IDH: What are you working on, specifically?
Sumita: We are developing a planning tool kit that is anticipatory and that can be applied to rapidly urbanizing cities in emerging economies. We’re doing this within the framework of what we’re calling “quadruple ROI.”
We want to shift focus away from a single return on investment (ROI). As practitioners, we work mostly with the private sector, and our clients are usually developers and landowners. They’re typically focused on a single ROI, which is economic. And that’s understandable; they want to generate a return very, very quickly because they have such a heavy up-front investment. But we want to shift that focus. In addition to economics, we want to highlight the value of building social capital, ecological responsibility, and governance, which form the quadruple ROI. We’re making a case to the development community that if you invest in the externalities of the ROI, a much richer economic ROI will be yielded within the lifecycle of the development.
IDH: This seems like an evolution of the triple bottom line—people, profit, planet. Why did you add “governance” as the fourth element?
Geeta: When the design process is complete, what will happen? What will the management be? What about the governance? What are the specific systems? Even before the design, we need to set up systems of governance. There is an issue of bringing in the government in a constructive way, but also of management of the built environment on an ongoing basis. Right now this is a really big problem because there are many well-intentioned projects in this area, but the implementation is lacking.
Sumita: Basically, there is a lack of measurable metrics for social and ecological impact. We want to create that yardstick and the governance piece is very crucial in achieving that. What we are creating, ultimately, we call a Social Ecological Performance Index.
IDH: This is a new idea that your team came up with?
Sumita: Gensler has done a large, multi-year research study called the Workplace Performance Index, which points to best practices in the workplace through various layers of analysis; we are riffing off of that. The Social Ecological Performance Index can be applied to projects at all scales, not just in the planning phase. The index is about measurement and continuously tying back to the ROI in a way that the client, the development community, and the landlord community are interested in.
IDH: Is there feedback between the university partners and Gensler?
Geeta: The indexes that are being developed with Gensler could be used in the university studios. Students will be able to run their projects through these indexes and see how they work, but, at the same time, contribute to refining the framework further.
Sumita: From the professional side, the plan is not to run just the academic project, but to use this for Gensler projects that are on the boards.
IDH: What are the biggest challenges of implementing planning strategies in slums?
Sumita: Now that these informal urban settlements are finally beginning to get recognized, it’s a huge challenge to back the infrastructure into these existing developments. The density is high, but it is very horizontal. While we continue to believe that we should not raise these communities and take them back to tabula rasa conditions, such practices will, unfortunately, continue to occur. The land value, especially in megacities in emerging economies, is insane—it is really high. So, we’re interested in figuring out what the lessons are that we can take away from existing informal urban settlements that we can apply to other settlements that we know are going to occur.
Brenden: It is not about taking informal urban settlements and flipping them into something more formal. You need to be sensitive to the social and cultural qualities that already exist there. If you recognize and respect those factors, you are in a very strategic position to inject some elements of formality to bolster living conditions. The challenge is that this is very different from wholesale demolition and rebuilding from scratch. I just want to make sure that point is crystal clear: The Quito papers that were just released at Habitat III talk about the need to have both a bottom up and top down approach to planning in the developing world. Much of our thinking is in line with that approach.
Geeta: What is happening right now in India, China, and many other countries is that they are clearing slums and building vertical warehouses to house the displaced people. That is often done without any care for the social structure that existed there and how people are able to move and keep those relationships intact.
Dharavi, for example, is not just a monolithic slum—it is made up of 90 different communities. These people have come from a particular part of India; they have different food traditions, languages, festivals. This is what keeps them together and able to survive the very harsh physical conditions in which they live. Why would you want to do a redevelopment in a way that would destroy the amazing social capital they already have? One of the goals of this research is to learn how to do planning so that social capital is nurtured, protected, and also enhanced.