14 May 2011

The Burning Platform of our Development Challenges

Nokia CEO Stephen Elop’s recent internal memo to his company begins with a story of a man on the platform of a burning oil rig in the North Sea. The man decides to take his chances and jump. In ordinary circumstances, no one would elect to jump into freezing water. But, as Elop explains, the man was not facing ordinary circumstances: The burning platform led to a change in the man’s thinking.

Nokia was the giant in the mobile phone business not five years ago, but has been overtaken by Apple and Android technology and is being undercut by Chinese OEMs that, as Elsop writes, “crank out devices” in “the time it takes us to polish a PowerPoint presentation.”

The “burning platform” memo has become an instant management classic. According to Chris Zeigler in Engadget, a leading industry technology site, “it is one of the most exciting and interesting CEO memos we’ve ever seen.” In the memo, Elop likens Nokia’s position in the market as standing on a burning platform. And he draws attention to why it is necessary for the company to make a radical shift away from the practices that got it to where it was.

The state of our cities is a burning platform and there is an immediate need for reform and shift from the practices that got us to where we are today.

Why are cities important? About 35 percent of Pakistan lives in its urban areas. These urban areas account for nearly 80 percent of GDP yet constitute no more than 3 percent of the country’s overall land mass.

The state of these urban areas is abysmal. In the Punjab, the most populous province, it is estimated that nearly 50 percent of urban residents live in slums or katchi abadis. In Karachi, some argue that almost 70 percent of the people live in slums. One can be forgiven for not noticing: In Lahore, for example, the sprawl is well camouflaged. One third of the city takes up 90 percent of its land mass and one would have to go out of their way to see the conditions the other two-thirds live in. And it’s summer.

The potential of our cities is enormous. If one considers the contribution to the GDP from urban areas, imagine what the economy would be like if cities were more, for lack of a better word, efficient. Imagine how productive our cities would be if their people were allowed to reach their potential.

How can this be done? There are literally hundreds of ways. Mobility is one. Take Lahore, for example. In a city of nearly 10 million, the preliminary report of the ongoing JICA/Government of Punjab Urban Transit Master Plan study reveals that there are, on average, some 9.6 million “trips” a day (a trip is any movement, in whatever mode, which is at least 200 meters). This is an unusually low number for a city the size of Lahore and points to the fact that, because we don’t have public transport and appear to have developed an equally unusual view on the probity of women in public spaces, women are rendered effectively immobile – a violation of one’s Fundamental Right to mobility. Imagine what could happen if safe and respectable options of mobility allowed women to participate in the social and economic life of the city. Imagine what could happen if great public transport erased this prejudice about women in public space. But beyond giving, literally, half the work-force the opportunity to go to work, mobility in cities is crucial for the very reason it allows humans the opportunity and interaction that make cities the unique places of culture and trade that they are today.

Last year, the Planning Commission set up a Task Force on Urban Development under the Chairpersonship of Arif Hasan. Its terms of reference were to see how cities could be made more efficient. The Task Force made three broad recommendations: (1) Amend those urban laws, byelaws and polices that freeze up vast swathes of real estate capital so that land use can freely respond to demand; (2) Promote high-density mixed use city centres; and (3) Ensure public transport provides the human capital in our cities the connectivity, mobility and accessibility they require. In other words, enforce city limits, free up the real-estate capital that’s dormant under old laws and archaic policies and let a well-connected populace do the rest.

The Task Force’s report, which was announced in February of this year (and which hasn’t, unfortunately, seen much of the light of day) was submitted to the Planning Commission and has, in turn, been incorporated it into its new Framework for Economic Growth under the chapter titled “Creative Cities”.

The new Framework is an upgrade of Pakistan’s 10-Year-Plan approach to economic development. The previous platform was a relic of the 1950s whose approach to urban issues was framed in a Pakistan where there was little urbanization. Back then, Pakistan was a rural society with an agricultural economy. According to this world view, the problems of cities – housing, sanitation, employment opportunities, educational institutions, healthcare and recreational facilities – could be solved by providing the necessary infrastructure. According to Muhammad Imran, a transport planning specialist, this paradigm eventually became “path dependent” on your typical investments in hard, grey infrastructure (overpasses, underpasses, ring roads and the like) rather than on investment in green infrastructure (sewage treatment, water filtration) or social capital. This world view has also been taken by Pakistani planners as a means of absorbing millions of consultancy dollars while maintaining, as best as possible, the status quo.

Following the traditional approach to cities is no longer feasible. The current state of and challenges facing Pakistanis living in cities is critical. The traditional approach has been the medicine that’s been tried so far and it is what has gotten us to where we stand today. Our cities, their people and the role they play in the national economy are now complex issues that require innovative and forward thinking policies. The traditional approach has, to use CEO Elsop’s words, “poured gasoline on our own burning platform.”

The new growth strategy understands this and represents a radical shift in how planning in Pakistan – and not just urban planning – is considered. When it comes to cities, the new growth strategy recognizes, at its essence, that cities are places of human interaction; places where people can interact, share ideas and, by doing so, unlock their economic potential. This is just the type of radical thinking that can kick start a new growth process. It’s time for our cities to jump off their burning platform and into a new paradigm of development.