By Lefteris Charalambous
In my opinion urbanization will be one of the predominant social forces of our generation, especially in emerging countries and it will create great challenges and tensions, especially since the speed of urbanization seems to be much greater than the speed of developing mechanisms and infrastructure to accommodate the inflow of people. We can leverage the dynamics of this phenomenon by developing a flexible yet accurate way of addressing the main infrastructure issues of these growing urban settings. The enabler to do this could be market driven but socially focused entrepreneurship.
The objectives of addressing these challenges should be clearly articulated: (1) Provide access to basic infrastructure to people, (2) Improve living standards and (3) Create a framework for economic development. The second input in this equation should always be the context. Each emerging country, specific region, city or even part of the city is a unique ecosystem that required effort to decipher and understand. Having all the above in mind, it is very difficult to imagine a concentrated central planning unit making successful decisions for this very diverse and at the same time unmapped group of urban eco-systems.
In my mind, a way to gain the extensive reach and flexibility required to address this is through decentralized entrepreneurship. The local expertise and the ability to implement the product at a small scale can be crucial in successfully addressing issues such as distribution of fresh water (similar to Sarvajal), generation of energy, recycling, basic medical care etc.
In order for this model to be successful we need to address many challenges. Firstly, we need to ensure that this form of social entrepreneurship is business focused and does not depend on charity. Given a business twist to these ventures ensures focus on efficiency and at the same time gives the right incentives to all participants (customers, company, investors) to make it sustainable. Secondly, we need to attract a lot of people with the right combination of skills. The two relevant dimensions would be business skillset (including understanding of the context, sales skills etc) and endorsement of the mission (e.g. provide water to everyone at reasonable prices). There is usually a trade-off between these two. However, if we want to scale the concept of decentralized entrepreneurship we need to find a way to increase the ideal candidates. Although a lack of both skill-sets eliminates the candidate, there should be a plan for utilizing people that are strong on only one of the two. Strong central control mechanisms (e.g. through the use of IT systems or centralization of sensitive parts of the service) could address the lack of belief to the mission while training / coaching and IT related tools can improve the business skills. Finally, we need to focus our innovation on small scale infrastructure equipment / services. The goal here is not over-performance at any cost; it is specific performance at the minimum cost.
At the end, although this approach seems to be a great way to deal with the explosive urbanization rates seen in emerging countries now, maybe developed countries also have something to learn from the flexibility of decentralized systems.