The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


How Bangalore's non-profit sector is picking up the slack on technical capacity building

Whether through a lack of financial resources or the short-termism induced by democratic politics, governments in many places can exhibit a loss in the basic competencies required for effective urban planning. For cities in the UK and India, some of the slack is picked up by the private and non-profit sectors, with surprising and innovative results.

Kerwin Datu

Cities: Bangalore, Mumbai, London

Topics: Roads and traffic, Private sector governance, Participatory governance, Information and technology, Youth and education

The paving of this footpath in Cubbon Park, Bangalore, has washed away because it was built without any foundations. Janaagraha believes one of the problems preventing governments from providing accountability on spending is that many officials don't even understand how the technical requirements for simple roadworks should be specified, meaning that they don't know what government money is going in to. Photo: Kerwin Datu
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Last month the jetsetting architect Norman Foster launched the Thames Hub vision, a proposal to build the world's largest airport in the Thames estuary east of Greater London, gift-wrapped in a national infrastructure plan comprising a tidal energy generator for the airport, a new flood barrier for the region, an orbital rail line around London, a national high speed rail, a national data and energy distribution spine, and a model to connect the UK's Atlantic-facing container ports with the massive consumer markets of Western Europe.

It may be little more than a great stonking political ploy to become the architect of whatever new airport London eventually gets (see next week's analysis), but it's a kind of holistic long-term thinking we rarely see from a national government, except perhaps China, Foster's last big aviation client. (The brochure contains the first serious reference to the 22nd century I've seen in a planning document, for example.)

This is emblematic of the long term shift in planning capacity from the public to the private sector throughout the developed world. Elsewhere — India, in this case — it seems we are witnessing a surreal inversion of this dynamic, wherein planning capacity has become a stronghold of the non-profit sector, and where the long term desire is to shift it again towards the public and private sectors where one might say it belongs.

It may be little more than a great stonking political ploy to become the architect of whatever new airport London eventually gets, but it's a kind of holistic long-term thinking we rarely see from a national government...

The Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy in Bangalore exemplifies this desire. Created in 2001 to improve citizen empowerment levels, and famous for such initiatives as the anti-corruption website which aims to 'uncover the market price of corruption', it has grown to develop a range of technical competencies which it now seeks to pass on to governments throughout India. I was perhaps more surprised than I should be to learn that one of its programmes involves teaching government officials what a properly specified set of tender documents should look like, so that they know how to set precise expectations with road contractors.

This might seem like strange terrain for a 'centre for citizenship and democracy' to be operating in, but Janaagraha has discovered that improving the technical competencies within the government sector is essential to improving government accountability. The idea is that governments cannot provide accountability in urban infrastructure projects and ensure that funds are being spent correctly if they don't even understand in detail what the money is being spent on.

Nearby a consortium of the country's leading planners and architects are preparing to build the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (IIHS), a university dedicated entirely to solving the problems of India's urbanisation, which they hope will open its doors to students in late 2013 pending legislative ratification.

They are being very entrepreneurial in the kinds of education and training they will provide, with programmes being developed not only for planning students and urban social scientists, but crash courses in the complexity of urbanisation for senior executives and middle managers in the private sector (what A. 'Surya' Suryanarayanan, their Head of Operations, describes as 'for CXOs, and future CXO's'), and workshops for both civil servants and elected representatives in the public sector. They have even set a target that 25 per cent of their students become entrepreneurs, and will incorporate innovation and entrepreneurial training into their graduate programmes.

Surya perceives that the period from 2015-2035 will be a time of economic boom based on the rapid expansion of urban markets, and believes that urban institutions such as IIHS must intervene powerfully within the entrepreneurial sector to make sure that this growth is shaping the best possible future for urban sustainability.

In Mumbai, the next stop on my tour, non-profit organisations have been developing and disseminating technical competencies like this at the grassroots level for many years, including the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC), URBZ and Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research (PUKAR).

It is remarkable that the burden of developing the technical capacities of cities has fallen upon the shoulders of the academic and non-profit sectors in a country known for the general competence of its civil servants; it is even more remarkable how these sectors have risen to the challenge in India to become some of the most innovative and active urbanists in the world.


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