August 24, 2023 | by shivam saxena

A “must read” essay on how the rest of the world is coping with the urbanization of the world – from the Design Observer Groups Places by Cynthia E. Smith who serves as the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s Curator of Socially Responsible Design. 


Community residents prepare building materials for manufacture, Kaputiei New Town, Kisaju, Kajiado District, Kenya. [Photo by Acumen Fund. All images courtesy of the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and copyrighted by the respective authors.]


“We are poor, but not hopeless.”
— Melanie Manuel, Backyarders Network, Manenberg, Cape Flats, South Africa


Hybrid Innovations 

I was on my third liter of water; dirt and sand covered me as I walked in blowing wind next to the largest dumpsite in Dakar, Senegal. I had just come from seeing the efforts of a team of Senegalese and Canadian architecture students, who designed and built with local artisans a series of mosaic-clad community wells for the growing peri-urban settlement of Malika. [1] We took an hour’s journey back to the city center, passing building after building under construction, emblematic of Dakar’s rapid growth.

This would be my last interview after a year of field research in 15 different cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America. “What have you discovered in your travels?” asked Oumar Cissé, Executive Director of the African Institute for Urban Management. I told him I had set out to find successful design solutions to rapidly expanding informal settlements, and had found that the most innovative were hybrid solutions that bridge the formal and informal city. [2] Oumar affirmed, “Formal mechanisms are not adequate to tackle this rapid informalization of the city. We are not able to make services available as quickly as the growth. We should make our process more appropriate for this new reality by creating an interface between the formal and informal.”


Clogged streets and overloaded public transport are typical in many of the cities I visited, and Dakar was no exception. A sea of motorbike taxis wove in and out of traffic. Often illegal and unregulated, motor-taxis, with minimal start-up costs, meet the growing demand for cheap transport in many cities in the Global South. [3] Rather than banning these illegal taxis, Oumar described an alternative system in which local governments register the drivers and provide brightly colored and numbered vests to identify them. Through this low-cost solution, motorbikes require no alterations, and their new visibility improves their perception and value within the city. [4] In Bangkok, Thailand, the government is going one step further with Prachawiwat, meaning “Progress of the People,” a new and evolving program where drivers and other informal workers get benefits like Social Security and bank loans. [5]

Left: A local artisan creates a mosaic on a community well in Diamalye, an informal settlement in Malika, Dakar, Senegal. [Photo by Cynthia E. Smith, Smithsonian Institution] Right: Registered Prachawiwat motorbike taxi, Bangkok, Thailand. [Photo by Thapphawut Parinyapariwat]


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