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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.”

UN Environment

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Urban Development

Moscow joins the G20 Smart Cities Alliance project for responsible adoption of digital technologies

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Moscow has been selected as one of the pilot regions to implement the global policy roadmap for the responsible use of digital technologies. Cooperation with members of the G20 Smart Cities Alliance will allow Moscow to share its accumulated experience and analyze the world’s best practices in the use of digital technologies.

The Russian capital will become a member of the G20 Smart Cities Alliance project, which, as part of the development of digital infrastructure, will cooperate in developing common principles and approaches in the areas of information security and personal data protection, increasing the availability of urban infrastructure and electronic services for people with disabilities developing broadband communication networks and open data infrastructure.

37 megacities, including Barcelona, ​​Bogota, Brasilia, Buenos Aires, London, Lisbon, Manila, Melbourne, Mexico City, Milan, San Jose, Istanbul and others, will work on the roadmap of the G20 Smart Cities Alliance. The community involves authorities, international organizations in the field of IT regulation, experts not only from the G20 countries, but also cities interested in digitalization of territories.

The International Smart Cities Alliance was formed in 2019. The organization aims to create international norms and rules for the responsible use of advanced technologies.

Department of Information Technologies of Moscow

The Department of Information Technologies of Moscow (DIT) has been rapidly developing and actively growing for the past 5 years. During these years we have created over a thousand systems and services and we are pursuing the target of launching around 300 new projects annually. Today, we are proud of having digitalized over 166 state services, this is obviously more than any other region of Russia. Moreover, within the last years we have created an outstanding number of 178 portals, including the official Mayor and Government of Moscow web-site “mos.ru”. Our systems cover over 60 industries and penetrate into each aspect of

Moscow citizens’ everyday lives, our products and services include:

  • Electronic queue for Civil registry office;
  • Arrangement of remote medical appointments;
  • Personalelectronicmedicalrecords;
  • Children assignment to kindergardens/schools/extracurricular activities;
  • Providing schools with cutting edge technological equipment;
  • Obtaining references, enquiries and services remotely;
  • Numerous projects in housing and public amenities, starting from telemetrics and
  • Energetics to the possibility of submitting water usage information.

Current structure of the Department distinguishes up to 30 unique products and programs, including medical and education systems informatization, creation of crowdsourcing platforms, development of various resources and portals for Moscow and its citizens. We are aimed at continuing the process of effective informatization of the city with an emphasis on innovation development and advanced technologies application.

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Urban Development

Cities at Centre of International Initiative to Add Jobs and Protect the Planet

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Cities are engines of growth, contributing some 80% to global GDP, but they also account for 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Even in a post-COVID-19 future, urbanization is expected to grow. Cities, suburbs and the global infrastructure system have a great impact on nature, yet their role in protecting biodiversity loss and mitigating climate change has been underestimated, until now.

To help transform cities into engines of economic growth compatible with planetary and human well-being, the World Economic Forum is collaborating with the government of Colombia and the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Research on Biological Resources on a new global initiative, BiodiverCities by 2030. This initiative will help cities around the world unlock opportunities for urban growth while protecting the environment.

In order to shape a nature-positive future, the initiative is curating a high-level commission of 25 world-renowned experts and practitioners from government, the private sector, academia and civil society. The Global Commission on BiodiverCities by 2030 will build a shared, framework and forward-looking perspective on the BiodiverCities concept.

The publicly accessible framework will outline how cities can shift from the current untenable relationship with rural areas and natural resource assets towards a more nature-positive model, which, research indicates, can add jobs to the economy. On the back of this knowledge framework, the initiative will also build on the Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform and on a community of innovators and entrepreneurs in close partnership with the World Economic Forum’s UpLink platform.

As President Duque stated, “Colombia is the world’s most biodiverse country by square kilometer, and we have the challenge and the responsibility to protect nature in cities while improving people’s wellbeing. We are excited to partner with the World Economic Forum and key international actors to help shape a much-needed global agenda on BiodiverCities. Building on our produce while conserving and conserve while producing policy, we are eager to both share Colombian cities’ efforts and experiences, and to learn from valuable international knowledge and best practices.”

Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, said: “COVID-19’s impact is a stark reminder of our imbalance with the natural world. As cities face the enormous task of recovering from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, BiodiverCities by 2030 aims to show how nature-positive cities can offer transformative opportunities for the benefit of people, planet, health and livelihoods. We greatly look forward to working with the President of Colombia and other partners on this important global initiative and connecting with a community of experts, mayors and policy-makers.”

Research shows that nature-positive solutions, or those that add value back into nature, can create healthier and more resilient cities while generating $3 trillion in business opportunities and creating 117 million jobs. “Cities can be cooler in the summer, have cleaner air and be better protected against flooding if we can put nature at the heart of its development model,” said Akanksha Khatri, Head of the Nature Action Agenda, World Economic Forum.

At the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit 2020, and during the United Nations General Assembly meeting, President Duque called for a broader effort to advance cities and sustainable development through a “BiodiverCities” approach.

A network of nine Colombian cities, including Barranquilla as one of the initial pilots, aims to include biodiversity in their urban development models and to promote the interaction of citizens with nature. The Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development of Colombia is leading efforts to pilot this initiative with support by the World Resources Institute and the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Research on Biological Resources.

BiodiverCities by 2030 comes at a vital moment. The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged assumptions about work, transportation and city living; and, nature-positive cities can offer transformative opportunities for the benefit of people, planet, health and livelihoods.This new global initiative and partnership between the World Economic Forum and Colombia will promote cities’ potential to drive pro-biodiversity urban growth.

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Urban Development

Cities Are Key to India’s Post-Pandemic Growth

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The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic has been catastrophic for cities, which have borne the brunt of the outbreak. According to estimates, about 70% of India’s GDP comes from its cities and around 25-30 people migrate to the cities from rural areas every minute. However, most big cities in India have wide economic disparity, with expansive slums and a large urban poor population. Studies estimate that about 25 million households in India – 35% of all urban households – cannot afford housing at market prices. It is time to create a new urban paradigm that enables cities to be healthier, more inclusive and more resilient.

The World Economic Forum’s new report, Indian Cities in the Post-Pandemic World, highlights the country’s most pressing urban challenges that were further exacerbated by the pandemic. The report provides insights for translating the lessons learned from the pandemic into an urban reform agenda.

The impact of the pandemic has been profoundly uneven on different population groups. Vulnerable populations, including low-income migrant workers, have suffered the dual blows of lost income and weak social-protection coverage. The pandemic has also laid bare gender-based imbalances in public and private life in India’s urban areas.

The report, produced in collaboration with the IDFC Institute in Mumbai, compiles insights from leading global and Indian urban experts across seven thematic pillars: planning, housing, transport, environment, public health, gender and vulnerable populations.


Among other recommendations, the report underscores the critical role data can play in helping cities manage and direct emergency operations during a crisis. But data alone is not a panacea; realizing the potential of cities requires empowered and capable governance, investment in transport and infrastructure to fuel productive urban economies, and a rethink of outdated planning norms and regulations.

The wide-ranging recommendations compiled in the report include:

· A rethink of outdated urban planning regulations, which will make cities more compact, commuter-friendly and green

· Greater decentralization and empowerment of local governments, which will allow for more proximate and responsive governance

· Addressing supply-side constraints to building houses at an affordable cost and encouraging a vibrant rental housing market that allows for labour mobility

· Investing in transport solutions that recognize the need to integrate peri-urban areas with urban cores

· Bolstering health capacity in cities by increasing the number of trained healthcare personnel; ensuring that infrastructure has adequate functional capacity, aligned with current and future demands

· Prioritizing inclusivity by addressing the biases and impediments faced by women and vulnerable populations in accessing urban opportunities

· Prioritizing action on environmental sustainability, air pollution and disaster management in urban rebuilding efforts

“Well-designed and governed cities can be dynamic centres that spur innovation, drive economic productivity and provide citizens with a good quality of life. The pandemic is an opportunity to address historical urban challenges and bring about positive long‑term change,” said Viraj Mehta, Head of India and South Asia and Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum.

“Amidst every pandemic, from the bubonic plague to the Spanish flu, pundits have foretold the death of cities. And yet they have emerged stronger every time. The pandemic can be a turning point in India’s urban journey, if we draw the right lessons and translate them into lasting change,” said Reuben Abraham, Chief Executive Officer and Senior Fellow, IDFC Institute.

The Indian Cities in the Post-Pandemic World report is part of the World Economic Forum’s broader collaboration with the IDFC Institute for a working group on Rebuilding Cities which has emerged from the Regional Action Group for South Asia. This group brings together public and private sector leaders and prominent experts from the region to interact regularly in order to support an adequate public-private response to the COVID-19 pandemic and jointly chart recovery efforts.

The working group on Rebuilding Cities is partnering with multiple Indian state governments to constitute state-level working committees comprising local/municipal government representatives, urban experts and other relevant stakeholders to devise implementable and context-specific urban reform recommendations.

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