Project Launch: Smart & Frugal Cities

Green light has been given to the research team of the Smart & Frugal Cities project which focusses on the role of frugality in building community resilience in the times of Covid-19 in four neighbourhoods situated in two different communities in Nairobi, Kenya. This project aims to measure the impact of the pandemic on the health, safety and livelihoods of community residents. Keeping in mind that communities are not just passive beneficiaries of government interventions, this study examines whether there are practices and opportunities for community empowerment in time of crisis.  

Covid-19 in Nairobi
People living and working in Nairobi’s informal settlements are more vulnerable to Covid-19, as many lose access to (casual) work, urban supplies of necessities have become unsure as their value chains are broken, unsafety increases and informal living and working conditions exacerbate vulnerability to the pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic and concomitant government regulations accentuate existing urban challenges, such as economic destitution, health risks and safety problems, and new challenges emerge such as the lack of access to online education in these neighborhoods. It is expected that this will have a devastating impact for years to come.

Community resilience in Nairobi
The level of community resilience varies across spatial and temporal scales, which raises questions about their place- and path-dependent processes. COVID19 casts a bright light on community resilience, because of the scale and duration of the impact and the acute nature of community responses. This study, led by Dr. Jan Fransen, traces how historical processes result in different levels of community resilience in four neighborhoods across two of Nairobi’s informal settlements. The team defines community resilience as the ability of a community to cope with shocks that are either time-defined or latent (McCrea at al., 2014) and focus on vulnerabilities related to health, safety and livelihoods. 

Frugality and smartness as conditions of community resilience
Not much is known about how and under what conditions evolutionary processes lead to resilience in resource-constrained informal settlements. Research shows that emergence is likely to be conditional and context specific. In mapping and analyzing the historical processes of three settlements, the research team studies the interactions between frugality and smartness as conditions of community resilience.

Frugality is a mindset of community members, activists and support offices of doing more with less. It is also a local practice, using locally available knowledge, technologies, tools, resources and/or ways of working in order to offer contextualized services or products to the local community at a low cost. Smartness refers to capacitated community strategies that catalyze on frugal innovations and thereby improve community resilience in a specific setting. This relates to capacitated people, with social capital and leadership, able to draw on resources and technologies in order to identify and scale up local frugal initiatives.

Smart and frugal governance is defined as a multilevel process which enables a community to benefit from its existing social capital: bonding within a local community, bridging to other communities and linking to local government and other ‘powerful’ players. The openness of urban informal communities may unleash support and resources for community resilience, but may also result in red tape, opportunism and external parties taking over.

How do historically situated smart and frugal people, technologies and modes of governance explain differences in community resilience in Nairobi’s informal settlements during Covid-19?

Theoretical and practical relevance
The research has theoretical and practical relevance. First, it fills a void in understanding how historical processes lead to community resilience in resource-constraint informal settlements. Second, it brings together and gives new meaning to the concepts of smart cities and frugality from the perspective of informal communities building up resilience from below. By specifically referring to smart cities, the research team aims to offer an alternative to top-down, marketing- and technology-led approach of smart cities, which use real time data and technology in order to modernize cities (see for instance Albino et al., 2015; Nam & Pardo, 2011; Kummitha & Crutzen, 2017; Vanolo, 2016). 

The team also aims to contribute to research on frugal innovations for resilience in resource constrained environments (Dey and Gupta, 2016; Bahadur and Doczi, 2016). Third, the study offers practical insights into community resilience in Nairobi’s informal settlements. This is timely, because the Nairobi City County Government expresses a wish to change its top-down development paradigm and start collaborating with communities in its current Covid-19 response. This has also translated into a commitment to upgrade informal settlements through unconventional participatory approaches, evidenced by declaration of Special Planning Areas i.e. Mukuru SPA and Kibera SPA. 

Read more about the Smart & Frugal Cities project in the below Project at a Glance library:

Project at a Glance - Smart & Frugal Cities

Read more about the Smart & Frugal Cities project