Forum for the Future: Informal Cities


CSF’s director Dilys Williams is currently in Ahmedabad, India as part of the UnBox festival. She is there alongside eight creative practitioners and eight researchers from the UK, as well as twenty creative practitioners and researchers from India. The group will be collaborating and initiating exciting projects that respond to the challenges of our urban futures, the broad theme of the 10-day lab is ‘FUTURE CITIES’.

Dilys will be working alongside Lorraine Gamman, from UAL’s Design Against Crime Research Centre and Louise Armstrong from Forum for the Future, an exciting organisation we have been lucky enough to work with in the past. Projects we’ve collaborated on include the Fashion Futures project, our Erasmus project and our Field Day event in December last year. Plus lots more interesting practitioners and researches, who we look forward to hearing more about in the coming weeks. To link to the work that Dilys is doing in India we have invited Rodrigo Bautista from Forum for the Future to share his insights on the Informal Cities project he has been working on, his contribution is below. We will be posting news from Dilys soon.

Open veins of informality

Only two generations ago in my family, Sarita, my abuelita ‘grandma’, who was born in Contepec (a small village in Michoacan), had nothing but a dream. That dream was to leave her town and go to work in Mexico City for a better life. My grandmother travelled and survived precarious conditions while moving to the world’s largest city. She, with my grandfather, started a small ‘lonchería’ (a small street food restaurant) and with the income generated there, she supported a big family via the informal sector. From her lonchería, Sarita sold homemade food to drivers of public transport in one of the busiest terminals from Mexico City. This lonchería paid no taxes – and neither did the bus drivers who ate there. They were (and many of them still are) all part of the informal economy. That normal and cultural approach to self-employment allowed my grandmother, my grandfather, and their ten children to survive.

The global landscape is changing. At Forum we’ve been exploring the future of informality in six cities, as part of our project Informal City Dialogues (ICD) in partnership with Rockefeller Foundation. We aim to foster conversations to explore the relationships between formal and informal in cities in the coming decades. As part of our project, we have seen young people (with Masters from the UK), such as Ae in Bangkok, decide to develop a career within the informal sector as street vendors. They see it as the natural starting point for their career as an entrepreneur. You can see a video about Ae’s story here. Many people like my grandmother, and Niyom featured in the video too, mainly do it for survival. A lonchería or a street business could be an excellent platform for people wishing to save or  for developing a small business.

Roughly people adopt informality in two main ways. Firstly, when government or the private sector cannot provide or meet specific social needs. A good example of this is public transport in emerging economies; in Lima, one city part of the ICD project, the majority of public transport is informal (Source). For example in Lima, you can be a taxi driver by adding illuminated signs to your car with the word TAXI and voilà! This is ‘very similar’ to the process that taxi drivers go through here in London to get a license.

Secondly, informality is a consequence of how society integrates innovation into the mainstream. Let’s think about the theme of collaborative consumption: AirBnB (the international peer to peer accommodation online service) has taken bookings for five million nights across 192 countries in less than four years – an amazing level of growth. However, how all these P2P transactions are made goes beyond control international regulations.

If the informal sector is a building block to formality, what’s the role of new technologies that are expanding and growing alternative economical exchange like collaborative consumption?

These two different ways of adopting informality generate many questions such as; how to provide safe, efficient and sustainable mobility in a city? And at the same time include current actors in the transformation? And the second is AirBnB or collaborative consumption changing the perception of trust in the internet between strangers? What will the next steps be for international regulations for rapidly growing collaborative consumption?

What springs to mind when you think of the concept of informal economy or when was the last time you interacted with informality? Do you think of the black market, the shared economy, freecycling or kickstarter? I think of my grandparents’ work life. We are all ears.

Informal sector boundaries are very fuzzy and in some cases are deeply embedded in the cultural DNA of society; they are so much part of everyday life in some countries, it makes them nearly invisible for their habitants.

We are looking forward to sharing what we’ve been learning over the past few months.  Join in the conversation on Twitter by following the #InformalCity hashtag.