Interview with Aditya Kumar
November 03, 2017
What was the turning point in your life that directed your interest towards the field you work in?
When I finished studying architecture, I started working like any other architect at small private practice and I got frustrated by doing bourgeoisie houses. My biggest turning point at that point was, the company asked me go and select tiling for toilets for the house which has seven toilets in it. I literally spent a week just looking at the tiles. I was just so fed up, I said, I cannot possibly do this, this is just impossible. I remember, I wrote on my notepad „this job absolutely sucks, I never want to work in this company ever, if this is what I have to do.“ It so happened that the directors who ran the company saw my notepad open one day and they read what I’ve written on it. In the end, it was really good, it initiated an open transfer and discussion where I could say, „look, this is really horrible what we are doing and it does not interest me at all.“ They responded, „why don’t you think outside the box, let’s do some competitions related to informality,“ so I started getting involved in this.
So, they initiated this?
No, they just said, „if you’re interested in this, let’s start looking at a different practice, you don’t need to do just private houses and alike, if you are interested in exploring different ideas.“ At a certain point, once I left them, about a year later an opportunity came up to work in a post-disaster context. I went to them and I told them, „this is it, guys. You have to give me a chance to do this.“ They literally just said, „okay, it’s fine, you go to rural India, and you’ll stay there, and you’ll manage a project for us of 2000 houses.“ That was my first experience, I had barely built a house before this and I was suddenly in charge of building 2000 houses in a post-disaster situation. That was quite a challenging experience. I was there alone for the first four months to set up the project. I was 23 years old, never poured a concrete slab in my whole life. I had no idea about how to work with communities. But I figured it out.
That comes to our second question: can you tell us about a challenge that you faced in your career and how that shaped your carrier?
The people I was working with, the company that I was working with, they were always saying that, age doesn’t matter, you can do whatever it takes, it’s not about experience in age, you have to have the interest and the ability to learn quickly, and you’ll be able to manage. I think, I made huge mistakes in that process. There was a lot of romanticism that time about participatory planning and design, empowerment, and local labels. I was very obsessed with that, and actually I didn’t understand grassroots politics well enough. That caused a lot of unnecessary dynamics to a degree where I realized that people from the team I worked with got threatened, had to run away for a few days, go hide somewhere, then come back, and then had to got rid of the contract which got us into major conflict. It was a big mess. And part of the mess was caused by me, by not being able to understand how the dynamics at the local level work. Particularly when international NGOs being there, and government being there, there are a lot of things you don’t pay attention to, from an architectural perspective, which I had to learn it the tough way.
That is once you were aware of the governance dynamics and the political dynamics that shape the process.
I was going through it very naively. For those four months, I didn’t have to cook, I didn’t have to do anything, everyday people were saying, „you left everything in a big city and now you’re here with us, in the middle of nowhere, in a desert, there is no water here, there is nothing here, and you’re willing to stay with us“. Everyday I was getting invited to everybody’s houses to eat. That was just relaxed, and I was enjoying myself while learning from people. But that was a big mistake. You can’t mix business and pleasure in that field. Sadly, this is a kind of thing which is not such a nice lesson that I learned, that you can’t get too close with the people that you work with and work for in these processes, especially because then it starts to get into the dynamics of favoritism, „why is he open to them, why is he not open to us, why is he engaging with them?“ So, all that kind of stuff, you then find difficult to engage in and work around.
You experienced the dynamics in India and South Africa. Did you feel that your experiences were quite transferrable between the two contexts?
In South Africa the governance context is obviously very different and it was much more helpful to have that experience in the back of my head. Also, I think I learned to be quite firm with the communities as much as to be firm with the government, for instance not to take nonsense from community representatives. Very often they portray a picture of circumstances that are not even true. Then I must respond, „don’t give me nonsense. If you want to talk reality let’s talk reality but don’t give me data that is half-vague or half-biased.“ I think that kind of accountability brought towards not only top structures but also community structures, which helped a lot in the processes that I was working in.
Can you tell us about the recent projects that you’re working on right now and what kind of outcomes are you expecting to get from them?
One of the two very exciting things that we are doing right now, is that we’re doing a lot of work with small-scale contractors. These are the contractors and builders that are registered companies, but because of the apartheid system, they have never actually been able to compete in the mainstream commercial market. In fact, their capacity and skill levels are so low, that they are just functioning as brokers. These small contractors play the role of little brokers and bulky builders going around with a car of stock with shovels, and that’s it. We’ve been doing a lot of work with them in the last four years. What that demonstrated is that a lot of these small-scale entrepreneurs are the real engines of change, they have the capacity of leveraging resources quite quickly from their own networks and building housing stock. In fact, it’s starting to move to the direction where I’m almost thinking we don’t need government, we can actually work with small-scale entrepreneurs, find relevant financing institutions that can finance them to build stock rather than waiting for government to develop. The second that links to that is that we’re quite focused on rental housing at the moment. We’re looking at how to do rental housing as a way of providing to South Africa’s very youthful demography. The population has average of 29 years old and most of these youngsters are not interested in ownership just yet, but more interested in cheap rentals, which are safe, secure, central, well-located. We’re working on a piece of land that we own very close to central Khayelitsha. The idea is to develop 60 to 80 rental units that the small scale contractors to demonstrate what can be done at the low-cost housing space. Not as an ownership model which could be very provocative in South African context, that’s very unique because there isn’t that much rental accommodation being built. It’s currently mostly low-cost ownership. That’s why it’s very exciting. And also to get to work with big investment funds, like conventional commercial banks, which I’ve never engaged with before. But to be able to sell this idea to investors and to say, „you’re investing in the wrong place, if you’re investing in the big development companies and not in the small-scale contractors, you’re missing a huge 60 per cent of the population who lives in the informal sector. If you’re not willing to invest on this sector, you’re actually missing the point of where the real growth is going to happen in the economy in the next 20 years.“
Do you go to these institutions with a research to show them?
I absolutely go with nothing. I literally go to talk and negotiate with them to say that this has nothing to do with data, as I cannot give them more data. They have all the data, they have all the stats, they have property market data better than I do. But what we are trying is to be able to convince another party, not just on the basis of data but on the basis of looking at the confidence and passion why people would believe from their self interest that this would actually work. All the simplest market cases usually take one piece of data. I don’t look at extensive market data. The only piece of data that I was looking for was that, the per square meter rental data for the inner city and the township is exactly the same. And if you just say that, they say, „it’s not possible. How is it possible that people are paying 200 euros per square meter in the inner city but they are also paying the same amount in informal settlements“ But, it’s a fact. Through that gives you the leverage to say, „if this is happening in this market, you’re missing out the opportunity to being able to develop here by not investing on it. Because your finance can build more units in shorter time. If you’re speaking of 200 buildings in 3 years, you could go up to 1000 buildings in the next 3 years, if you make the finance available.“
So, you’re moving in between of social movement and governance, trying to find a solution.
Absolutely. What we’ve done in the organization is diversifying and creating a separate arm because Development Action Group (DAG) is a very advocacy-based organization. We’re creating non-profit property development, establishing a new company with a completely different board and different governance structure in order to do property development and share examples where DAG wouldn’t go. DAG wouldn’t necessarily go and engage with private banks. But another arm could do it. So, again, it goes back to some of the governance issues such as how you manage one organization and then you create a separate entity to do this kind of work. The point is, in many of these countries, things are stuck. Nobody knows who should move. Government is stuck in legislation and policy, communities are stuck as they’re waiting for somebody else to come and solve their problems, NGOs are dependent on financial resources so they might not really be able to make a big-scale impact.
Although everyone is pretty much stuck, urbanization is quite a rapid process. How can you encourage investment in more impoverished parts of cities, but at the same time keep in mind that people are already living there? It is quite a fine line to walk, what do you think is the solution?
For me, the only solution we are providing at the moment is playing the role of a broker: somebody who connects disjointed dots and puts them together. We work with the informal settlements, work with their capacity, bring them to a point where we say, „are you ready to engage with small-scale developers, who can access finance?“ If they are ready to do that, we prepare options for them to develop. I think, the point is to find the disjointed actors, and connect them in a story in some ways. One of the things we are thinking quite seriously about for the next year is to set up a whole construction unit that just goes around and builds in informal settlements basic services with these small-scale contractors. Because people are sick and tired of waiting, as well. That’s where the limitations of right to the space movements also appear, they don’t want to spend time on how the budget is spent or how to hold the state accountant. They want action, they want to get out of this space. That’s my experience with a lot of community members. They say, „you have to make things work, otherwise don’t keep coming back with more dialogs or capacity building workshops.“
Now, South Africa. What’s next?
Ideally, it could be Uganda or Nairobi, just because there are some incredible things going on there, not with the UN system but just outside of the UN system, there are very good organizations in Uganda and Kenya which are very exciting. I’ve never been to Latin America, so that’s high on the agenda to go and visit some of the countries and cities there.
How does transdisciplinarity fit into your work?
When you’re working at the informal settlements, you’re a little bit of everything at the same time but you don’t specialize in anything. I’ve never been trained to do community organizing work, to build work with community in leadership structures and building capacity and so on. But over the years I’ve picked up some skills that would work for community organizing. There is a lot of engineering stuff, too. I do use quite a lot of university resources into the debates whenever it’s needed, and universities are usually quite keen. For example, on this rental accommodation project students from construction economics went and did a market research in townships, to understand what the market is doing. A lot of the practice that I am involved in is all about transdisciplinarity. Because you have to look at different sectors, to find what sector is going to give you momentum and which kind of trajectory to take. In one of the projects, we made a basic services project—community drains, community finds rocks and stones and builds this very simple drainage system to drain rainwater out of the settlement. When we engaged with the academics they said, „no, this is not basic services, this is adaptation, you should talk about climate change adaptation, and you can probably talk about it from a different lens.“ This is also why I am kind of in between. I switched from informal settlement upgrading to climate change organization in where I used to work as an Indian affiliate—which a is a horrible place to work, the worst nightmare NGO that you can ever imagine. But I think that was the point, to be able to connect the climate agenda, they city agenda, the informality agenda through different pieces of work.
Do you have any lessons or advices to give us?
I guess the biggest advice would be to question everything. All of the work we’ve done, including some of the understanding of how government works, all of this is based on the fact that you don’t stop questioning the basic premise on which certain things work. Even, for instance, procurement, can be a breakup of the scope of work to smaller pieces of components, so that we don’t have to go through complicated procurement. There is always a way around things, it’s just that it becomes difficult to see some of these things. Once you get into them and once you start engaging with the detail, you have to ask some very basic questions. 5 billion people will be living in informality, in informal settlements. But if you flip that coin, 5 billion people are actually building our cities of tomorrow by building informal settlements, then you’re not thinking of them as poor and helpless people, instead you think of them as agents of change. Instead of thinking like Ananya Roy says how urbanization is screwing the world, if you start thinking of it from a different perspective and say, „no, these are the agents of change, these are the people who are building the cities of tomorrow,“ then you become less worried and you actually start thinking of action in a very different way, how we support the people who are building these informal settlements towards a particular agenda. In Cape Town right now is this big water crisis. The water crisis is such that they are expecting any water supply by March will be completely over, there is going to be no water left in the city. One of the first things about 8-9 months ago what the mayor said that there is so much water being pumped in the informal settlements and this is where the problem lies, because there is so much water wastage, there are pictures of taps open where water flooding out. 6 months later she released a press statement saying that actually informal settlements are making up 40 per cent of the Cape Town’s population and only consuming 5 per cent of the water. In a way, it was based on assumptions like, just because water is free in informal settlements, people are abusing water; whereas access to water is so limited. It took 6 months to realize this. I think these kinds of basic assumptions that very often need to be challenged. The affluent and the rich very often say that „they’re sucking up all the resources.“ They are actually not sucking up any of these resources. The state is investing very little in the poor, the services are very little, so actually the consumption of the poor from a capitalists system is very low compared to what the affluent and the rich consume. Therefore, you have to be very sharp. There is a very good video of Simon Sinek. You’ll see in the video that he talks about three circles. So, he sets the why, the what, and the how and he gives a few examples of Apple selling its computers. He says that Apple makes computers, Dell makes computers, Samsung makes computers; all of these companies make computers. Dell says, they make good computers, and people say, they make good computers, so let’s buy Dell computers. But Apple doesn’t tell you that they make good computers. What they tell you is that, the technology changes society, technology is the centerpiece of this world, and oh by the way, we also make computers, we also make flat screen TVs. So, they tell you the why. People don’t buy Apple products because they think Apple products are far superior than Dell products, they buy it because they believe in their own mind that Apple is the frontrunner of the technology. They are thinking actually much more beyond, they’re looking at the future. And if I am not part of it, then I am losing out. So, they are doing this out of self-interest, but the way Apple has shaped perceptions is that the shared perception is not on the basis of data, they made you believe that their products are so futuristic and so cool that you are willing to lining up thirsty when the iPhone 8 comes out. Because you think like I have to be cutting edge.
That reminds me of Slavoj Zizek, Slovenian philosopher and his talk about Starbucks in the same way. He says, we buy from Starbucks, we are willing to pay 2 euros more for a cup of coffee, than anywhere else, why is that? Because Starbucks tells you, when you’re a buying a cup of coffee, you’re contributing to a cause. And the coffee is a by-product of a cause that you are contributing to. They are selling coffee, you are buying coffee, but in your mind, you are doing good.
Exactly. It is very useful to understand how you convince people. You don’t convince people on the basis of your data. You give them a vision, you make them excited, you make them believe that they are part of this movement. People must feel that this is a movement. If you’re not part of it, you are actually going to be left behind. And where you’ll get real success, is when people believe that what they are fighting for, and what they are trying to get is their own, not because somebody else is forcing them.
What would be your advice then for the academics, as they quite rely on the research?
One of the things people like to talk about today is that, a lot of the work even before these student movements, for the last 6 years in South Africa we’ve been trying to change planning curriculum. Not just in South Africa but across 53 planning schools across the continent. There is the Association of African Planning Schools (AAPS) and we’ve been trying to influence them to see that actually planning education, for instance, has become very redundant. Because all they’re using is data, zoning, and everybody wants to design boulevards, and wide streets, and standards and so on. How do we shift that, so that the planning education becomes much more embedded in the local context? And that, sadly, is not really happening at the moment. Interestingly, a lot of known scholars in the Global South now starting to make the bridge saying that we need to make more southern theory. We need to build more theory that comes from the South which speaks to the logic that we’re already operating in our cities. There is a new book that’s been released by Gautam Bhan and Vanessa Watson which is supposed to be absolutely brilliant and mind-blowing in terms of how it talks about southern theory and how it breaks these norms. So, academics are also starting to make these arguments much more from a pragmatic perspective, but there is still a big gap around the ethics in the way which they use data and how they operate. But still, I think lots of academics are completely removed from the reality of what’s happening in this, there are some absolutely irritating academics, who say, „you’re sitting on a high horse, you don’t understand anything“. Of course, I cannot understand anything else, because if I am working with the community. It’s impossible to break out of their logic of thinking. It’s quite a conflictual relationship with academics. There has been some efforts to find different ways of engaging, some of that has worked well. Recently we’ve worked with Architecture Sans Frontières, that sits in DPU Development Planning Unit in London. We did a two-week studio in three areas, one in informal settlement and two in other urban areas. That was a disaster. The program was structured in a very extractive way, even though we tried to make it less extractive, it was set up as extractive. We just got sucked into these young architects who want to go out and play with black African kids and take their pictures, that would make you feel like you want to pull your hair out. This was not why they were there, not for taking pictures of kids playing on the street! So that kind of romanticism of academics, „oh, I’m here to fight informal settlements, and I’ve seen what’s going on, it’s all about tenure security.“ These broad strokes assumptions, „this is what it’s about and I get it, even though the 20 million people are suffering from this I don’t care this but it’s actually about this“. We shouldn’t be talking about these issues.
The World Bank report on African cities has exactly said that. Their recommendation was that it’s actually about land tenure.
That’s very contradictory. In Malawi, land tenure system is so hard to talk about because 90 per cent of the land is communal land tenure. There is chiefs and the chiefs have a register that manages land. Putting in zoning and putting in title deeds is just the stupidest idea ever. There is these huge contradictions happen when the formal system needs this informal system. And sometimes when it gets applied, all of a sudden you see that people blame that chiefs have been corrupted because suddenly their land is at stake. There is a good network in the UN-HABITAT called the GLTN (Global Land Tool Network). They have done some very interesting work on how you have to have a continuum of tenure rights. You can’t just stop title deed is only form of tenure right. You have to look communal tenure, you have to look at rental accommodation, ownership, cooperatives, you have to look at different kinds of tenure.