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Resilience—What Does This Buzzword Really Mean?

Over the past few years, resilience has emerged as a buzzword in the global development sector. The United Nations defines it as the ability to withstand unexpected events and quickly recover, while the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) initiative looks at both the unanticipated shocks and the continuous stresses that weaken cities. Meanwhile, the government of India sees resilience as a key component of its Smart Cities Challenge, which aims to “[help] cities get smarter, faster.” What, then, does resilience mean in the context of the world’s developing economies?

Aga Khan Award-winning architect Himanshu Parikh argues that the traditional “poverty and aid” model is increasingly obsolete due to limited uptake of solutions that do not reflect end-users’ needs. Working across India, Parikh sees integrated sanitation services as a vital tool for urban development, especially in the context of the smart and resilient communities envisioned by the Rockefeller Foundation and others. Based on a similar premise, ELEMENTAL’s half house—piloted in Chile and scaled throughout Latin America—gives families the tools to upgrade their homes into middle class dwellings as their income levels rise. These examples align with FSG’s Inclusive Markets approach, a growing practice that identifies areas where seed aid can catalyze and scale business models to address specific social issues, while keeping the consumer at the center.

Tapping into the latent wealth of communities ensures that solutions are empowering and sustainable, and therefore resilient. In this manner, Professor Parikh’s integrated model uses sanitation as a catalyst for urban regeneration. Interventions go beyond immediate access to water and sewage disposal, and incorporate elements of urban design such as paved roads, planted sidewalks and street lighting. A revamped neighborhood encourages residents to invest in home improvement: from façade paint to better building materials and additional stories. Over time, sanitation acts as a proxy for urban upgrading, resulting in full-scale area redevelopments that do not require continued donor money. Mr. Parikh’s project in Ahmedabad, for instance, was financed through a combination of community, government and business funding. Yet investments beyond the initial intervention happened solely at the hands of homeowners.

ELEMENTAL’s half house also sees donor funding as seed capital for sustained independent growth, and adds a consumer lens to maximize impact. Pritzker Prize Winner and ELEMENTAL co-founder Alejandro Aravena explains that instead of designing cookie-cutter affordable housing blocks, their innovative model uses government or philanthropic funds to build “half a good house”—one that owners can progressively build upon and improve over time. Catering to consumer needs, identified through direct engagement and participatory design, the half house’s basic module includes structural walls, plumbing and electrical fixtures. Families thus have the freedom to expand the units as their ambitions and means evolve. The shift in focus—from low-income housing to aspirational homes—increases the community’s sense of ownership as residents willingly self-finance the enhancement of their homes.

Similar to Mr. Parikh’s and ELEMENTAL’s projects, our work devises business solutions that benefit end users while remaining attractive value propositions for intermediaries and other stakeholders. Whether in cities or in rural areas, “smart” solutions revolve around catalysts that instigate further change. Resilience involves creating innovative models that acknowledge and work within existing market conditions; alternatives that work beyond charitable aid. We must identify the latent wealth of resources that lies in the communities we work with, and capitalize on it to ensure long lasting change. As we expand our Inclusive Markets work in South Asia and in South America, we can take valuable lessons from these local examples of resilient development to devise models that stimulate scalable, sustainable change.

Learn more about FSG’s Inclusive Markets work > 

Laura Amaya

Former Associate Director