The Open Source City[]

Cities are a prime example of how public goods emerge from structured self-organisation.

Part 1:


Curitiba in central Brazil faces a challenge common to all fast growing cities in the developing world: to encourage order to emerge from the ever present threat of chaos. Between 1970 and 2004, Curitiba’s population grew from 300k to more than 2m. Each year between 20,000 and 30,000 people come to the city from the countryside looking for a better life. Often they have no education, trade, skills, place to live and no sense of what it means to be a citizen of a city. All over Curitiba but particularly along riverbanks and under power lines, migrants throw up shanty-towns which spread like a forest fire as word spreads that a new area of land has been invaded. It takes just a few weeks for a field to become a shanty town housing thousands of people. These shanties are pure self-organising solutions, but they are also breeding grounds for poor education and bad health, protection rackets and exploitation.

Curitiba’s solution is structured self-organisation. The most striking example of this philosophy in action is Cujaru, a former squatter encampment, on the city’s edge which houses 120,000 people on land that was pasture in 1990. When the Cujaru settlement started growing the city got a loan from the Inter American Development Bank to replace the shacks with permanent houses. The bank stipulated that the council had get a registered builder to build the new homes. Pretty soon the builders were throwing up standardised, low-rise housing units that looked like army barracks. The council called a halt and went back to the bank with a different solution.

The contractor’s houses cost $10,000 per unit. The council argued that if people were allowed to build their own houses, employing their own labour – often family and friends – the cost would be about $3,000. Instead of the area being blanketed by barracks, Cujaru would have a variety of architectural styles. People who build their own homes would look after them and their neighbourhood, the council pointed out. If something went wrong with the plumbing the householder would fix it themselves rather than calling the council to provide a solution. The council would have had to employ a large and no doubt bureaucratic housing maintenance department to carry out the work. Eventually the council persuaded the bank that its mass self-build approach, turning people into participants rather than recipients, would be more cost effective. In the first four months of the revised scheme 10,000 homes were self-built. Cujaru is a thriving, stable community of more than 120,000 homeowners, perhaps the largest self-build community in the world. Structured self-organisation - a well-designed, mass, self-organised solution trumped both our bottom up and top down solutions.

Curitiba is one of the most creative cities in the world. But it has not followed in the footsteps of Richard Florida’s disciples and created a cultural quarter, for specially creative people, members of the creative class, to do special work. Instead Curitiba has applied creativity to the most important aspects of city life: how people live together, housing themselves, moving to and from work, educating themselves, looking after the sick and poor, and most tellingly in collective rubbish. Which is where Rodrigo Muscolevy comes in.

Rodrigo is tired. For eight hours he has been tramping the streets pulling Interprise II his makeshift, light green, hand made, cart, collecting rubbish to be recycled. A recent arrival in the city, Rodrigo is jobless. Collecting rubbish is his way to make a living. On a good day, after two or three outings Rodrigo collects enough to earn £5 when he delivers his load to the recycling centre. Today his cart is full with 80kg of plastic, glass and metal: he should earn about £2.50. Rodrigo is a one of a small army of recycling entrepreneurs created by a remarkable example of mass social innovation orchestrated by the council.

Rodrigo does not collect litter from the side of the street but from plastic shopping bags placed on platforms that stand outside most houses in the city. People started to leave out items for recycling – plastic, paper, metal, rubbish that is not rubbish as it’s known in the city - twice a week when the city’s big green recycling trucks were due to come by. But the council organised for its large trucks to collect recycling late in the afternoon, giving entrepreneurs like Rodrigo eight hours to collect the rubbish first. As a result Curitiba is crawling with thousands of men and boys pulling hand made carts collecting rubbish that is not rubbish. The city gets its rubbish collected at much lower cost to the taxpayer because the council needs far fewer big green trucks. The city population gets a cleaner environment: Curitiba recycles more than thirty per cent of its rubbish far more than comparable cities in Europe and the US. Young men recently arrived from the countryside can find a way to make a living as recyclers with little more than a bike. As the city grows and generates more rubbish, so the population of rubbish collectors grows as well. Demand produces its own supply far more flexibly than if the council was in charge of planning a centrally organised service. The micro-entrepreneurs who collect most of the rubbish and the householders have created a self-organising solution within a framework provided by the council.

One of the chief architects of this structured self organisation is Cassio Taniguchi, who was the council’s chief engineer and then mayor: “No matter how well run we are we still would not have all the resources we need as a council. We can only get those resources by mobilising more people to participate and take co-responsibility for devising solutions. We cannot organise ourselves in linear ways because people do not live their lives in straight lines.” The results of this participative approach have been impressive. In 1995 Curitiba’s income per head was already 40% above the Brazilian average; by 2004 it was twice as high. Thanks to the creation of more than 30 large parks there is 51.5 sq metres of green space per resident, compared with 0.5 sq metres in 1970. The unemployment and infant mortality rates are among the lowest in Brazil and literacy rates are higher than in many cities in the US and the UK.

Curitiba has had a stable leadership formed around Jaime Lerner, several times Curitiba’s mayor and original architect of the city plan. Many of the specific strategies have been devised by Curitiba’s Institute of Public Policy where 300 people work in multi disciplinary teams of architects, engineers, planners, designers and economists. They are the city’s systems designers, responsible for the framework of rules, incentives, interfaces and tools that make it fit together. They are the equivalents of lead programmers in the Linux community or the original 200 contributors who got Wikipedia going. Since the 1970s Curitiba’s political leaders have mainly been non-politicians. Jaime Lerner trained as an architect; Cassio Taniguchi was one of Brazil’s top engineers. Both brought to their office a pragmatic, technocratic, problem solving style. Their charisma comes from being quiet and thoughtful. As Taniguchi put it: “Everytime the public sector tries to do something on its own it tends to be a failure. The public sector works best when it encourages contributions from many other people – the private sector and citizens – to solve problems.”

Self-organisation in Curitiba works because it is not a free-for-all. It is structured by simple rules. No one can cut down a tree without council permission and if permission is granted two trees have to be planted somewhere else in the city. Since 1970, about 1.7m trees have been planted. No buildings are allowed within 200m of public parks. The historic core of the city, founded by European immigrants in the 18th century, has been preserved by strict planning guidelines. Curitiba has grown six fold in less than three decades and yet it feels ordered, calm and at ease with itself, in contrast to other fast developing cities which seem chaotic, frenetic and on the verge of break down.

Curitiba has also invested in its own “commons”, chiefly public transport. The city literally flows: Curitiba has the highest rate of car ownership of any city in Brazil - but even in rush hour there are no traffic jams. That is because 2,530 buses make 21,000 journeys a day to carry 2m passengers, along 71km of bus lanes within the city and more than 270km of feeder routes. More people travel by bus in Curitiba than in New York City which is several times larger. The busiest interchanges at the edge of the city handle 35,000 passengers an hour, more than Heathrow airport, with a revolutionary roll-on-roll-off system for boarding buses designed by IPPUC engineers. Most of the population live within a short walk of an express bus stop. Curitiba does not have sprawling suburbs in which people have to use cars to get to work. Poor people can use the buses for free as can pensioners and people making a payment to the council. People living on the fringes of the city, where the poorer communities lie, can make it to the jobs in the centre.

As resources are scarce in Curitiba many innovations have to serve more than one purpose. Curitiba is built on a flood plain, criss-crossed by five rivers. Flooding was a major problem when the city began to grow rapidly in the 1970s. The solution has been to create a string of lakes within the 30 parks the city has created. The parks give the city its green feel and act as flood defences. Squatters tend not to invade public parks. The 48 Lighthouses of Knowledge: local libraries and Internet centres, located next to schools or health centres, which tend to be close to bus interchanges, are all built with a lighthouse tower that makes them easy to find but which also serves as a look out post for the local policeman.

Across Curitiba there are small pockets of resources rather than large, central departments and institutions. In addition to the 48 libraries, there are 106 municipal day care centres, four of which are open 24-hours and hundreds of vocational training centres, which cater for more than 33,000 people a year doing short courses to prepare them for work or to start their own courses. There are 165 health centres, and 1m Curitibans have an electronic health card that allows them to book an appointment at any centre, regardless of where they live. Most of the 163 schools have Internet connections and many are open beyond school hours for use by the community. Over the past few years all education budgets, for capital, maintenance and teaching, have been devolved directly to schools. Elisangel Cabral, the coordinator of the council’s business incubator programme explained how they planned to take their service door-to-door in future: “Far more people will create jobs and businesses at home in the garage or kitchen than will come to a council incubator. We have to take our service to them rather than expecting them to come to us.” It is almost as if public services have to be organised like a guerrilla campaign, operating in the community not on it.

City planners have drawn up a detailed social map of the city, highlighting communities blighted by multiple social problems: crime, unemployment and family breakdown. Council staff compiled the map by going door-to-door collecting detailed information on educational attainments, household income, employment and health. They now have a detailed picture of the lifestyles of 10,000 of the poorest families in the city who live in 50 of its poorest neighbourhoods where they have launched collaborative community planning initiatives. The city’s aim is to provoke a creative conversation within these communities to generate momentum for change from within. Ana Jayme, the project’s leader explained: “Getting people engaged in this collaborative model has been really hard and we’ve had a lot of false starts. We have had to equip people to do it, to give them the support and tools they need. We have to find the real leaders in a community. If we can get them involved, the first twenty people then the initiative spreads by word of mouth and we get many more people involved. We have to find something positive in the community, whatever it might be that they can start building upon. Self-esteem is very low in these neighbourhoods. We want to get people to feel involved because unless they do they will not feel like real citizens, people who feel a sense of belonging in the city.”

Self-organisation without leadership all too easily leads to a dead end: the shanty. Top down leadership that stifles self-organisation fails to mobilise a wide range of people and resources. The trick is to provide leadership for a process through which people, together, find structured collaborative solutions. Cities like Curitiba are among the best examples we have of innovation as a mass, self-organising collaborative activity. That is why cities have been such vital sources of innovation in all fields – government, art, science, business. The lessons of cities like Curitiba should be applied to innovation in other walks of life. Yet all too often in the 20th century, at least, cities themselves turned their backs on these ideas in favour of their own version of closed innovation.

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