By Freeman Ya Ngulu.
A three-day symposium on ‘Urban Technology & Collaboration in Informal Settlements’ held at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Windhoek explored the potential of digital technologies in informal settlements through collaborative approaches between industry and the settlement residents.
Organized by UNITAC (United Nations Innovation Technology Accelerator for Cities), ACC (African Centre for Cities), SDI (Slum Dwellers International) and NUST, the symposium focused on ways to “Enhance Livelihoods and Empower Communities,” through the eyes and insights of a diverse community of researchers and practitioners who study informal settlements as the springboard for urban innovation.
SDI was represented by Eva Muchiri from the Mathare community in Nairobi, with Kilion Nyambuga from the Kenyan support NGO and Melki Namupolo from the Namibia Housing Action Group and Shack Dwellers Federation of Namibia.
The symposium brought together longstanding interests in participatory planning and data governance expanding the portfolio on the role of digital technologies, platforms and tools in cities, plus newer research to understand ‘unplanned’ settlements.
The symposium highlit several themes such as understanding the role of data in decision making. It looked at the role of digital technologies and tools which enable reliable data collection in communities where the conventional structures of urbanisation are mostly absent. The importance of collaboration among state players and social institutions was emphasised to change perceptions of informal settlements as merely sprawling chaos on the outer rim of cities.
Alicia Fortuin, a PhD candidate at the African Centre for Cities, said “What was clear is that informal settlements are an assemblage of complex phenomena and we must understand them as manifestations of peoples’ needs, beyond their physical. They are manifestations of global inequalities, with a system of norms and an economic logic. They are also vibrant, alive, moving, and changing to the needs of the people.”
“Can we understand why people move to informal settlements? What can we learn from their sometimes seasonal, temporal, transient nature, as manifestations of people’s needs. Can we think of them as launching pads? What does this mean for how we plan (with) them, the materials we use, the structures we design?” she continued.
Fortuin said that the role of data, digital technologies and tools is clear. The task is to make sure these tools, processes and practices are equitable and do not further entrench inequalities and a recurring ‘left behindness’.
The co-moderator Nobukhosi Ngwenya thanked panellists Dainah Kinya, Olwethu Jack and Kathryn Ewing for sharing their work. They explored the role of digital technologies and community led data collection in state/citizen relations.
Miqkayla Stofberg, PhD candidate at The FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town commented “I’ve always thought of informal settlements as just that. But this breakdown makes me understand more clearly why there is a need to rethink the way we perceive informal settlements especially in African cities with high levels of inequality. Very thought-provoking and it seems like it was a very successful symposium.”