from the Greek “to steer”. The above picture illustrates this in an original way. On the one hand, people demand greater participation in planning (“deeds”), rather than empty promises (“words”). On the other hand, it is really the captain who decides where the ship is going. The captain may suggest only a narrow selection of possible travel destinations to passengers, where people’s ability to choose may give them an illusion of real choice and power. The captain will be happy to have kept travel options within manageable limits, and so will the people, but many other travel destinations will not even have been considered… The captain likely decides how many people can board the ship (i.e. how many people can participate), and he can perhaps choose the ship itself, which will naturally determine how many people get to board the ship.

Roadblocks to sustainable cities

There are many hinders to pairing public engagement and sustainable cities. For one, people may not be aware of the wider stakes involved in urban planning, which some planners argue should be left to experts. Individuals or community interest groups may simply not care about sustainability as a whole, but simply about their own narrow interests. Furthermore, they may even argue that their narrow interests are actually collective interests, and militate accordingly.

Second, extensive public participation can be steered and framed to support particular views and practices of urban sustainability at the expense of alternative approaches to sustainability. In such contexts, sustainability is necessarily skewed, even where it may provide benefits for many.

Third, there is a wide range of technologies available to engage people in interactive, even creative/playful ways, such as Minecraft, which can go far beyond traditional consultation. Technologies even exist that could mediate citizen-led decision making on a mass scale, such as online tools for participatory budgeting of public resources. 3D virtual environments are becoming increasingly affordable and easy to use by both urban residents and experts alike. However, planners may be reluctant to use sophisticated, innovative tools to engage people, because they may see that planning “is not a game”. In the process, a whole potential for creative and playful problem-solving and exploration is being lost.


Roadblocks to sustainability. Photo from Wikimedia


Last, and most important, is the political will to make cities more sustainable. In view of the landmark UN Habitat III summit in October 2016 Quito, Ecuador, which will set the UN’s New Urban Agenda for the next two decades, participatory urban development will be crucial, particularly to tackle the longstanding issue of informal settlements. One example is the Pretoria Declaration on informal settlements which will inform part of Habitat III; it provides recommendations and a general understanding that participation matters. However, the Pretoria Declaration fails to provide details of implementation for effective public participation. If effective participation ends up being more or less voluntary and no clear guidelines are given to those organisations that need it the most, can we really expect cities to become inclusive any time soon? Cities over the world need to learn, but some do more urgently than others, and also require more guidance from more experienced partners.

Here is a major conundrum for urban governance: in the absence of political will and clear implementation guidelines for conducting public participation, can public participation ever make cities sustainable? There is ample evidence that planning for people with people can improve its legitimacy (see IAP2’s International Journal of Public Deliberation).  Still, the effects and benefits public participation are very seldom assessed in any formal manner (El Ansari & Andersson, 2011; Involve, 2007). Not really knowing the actual benefits can thereby limit local authorities’ uptake of more participatory forms of public engagement, and decision-makers may not see fit to invest in them.

In sum, there are no quick-and-dirty fixes to public engagement for achieving sustainable cities. But to genuinely learn how to effectively engage people and experiment with different models of urban sustainability seems hardly avoidable.  This is especially necessary if the aim is to make cities more inclusive, legitimate, and resilient, as opposed to sites of growing inequalities and environmental degradation. Amongst other pathways, the road to Habitat III could prove decisive in this respect.

Selective reference list

El Ansari, W., & Andersson, E. (2011). Beyond value? Measuring the costs and benefits of public participation. Journal of Integrated Care, 19(6), 45-57.

Flyvbjerg, B. (1996). The dark side of planning: Rationality and “Realrationalität”. In S. J. Mandelbaum (Ed.), Explorations in Planning Theory (pp. 383-394). New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Grange, K. (2013). Shaping acting space: In search of a new political awareness among local authority planners. Planning Theory, 12(3), 225-243. doi: 10.1177/1473095212459740

Involve. (2007). The true costs of public participation – Full report.

Jenks, M., Kozak, D., & Takkanon, P. (2008). World cities and urban form: fragmented, polycentric, sustainable? New York: Routledge.

Swyngedouw, E. (2005). Governance Innovation and the Citizen: The Janus Face of Governance-beyond-the-State. URBAN STUDIES, 42(11), 1991-2006. doi: 10.1080/00420980500279869

Tewdwr-Jones, M., & Allmendinger, P. (1998). Deconstructing communicative rationality: a critique of Habermasian collaborative planning. Environment and Planning A, 30(11), 1975-1989. doi: 10.1068/a301975

Yiftachel, O. (1998). Planning and Social Control: Exploring the Dark Side. Journal of Planning Literature, 12(4), 395-406. doi: 10.1177/088541229801200401

Yiftachel, O., Little, J., Hedgcock, D., & Alexander, I. (2002). The Power of Planning: Spaces of Control and Transformation (2002 edition ed.). Dordrecht ; Boston : Norwell, MA: Springer.


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The Power of Sun: A Snapshot of Global Photovoltaic Markets

Our society greatly relies on energy use. Energy resources, such as oil and gas, are limited and their availability is strongly connected – although not limited – to both the relations with producer-countries and their political stability. In order to clear the threats to energy security, especially in a climate of political tensions (Heshmati & Abolhosseini, 2016), and to reduce the greenhouse emissions (Creutzig et al., 2014) related to the employ of fossil fuels, we are experiencing an energy transition towards the deployment of renewable energy.

In the last decades the spread of renewable sources of energy has been variously supported – also financially – by local governments that determined the success of one or the other energy source.

Recently, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released the data related to the global photovoltaic deployment aiming at providing information concerning the development of the PV market in the last years.

At the end of 2015 the globally installed capacity was at least 227.1 GW, 10 times higher than in 2009. 30 GW are supposed to have been installed in countries that do not participate in the Photovoltaic Power System (PVPS) programme, but the remaining 197 GW of cumulative PV installations have been deployed in 24 IEA PVPS countries. The snapshot shows that after a limited growth of the photovoltaic market in 2014, 2015 has been the year of records with an expansion of 25% – corresponding to a global installed capacity of 50 GW – compared to the 40 GW of the 2014. Nowadays, PV provides about 1.3% of the global energy demand. China, Germany, Japan, the USA and Italy are the leading countries with respectively 43.5 GW, 39.7 GW, 34.4 GW, 26.5 GW and 18.9 GW of cumulative installed PV capacity (Table 1). All the other countries have installed less than 10 GW each.

Immagine1Table 1 Annual and cumulative installed PV power 2015. Source of the caption and table: (International Energy Agency, 2016)

In 2015, China broke the record of the highest annual installed capacity in a single country with 15.2 GW and 43.5 GW of cumulative installed capacity at the end of the same year. Impressing is the growth also in developing countries and in new markets such as India with more than 2 GW installed and Pakistan that appears to be promising with its several hundreds of MW together with Turkey that installed for the first time 208 MW. In Africa, South Africa was a leading country in 2014 with 2 GW installed, but it has experienced a decline in 2015 with a subsequent restart. Besides, in 2015, in the USA, the PV market of North America reached 7.5 GW.

In 2015, Europe experienced a decline since in various countries was phased-out the feed-in-tariff and, in others, such as Germany, the supporting scheme was modified. In Europe, the installed PV represents at least 3.5% of its electricity demand and approximately 7% of the peak electricity demand. In 2015 the increase in the British PV market was dominant in Europe for the second year in a row with 3.5 GW.  Nevertheless, in Europe, Germany is still the leading country with 39.7 GW of cumulative installed capacity in 2015. Particularly important are the data about the ratio between the PV installed capacity and the energy demand of a country since it is referred to its energy security. The PV installed capacity in Italy, Greece and Germany covers respectively 8%, 7% and 7.1% of their electricity demand (Figure 1).


Figure 1 National PV penetration in % of the electricity demand based on 2015 capacities. Source of the caption and figure: (International Energy Agency, 2016)

In the last years Europe contributed mostly to the global PV installation, although since 2012 the PV capacity installed in Asia is rapidly growing.  Nowadays, both Europe and Asia represent approximately 42% of the total installed capacity, the USA supplies the 13% and the Middle East and Africa together contribute to the remaining 3% (Table 2).


Table 2 Top 10 countries for installations and total installed capacity in 2015. Source of the caption and table: (International Energy Agency, 2016)

At the end of 2016 it is foreseen that the PV installed until January 2016 will provide around 275 billion kWh that represents approximately 1.3% of the global electricity demand.


Creutzig, F., Goldschmidt, J. C., Lehmann, P., Schmid, E., Blücher, F., von Beyer, C., … Wiegand, K. (2014). Catching two European birds with one renewable stone: Mitigating climate change and Eurozone crisis by an energy transition. Retrieved from

Heshmati, A., & Abolhosseini, S. (2016). European energy security. Challenges and green opportunities. Retrieved from

International Energy Agency. (2016). 2015 A Snapshot of Global Photovoltaic Markets. Retrieved from

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Water ATMs in India: innovation, smart technology, and new form of governance

Chandrima Mukhopadhyay, India

Govt of India recognized the term ‘start up’ in April, 2015, which started as private sector initiated business models by small-scale, for-profit private sector actors. One of the defining criteria is

Slide1 (1)

Figure 1. Smart technology like water ATMs claim to relieve low-income communities from such messy piped infrastructure and daily struggle for water (Photo credit: Used from Piramal Sarvajal’s presentation for Winter School in December 2015)

that: ‘It is working towards innovation, development, deployment, and commercialization of new products, processes, or services driven by technology or intellectual property.’ A scheme to easily register as startup was also introduced in January 2016. From here, I will pick up two words for the rest of the blog: one is innovation, and the other is commercialization of new product.

Piramal Sarvajal is a startup in water sector. For them, innovation is defined as using smart technology to deliver drinking water, and the initiative is about commercialization of water, which is fundamental to human survival. The company is based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, and serves 12 states mainly in the northern and western part of India as of now. There are other initiatives like them (in Pune, Bengaluru, and outside India). My interest in writing the blog comes from my interest in private sector intervention in infrastructure, in understanding water as a public good, and understanding fresh water being the most easily depleting resource. To evaluate the viability of their business model, such private sector companies forecast the demand of their services based on the logic of number of people migrating to urban India from countryside in next 50 years, rising demand of water based on increased population and climate change as days get warmer, and people being in need of such kind of enterprises for survival. Interestingly, such initiatives are promoted as ‘survival strategy in urban India’ (here).

Piramal Sarvajal

The phrase, ‘piramal sarvajal’ is in Sanskrit, and means ‘safe water for all’. The company started from a village in Rajasthan, a state in the western part of India in 2008. Water was a scarce resource in Rajasthan, which is dominantly part of Thar desert. The region used to have rain once in three to four years. Indira Gandhi Canal project was a central government initiated ‘desert-greening’ project. It makes absolute sense to start with a water supply project in a village in the state of Rajasthan where water is not just a resource, but it means life. The company grew since then. They currently operate 175+ water ATM units across the country, and 350+ water purification plants and serve 280,000 people on a daily basis. They cover varying kind of spaces and public buildings, such as villages, slums, public spaces, hospitals, schools and government projects. Covering a wide range of public spaces and buildings contribute towards viability of their business model by increasing number of target population with little additional investment. As they mention, with a fair initial investment, one would start getting back expected revenue in five years.

Technology and Partnership

One main feature of the company is use of ‘water ATMs’. Water ATMs are like normal money withdrawal machines, where you insert a prepaid chip card, and collect the definite amount of water you pay for. Sarvajal uses cloud server, that help them allowing the users use ATMs in any city. As the data is not stored in a local server, but a cloud server, users’ information can be accessed from any city in India. Interestingly, a ‘Sarvajal card’ becomes one’s identification of authenticity (like a passport) to have access to drinking water. Besides ATM, other technological features used by the company for water purification are here. Piramal Sarvajal uses various kinds of partnership models include foundation funded, franchise funded, corporate partnered-adopt a village, and government partnered-PPP project.

How do they promote themselves?

-They put strong emphasis on ‘under-served area’ (not served by the government) ‘safe water’ (improved quality control than public sector), ‘innovation’ (using technology, Water ATM is a unique concept itself).

-Safe water for all, inclusiveness [However, their restrictions are: good network connectivity as it uses cloud computing; cash-rich population as they have to use a prepaid card]

-Various models and various technologies (customized for different scenario)

-Recognized by International R&D organisations (quality assurance)

In my opinion, models like Piramal Sarvajal are innovative in many ways such as smart technology (water ATMs, use of cloud server) to solve contemporary urban issue, finance (corporate-adopted), and institutional arrangement. As had been mentioned by a student, innovation has a temporal dimension. Also, due to their entrepreneurship, only private sector actors would come up with such innovation, as these are business opportunities for them. However, such models are fragmented, and to certain extent less-regulated. Moreover, such models are mere business models for private sector, which is of concern considering water is central to survival of life. The structure of Piramal Sarvajal nicely explains the governance of water supply, if one considers ‘governance’ as ‘how things get done’. Considering water is commercialized and sold out as a product, there is a very clear line of production. There is of course varied understanding of what ‘governance’ is (here). If governance is defined as ‘government and beyond’, which is rooted in the context of India, such models of water delivery without any kind of government intervention or control, become highly questionable. Here question could be raised about government’s changing political position behind promoting for-profit initiatives in sectors like water. The more such companies promote themselves on the ground of inclusiveness for access to drinking water, it becomes evident that the state has created a vacuum that is being filled up by private sector.

The wider debate

-Should we pay to have access to water as a citizen? Currently the government has accepted the position that citizens pay. Some even use the word ‘water manufacturer’ in cities like Bengaluru, where by ‘manufacturer’ they indicate those who dig a well, take out water and purify the water for delivery. Of course, no one is manufacturing water (H2O) in real sense. So-called water manufacturing is a profitable business with little initial investment. Some, of course, understand manufacturer as manufacturer of water purifying machines.

-What should be the responsibility of the government in quality control of water? One interviewee mentions, the companies are bound to set up certain technological features to assure water-purifying system. Private sector actors claim they have better water purifying system than the government. Government on paper could audit their set up to check control on quality. However, as mentioned by an interviewee, the government seldom does this until and unless the media attracts their attention.

-Should this raise a concern about water security, in terms of access to safe water for all, especially in time of crisis? Another question emerging out of the third question itself is that who have access to ground water, which is one of the main sources of fresh water, considering access to ground water table is territorial in nature. The concern is that in time of crisis those who only can afford would have access to drinking water, as private sector models are at the end of the day mere business model.

The purpose behind writing the piece is neither to blame the private sector actors for their innovation, nor to be merely involved in a political debate. The concern is more about scientific truth about climate change, the degree of responsibility to be taken by the government, and concern about the vacuum created by the government. It may be subject to discussion whether the state participate in the process as a provider, a regulator, a facilitator, or even a licensor in assuring everyone’s access to safe drinking water. If such less-regulated and fragmented infrastructure delivery models are to be encouraged, if one has to carry a prepaid card to access safe drinking water, that would have a strong implication for the future of Indian cities.

Acknowledgement: I and my colleague had invited Piramal Sarvajal for a session in a course on ‘Private sector in the city making process’ in Winter School 2015 as part of SWS at CEPT University. I am grateful to Piramal Sarvajal for their consent on using their material for the blog and subsequent question and answer sessions.

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