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Urban Development

Pakistani innovators design cheap and climate-friendly flat-pack homes for refugees

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Photo by Mohammed Saquib

Three years ago, Mohammed Saquib and his fellow students Yaseen Khalid and Nabeel Siddiqui were seeking inspiration for their final year university project. The Syrian crisis was at its peak and with the plight of refugees filling news bulletins, they decided to try to address the desperate need of some of the world’s most vulnerable people for shelter.

As they began their research, they discovered that Pakistan itself was facing a shortage of 10 million houses, with many people living in overcrowded, unsanitary informal settlements.

“There was no innovation in the construction industry in Pakistan and so we realized we needed to make a prototype, a house that could be assembled by anyone in minimal time and should be affordable as well,” said Saquib, who studied civil engineering at NED University of Engineering and Technology in Karachi.

Post-graduation, the trio founded ModulusTech, a startup that produces low-cost, energy efficient, flat-pack modular homes that can be used to house refugees but could also serve non-governmental organizations or government agencies seeking to build classrooms or health clinics in rural areas. The houses can also be used in the construction and tourism sectors.

“Each house is 16×16 square feet, with electricity and plumbing and everything pre-integrated in the panel walls. Each house costs around US$3,000 and the lifespan is about 30 years. The houses can be assembled in just three hours, using three people,” said Saquib.

“Primarily, we were targeting refugees and internally displaced people and we wanted them to be able to assemble these houses and get a feeling of ownership … According to a United Nations report, a refugee stays on average 17 years in temporary shelter so we designed (the house) according to this,” the 26-year-old added.

The houses are built around a steel frame with walls made of recyclable materials such as fibre cement composites and wood plastic composites. Glass wool insulation ensures the houses are energy-efficient and cost-effective. It is estimated that a ModulusTech house has a carbon footprint that is up to 52 times lower than traditional concrete homes.

When the team tested the homes in the Thar desert, where the outside temperature was around 50 degrees Celsius, the temperature inside was around 35 degrees, Saquib says.

In 2017, ModulusTech was accepted into The Nest I/O, a Pakistani startup incubator. Since then, the team has won a slew of awards and was selected by the Pakistani office of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to represent the country at the world’s first Global Manufacturing Industrial Summit in Germany last year.

ModulusTech hopes that government departments or relief agencies will buy its houses to set up in refugee camps or other settlements where displaced people are gathered. Pakistan is home to around 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees, and around 400,000 people have been displaced internally by conflicts, violence or extreme weather events like floods.

ModulusTech won a grant from UN Environment as part of the Asia-Pacific Low-Carbon Lifestyles Challenge, which supports young people with cutting-edge ideas to foster energy-efficient, low-waste and low-carbon lifestyles.

“With this money, we have set up our own factory and we have labour and a proper manufacturing facility,” Saquib said, adding that the business training offered as part of the award was also very useful.

Dechen Tsering, UN Environment’s director for the Asia-Pacific region, said ModulusTech’s innovation was an example of the ingenuity needed to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems, with this project particularly geared toward helping some of the most vulnerable people.

Around one billion people live in informal settlements around the world, with millions more living in buildings that are not environmentally friendly. Rapid urbanization and economic growth challenge communities to sustainably expand capacity, heightening the need for innovation in building systems and infrastructure.

“Improving lifestyles across Asia and the Pacific must be an inclusive endeavour, and Mohammed … (is) demonstrating how we can get it done,” Tsering said.

Global ingenuity and innovation across all sectors will take centre-stage at the fourth UN Environment Assembly in March. The motto for that meeting is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.

So far ModulusTech has sold around 30 units, mostly to businesses in the construction industry who sought structures for washrooms and site offices. They are also in talks with United Nations agencies about possible uses for their product.

As they seek to build their market, the team are already working to upgrade their basic model by installing a solar-powered water purification system. They are also incorporating a second storey into their designs.

For Saquib, architects, designers and engineers have a critical role in fighting for a better environment, but education is also key.

“As a nation, we really don’t care about climate change now. Signing a Paris (climate change) agreement or creating a Pakistan vision for 2025 will not solve this issue. You have to go to ground level,” he said. “Global warming and our response in Pakistan should be part of the schools’ curriculum … It is the government’s duty to raise awareness of this issue.”

He admits it is frustrating that the environmental benefits of ModulusTech’s flat-pack housing is not recognized locally.

“We have built this house and nobody is looking at how sustainable it is, for example that the lifespan is 30 years. No one cares about that,” he said, adding that this lack of knowledge means designers must also take on the mantle of educators.

“We must educate but we have to take baby steps. People just care about the cost. They don’t care about the energy analysis,” he said.  “But we are trying our best to educate them, and we really highlight our achievements, like the fact that the houses save 45 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per house. That’s a huge thing right now.”

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Urban Development

UN and civil society team up to make cities more sustainable and inclusive

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Salt Lake City in the US state of Utah, is hosting the United Nations Civil Society Conference. Image: Visit Salt Lake

How can we make sure that cities become more inclusive, with a smaller environmental footprint, and leave no-one behind? These questions will be tackled at the UN Civil Society Conference, which is due to take place in the capital of Utah, Salt Lake City, at the end of August.

Representatives of civil society will have the opportunity to meet with senior UN officials, and discuss a wide range of solutions to the challenges of urban life.

The theme of this year’s conference, “building sustainale and inclusive cities and communities”, reflects the fact that over half of the world’s population, some 55 per cent, now live in urban areas, with that figure expected to rise to 68 per cent by 2050.

Conference sessions will discuss topics connected to the main theme, including climate change; opportunities for youth; and emerging technologies and innovation.

Leaders of large urban centres, such as Salt Lake City in the state of Utah, the communities that live in them, as well as the private sector, are at the forefront of finding sustainable solutions to poverty; climate change; clean water and energy; and many of the other challenges connected to urban living.

Salt Lake City’s sustainability credentials include the development of a Climate Positive Plan, laying out a path for a transition to 100 per cent clean energy by 2032, and an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2024. In addition, the nearby Utah Valley University, works to educate the campus and larger community on the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and has been an affiliate member of the UN’s Department of Global Communications (DGC) since 2017.

“As a city committed to being inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable, it is an honor to be the first US host city of the UN Civil Society Conference outside of New York,” said Mayor Jackie Biskupski in a statement. “I can think of no better time and no better place than Salt Lake City, for the UN and the world’s NGOs to expand awareness in this country of sustainable development goals and the value of global unity.”

Highlights include interactive thematic sessions, NGO-sponsored workshops, exhibits and a youth hub. Speakers and attendees will include leaders and other representatives from NGOs, UN agencies, academia, faith traditions, the public and private sectors and youth from around the world.

The UN Civil Society Conference is described by the UN as the Organization’s “premier event in the civil society calendar”, focusing on UN topics of interest to civil society and NGOs, where issues of global concern can be discussed.

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Urban Development

WEF to Lead G20 Smart Cities Alliance on Technology Governance

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The World Economic Forum, the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation, has been selected to act as the secretariat for a new G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance.

The alliance unites municipal, regional and national governments, private-sector partners and cities’ residents around a shared set of core guiding principles for the implementation of smart city technologies. Currently, there is no global framework or set of rules in place for how sensor data collected in public spaces, such as by traffic cameras, is used. The effort aims to foster greater openness and trust as well as create standards for how this data is collected and used. This marks the first time that smart city technologies and global technology governance have been elevated to the main agenda.

The Forum will coordinate with members from the G20, Urban 20 and Business 20 communities to develop new global governance guidelines for the responsible use of data and digital technologies in urban environments. The Internet of Things, Robotics and Smart Cities team in the Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network will take the lead and ensure accountability throughout the alliance’s members.

“This is a commitment from the largest economies in the world to work together and set the norms and values for smart cities,” said Børge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum. “We will coordinate efforts so that we can all work in alignment to move this important work forward. It is important we maximize the benefit and minimize the risk of smart city technology so all of society can benefit, not the few.”

“The advancement of smart cities and communities is critical to realize Japan’s vision for Society 5.0. It is also essential to address the world’s most pressing challenges, including climate change and inclusive economic growth,” said Koichi Akaishi, Director General for Science, Technology and Innovation for the Cabinet Office of the Government of Japan. “The Government of Japan is proud to have championed this cause as part of our G20 presidency and was pleased to see the Business 20, Urban 20 and G20 Digital Ministers all pledge their support for the creation of a global smart cities coalition. To advance this work, we are pleased to welcome the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution as the global secretariat for this important initiative.”

Public-private cooperation is crucial to achieving global change. Efforts to form the Global Smart Cities Alliance have been supported by four partners of the World Economic Forum: Eisai, Hitachi, NEC and Salesforce.

“Open and Agile Smart Cities is thrilled to be part of this global effort led by the World Economic Forum to support cities and communities with a global framework,” said Martin Brynskov, Chair of Open and Agile Smart Cities, an international smart cities network. “Openness and interoperability are key to scaling up digital smart city solutions that help tackle the challenges that cities are facing in the 21st century – on the cities’ terms and conditions.”

“This alliance builds on the work already done by many cities around the globe – such as the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights – to empower citizens through digital technologies. A human-centric digital society shall reflect the openness, diversity and inclusion that are at the core of our societies and value systems,” said Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona. “Cities must spearhead efforts to put technology and data at the service of the citizens in order to tackle big social and environmental challenges, such as feminism, affordable housing, climate change and the energy transition. We are committed to being part of this global endeavour to build a digital society that puts citizens first and preserves their fundamental rights.”

“In today’s interconnected world, global collaboration is no longer merely an option, it is a necessity, said Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York City. “New York City is proud to have championed a model for smart cities that puts our most vulnerable residents first. We also recognize that now more than ever urban issues have global implications. As mayors, we have a unique responsibility to lead by example and demonstrate a sustainable path towards a more inclusive and equitable future.”

“As the world continues to urbanise, it is indispensable to successfully manage urban growth,” said Ichiro Hara, Secretary General of the B20 Tokyo Summit, and Managing Director of Japan Business Federation, Keidanren. “The Business 20 have called to support the implementation of Society 5.0 by fostering cooperation among smart cities. We applaud the G20 for heeding our call for a smart cities alliance and look forward for a common guiding principles to be developed through this critical initiative.”

“The Cities for All Network is excited to partner with the World Economic Forum and the G20 to help realize our shared vision for a more inclusive urban future,” said Victor Pineda, President of World Enabled and Co-Founder of Smart Cities for All. “The last industrial revolution left out a lot of people. As we move into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we cannot risk repeating past mistakes. We need to work together to co-design robust policy frameworks to ensure that all members of society can contribute to and benefit from technological advancements.”

“Local governments and city leadership need to be at the core of decision-making when developing smart cities, said Emilia Saiz, Secretary General of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG). “It is the guarantee to ensure the human dimension and the protection of the commons. United Cities and Local Governments is delighted to contribute in every way possible to that process and to transform the conversation around digital rights.”

“In pursuit of the Sustainable Development Goals and in line with the New Urban Agenda, UN-Habitat affirms the importance of coordinating efforts around protections and standards in deploying smart digital infrastructure to ensure that such smart technologies benefit all, particularly the vulnerable, including people with disabilities,” said Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of UN Habitat. “We welcome this important new alliance led by the World Economic Forum, G20, mayors, national governments, multilateral organizations, and civil society groups.”

About the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network

The Network helped Rwanda write the world’s first agile drone regulation and is scaling this up throughout Africa and Asia. It also developed actionable governance toolkits for corporate executives on blockchain, co-designed the first-ever Industrial IoT (IIoT) Safety and Security Protocol and created a personal data policy framework with the UAE.

Based in San Francisco, the World Economic Forum Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution brings together governments, leading companies, civil society and experts from around the world to co-design and pilot innovative approaches to the policy and governance of new technologies. More than 100 governments, companies, civil society, international organizations and experts are working together to design and pilot innovative approaches to the policy and governance of technology. Teams are creating human-centred and agile policies to be piloted by policy-makers and legislators around the world, shaping the future of emerging technology in ways that maximize the benefits and minimize the risks.

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Urban Development

Global housing crisis: Urgent action needed on planning, policy and technology

MD Staff

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The world must act now to address the crisis in affordable housing. According to a new report by the World Economic Forum, Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities, about 90% of cities around the world do not provide affordable housing or of adequate quality. The report says that the cost of housing, as well as location, prohibits people from meeting other basic living costs, threatening their employment and fundamental human rights.

In Africa, more than half of the population live in sub-standard conditions, and in India and China, almost a quarter of the population live in informal settlements. Across the world, millennials spend more on housing than previous generations and have a lower quality of life. By 2050, more than 30% of the urban population around the world, about 2.5 billion people, will live in sub-standard housing or be financially stretched by housing costs.

“A world in which only a few can afford housing is not sustainable,” said Alice Charles, Lead, Cities, Urban Development and Urban Services, World Economic Forum. “If cities are to find solutions, it requires a broader understanding of what constitutes affordability and the factors that affect it. This report explores both supply-side and demand-side dynamics affecting affordability and guides decision-makers towards strategic interventions and long-term reforms that can reduce dependence on government support systems and incentivize more commercially viable affordable housing through policies and practices that address systemic gaps in the housing value chain.”

The key challenges to affordable housing include land acquisitions, zoning and regulations that affect land use, funding mechanisms, and design and construction costs. Examples of innovative approaches to support affordable housing include:

· The cities of Chengdu and Chongqing, China, are making land available through tradable land quotas, allowing agricultural land to be converted to urban use.

· The Communities Plus Programme in Sydney, Australia, is partnering with the private sector to develop 23,000 new and replacement social housing units, linking housing assistance with participation in education, training and local employment opportunities.

· Hamburg, Germany, and Copenhagen, Denmark, are pooling publicly owned assets into an Urban Wealth Fund that works with the private sector on affordable housing development projects.

· Employers such as Facebook and Google in the US, IKEA in Reykjavik, Iceland, Lego in Billund, Denmark, Samsung in Seoul and Suwon, Republic of Korea, and Alibaba in Hangzhou, China, are investing in housing developments for employees.

· London, UK, is offering construction training to address the skills shortage in the industry.

· Mexico is deploying bricklayer robots that increase construction productivity.

· Austin, US, Beijing and Shanghai, China, and Eindhoven, Netherlands, are exploring 3D printing to build homes.

· Denver, US, is mandating certain buildings to install green roofs or solar panels to save on energy costs for the occupants.

· Dupnitsa, Bulgaria, and Poznan, Poland, are changing eligibility criteria for social housing projects to support more citizens.

· Bristol, UK, is constructing homes with six types of housing tenure, including build-to-rent, shared ownership and rent-to-buy models.

· MIT’s Media Lab has developed an 18.5 square-metre prototype apartment that uses transformable furniture that can be flipped, moved and stowed by hand gestures and voice commands, increasing the functionality to an apartment three times its size.

The report also outlines recommendations for city governments, the private sector and non-profits, including:

· City governments must develop regulations that emphasize property rights, protect tenants, support mixed-income housing development and enable innovative financing models.

· The private sector should work with local communities to provide affordable housing for employees, support new financing mechanisms and help meet housing costs. Private developers must invest in sustainable, energy-efficient design and use new materials, equipment and technologies to increase productivity.

· The non-profit sector should work with cities and private developers to offer alternative tenure models, provide policy development and technical support, and educate and advocate for citizens.

Ensuring affordable housing is critical to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 11, which aims to make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. According to the 2016 New Urban Agenda, housing policies can affect health, employment, poverty, mobility and energy consumption.

Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities was created in collaboration with PwC.

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