​Design, inclusion, and half-assed leftovers

This interview was originally posted in short form on Balmond Studio’s Thinking in Practice website publication.

1. Can you talk us through why you began UTOPIA AND INCLUDED.

1 in 6 people in the world today live in a migrant slum and that number will grow up to 1 in 3 within a few decades. It is the defining phenomenon of our century. The world as we know it is changing.

Migrants are moving from the countryside to the city at an accelerated pace, in hope of finding a better life for they families. But they bounce back and land on the edges of the cities in the slums. These migrant slums are left informal, left unplanned. They are left without design.

I had been living in Beijing for a few years when a friend led me out to a migrant slum on the northeast edge of Beijing. When I stumbled into that first community, I was confronted by open sewage, families of five living in a few square meters, overflowing public toilets, and underflowing water faucets.

Returning that evening, it was as if an engine that was lying dormant inside me all those years suddenly got flipped on. I was overwhelmed by what I saw but energized at the same time. That first day in the migrant slum in Beijing, it wasn’t the billions of migrants that I saw, but a handful of kids running through the trash-filled alleyways in front of me.

I saw they were without supervision, without adequate education, without spaces to play. But what they had was this creativity, this energy, this belief in their own future. I realized that if these same children were born in New York or London or Hong Kong, many of them would have gone on to become doctors and teachers and lawyers. But they weren’t. They were born in a migrant slum on the edge of Beijing. They were the outsider. So as hard as they studied, as hard as they worked, as hard as they pushed…that door would always remain shut to them.

So we started working to empower their potential and the potential of their communities. We were naive back then (still are). I have a love affair with naivety at some level. It allows us to not realize it can’t be done.

2. Why do you think historically so little has been done to address the issue of migration?

It’s caught most of us by surprise. For as long as we can remember, most of poverty has been in the countryside. And then we woke up one day and found it on our doorstep. From 2008, more of us now live in cities than in the countryside. Cities have become the living rooms of humanity. Thought leaders took notice of this shift and so we now see many conferences and buzz around cities. Yet much of this buzz is still around the formal city and migration of the poor from the countryside is lost in the new city noise, though it is actually quickly coming to dominate the landscape.

I say it has caught us by surprise because it’s not just been a steady increase but there is a rapid acceleration of migration happening like we’ve never seen before. Migrant slums in Europe on average are doubling every 1400 years, meaning they’ve stabilized. Migrant slums in Latin America are doubling every 300 years (their countrysides emptied earlier, in the 60s and 70s). The unbelievable numbers are coming from Asia where we see migrant slums doubling every 30–60 years and from Africa, where it can be as rapid as every 15–30 years. It’s this acceleration that is fascinating and terrifying and has caught everyone off guard.

We’re still surprised at how rapidly the landscape is shifting and I don’t see governments, businesses, and nonprofits preparing for this shift. Which means slums will play out as they always have, they will grow into the paths of least resistance. Which means growth in the informal world. Which means little rhyme or reason to their growth, and they will remain on the outside edges of our cities and of our societies, a great loss for them and for us. There’s a curiously positive vibrancy to this random growth but ultimately, I don’t think it serves humanity well. There is room for good design and intentionality. The world has been left with the Slum 1.0 version over the last century. Perhaps it’s time for an upgrade.

3. The notion of ‘inclusion’ is a central concept underlying your organisation. Can you talk a bit more about this idea and why it’s so important and relevant to the issue of migration today?

Inclusion is part of my DNA. I’ve always felt uncomfortable when someone is left on the edges of the group. I can’t accept that. Some would say it’s a weakness. I would say acceptance of exclusion reveals a small spirit. And small spirits will never advance the world.

Migrants are the ultimate outsider. They move into our cities to contribute but find they don’t belong. They want their young child to have a chance in this world, but are told there’s no room. They want the same thing for their children as you and I want for our children. They want them to be included. And they’re willing to work for it. And we’re so much more because of them. Utopian fantasy? Perhaps. But their time is coming.

4. Within a few decades a third of the global population will live in a slum. 60% of slum dwellers are in Asia. Between 2000 and 2030, urban areas in developing countries will absorb 95% of the world’s population growth. How will this impact on our cities in the future? What are our cities going to look and feel like if we do not address this issue? What will they look like if we do properly address the problem?

The largest, most energetic, most robust cities in the world will soon be found in the capitals of the developing world. Dhaka will surpass Tokyo to become the largest megacity of the world within fifteen years. The developed world will be the places of refinement but these new megacities in the developing world will hold the vibrancy and the buzz of our world. In short, they will be the spaces most exciting to play in. It’s where we can achieve the greatest improvement in quality of life.

If nothing is done, migrant slums may become places of unrest and deep poverty. They will be home to one third of the world’s population. These slum dwellers could become the majority minority who are disenfranchised — a fringe group who are regarded as second-class citizens, competing for resources outside the rules of the city. These cities are already becoming overwhelmingly chaotic. In many ways, beautifully chaotic, but perhaps unsustainably so.

If I were to ask you, which two cities are most characterized by immigration, New York and London would come to mind. Which are two of the most powerful cities in the world? New York and London. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Internal migrants offer the same to their cities: an appreciation for opportunity, an eagerness to contribute, to work hard and to have their children study hard. Migrants are an asset to our cities. They build the cities, grow the economies, provide the diversity. Migrants do well with opportunity because that is what brought them to the city.

The most powerful cities of the future in the developing world will be those who provide migrants with the environment to flourish within the social fabric of their cities. They succeed in integrating their migrants.

5. You have a strong brand and design clearly plays an important role in communication. Why is design so important to you? Do you think non-profits need to take design more seriously generally?

Good design brings dignity. Good design opens new possibilities to us, it helps us reimagine reality.

The nonprofit sector has been accused of doing things half-assed. Some of this criticism is fair. When we help others, perhaps our subconscious says that it’s better than what they would have gotten without our help. So we give our leftover energy, our second-hand effort, our second-best. But perhaps those on our edges deserve our best, perhaps they should be the highest valued of our human community. Good design brings dignity. It highlights value. It inspires us to pay attention. It requires us to shift our perspective. When done well, good design offers a window of opportunity to change the course of what we expect out of the world, what we expect out of ourselves. I don’t want it to be said that I’ve done things half-assed. I want to give my best to those on our edges. I don’t want to be half-assed.

Good design brings simplicity. I often ask our team to keep pushing towards simplicity. Not to simplify down to stupidity, but to simplify down to the essence. The issue of migrant slums is incredibly complex. So we need stories. We need simple visuals. We need the headlines. I’ve noticed over the years that the leaders I most admire tend to speak in stories. They speak in simple analogies, as if they are explaining it to their mother. (I often ask them to speak to me like I’m a five year old). I’m moved by this because I know it means they care more about the audience than being perceived as the expert. They’re here to serve. Good design shouldn’t impress. It should serve. It should enlighten. It should tell us the story. We want to help tell the global story of the migrant slum.

I think not only nonprofits, but every sector, can find new life when we look at design not as a function but as a chance at seeing life in new and fresh ways. I’ve fallen in love with the design community because I’ve fallen in love with curiosity. If I could ask only one thing of my son for his life it would be that he would be curious. Because out of curiosity, many things flow: awe, humility, eagerness, vulnerability, growth, appreciation.

6. How will INCLUDED continue to evolve in the future and what are your plans to broaden its reach?

1 in 3 of the world’s population, with virtually no one focused on intentional design in an environment where design could have its biggest impact.

INCLUDED has fully dedicated ourselves to inclusive cities for migrants. We’ve come to believe design plays a strong role in that process. It brings dignity. It brings value. It has the potential to rethink everything. The migrant slum is in desperate need of a rethink. We’ve already been busy these years building out a network of 10 cities and 100 community centers in migrant slums globally (this may take a decade to achieve). We are ready for Slum 2.0. So we’ve been encouraging others to play at the intersection of slum and design.

If one third of humanity is truly to live in an informal migrant slum on our edges, we need to inspire and mobilize an entire new generation of designers — urban planners, architects, product designers, strategists. It’s been left to chance for too long. The design community can give our best effort to show that those on our edges deserve more than half-assed leftovers. We need a new world, a designed world.

This new world recognizes that in this day and age, it’s more than just biological natural evolution, the survival of the fittest. It’s a world which looks out for the most vulnerable in our communities. It sees slumdwellers as co-contributors, as collaborators. This new world sees slumdwellers as they should be. It sees them as included.

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Jonathan Hursh is the founder and executive producer of Utopia and the founder and a board member of INCLUDED. Jonathan was named a Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the World Economic Forum, was recently recognized on the Global 100 Public Interest Design list, and is an Advisory Board Member of the World Economic Forum’s Urban Development Initiative. He also sits on the Advisory Board of Harvard's new Master of Design Engineering program.