India won the Cricket World Cup on Saturday night, momentous news for a country that hasn’t seen a cricket victory of this kind in 27 years. As my flight into Mumbai neared the city that night, the pilot kindly updated us on runs, balls and wickets every 20-30 minutes. Before we landed, the pilot proclaimed India victorious and the crew poured guests champagne.
Indians love cricket, and it manages to unite the country’s 1.2 billion people across socio-economic lines. In my cab from the airport, I passed dance parties on the edges of shanty towns, buses topped with cheering fans, motorcycles triple-stacked with boys waving flags, teenagers hanging out of BMW windows.
The city attracts all kinds – from ambitious young entrepreneurs and Western-educated Indians returning to their “mother country,” to burned-out farmers and village kids looking for a leg up. In fact, many of us find ourselves inexplicably drawn to cities; we are attracted to the incalculable velocity of their people and ideas.
In recent years, cities in developing countries have enticed more and more rural poor, in particular, who are giving up village life to head to the city. What happens to the poor once they arrive in these urban meccas? How do they manage in this new environment? What happens to our cities as their populations expand?
I’m here in Mumbai to explore these questions at a convening called Future of the Urban Poor, hosted by Intellecap (where I worked before I joined SustainAbility), with support from the Rockefeller Foundation.
This meeting – five days, twenty-five development researchers, and a handful of scenario planners – caps 18 months of research on developments and trends related to the urban poor in countries around the world (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, Kenya, Nigeria, Peru to name a few).
The goal of this intensive research initiative, one of the Rockefeller Foundation’s focus areas, is to better understand the lives of the urban poor, and more specifically, how they, our communities, and our cities, will be affected in the near and long-term future. We hope that our research will enlighten the world to sustainable solutions to urban poverty.
In between workshops and discussions this week, we will visit several social entrepreneurs in the field who focus on some aspect of urban poverty – from incremental housing projects to health clinics and innovation in education. We will also visit residents and businesses in Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Asia, a place where entrepreneurial energy bubbles from the bottom up.
That effervescent energy, a desire for upward mobility, is hard to miss here in Mumbai – even my taxi driver has latched on to the idea that his future in the city holds promise. During the ride from the airport, his cell phone rang. As is typical of many young urban Indians now, he had a pop song as his ring tone. It audaciously cut into our conversation and sang out the chorus of hip-hop artist Travie McCoy’s hit song: “I want to be a billionaire, so *freaking* bad”.
Given that India has 55 billionaires already, a list that is quickly growing, I’m not sure that it we needs anymore. Rather, what we need is better distributed wealth, not wealth concentrated in the hands of a few dozen. It is not surprising that this young man – one of the many that has come from outside the city to improve his station – relates to the song’s catchy lyrics. However, not only is becoming a billionaire an unlikely goal, it’s missing the point.
While cities can certainly contribute to wealth creation for individuals, balanced wealth is more desirable; it creates more stable communities and sustainable cities. Unfortunately, many of Asia’s mega-cities struggle with widening inequality as the poor still lack access to basic infrastructure and services.
Cities hold both promise and peril, opportunity and obstacles. They will continue to draw all types, including the poor. Acknowledging this and planning accordingly will be crucial to our future. Mumbai serves as a fantastic incubator to share ideas and knowledge about innovations in this space, and I look forward to sharing key takeaways this week from the convening on the Future of the Urban Poor.
Now, off to go figure out what a wicket is.
Note: The opinions and views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Rockefeller Foundation.