Shock of the New. The Search for Resilient Outcomes

In a world that is becoming depressingly accustomed to shocks, 2020 stands as an outlier. COVID-19 is often referred to in the media as a ‘once-in-a-century pandemic’ but the scientific community is increasing looking at it as a taste of things to come, as climate change and unsustainable human development increase the risk of future zoonoses and reverse zoonoses

In light of the sustainable development theme of the UN Habitat World Cities Report 2020, The Citymaker spoke to Uta Dietrich, Think City’s lead for Social Resilience and Urban Health, about the need for a sustainable, people-focused urbanisation that fosters social resilience and builds the kinds of dynamic systems that allow communities to absorb and bounce back from shocks. And we explore some of the practical measures that communities can take to deal with external stresses and shocks and to look at some of the ways that technology is allowing Think City to explore different approaches to its social resilience programmes.

What are some of the key resilience-based programmes that Think City operates?

Uta Dietrich: In terms of social resilience, the programmes that Think City has started around building a portfolio of social resilience, are focusing around public housing and people in public housing. So the Kita2Kita programme is one of those. It uses a digital platform as a two-way communication, engaging with B40 communities that are living in high-rise flats.

It’s still in development. We are in the midst of a pilot in three housing estates (PPR Kota Damasara, PPR Kampung Baru Hicom, Desa Mentari, all in the Klang Valley), but we are looking at how can we expand this pilot into other areas and add on other programs. [The next question] is; how can we scale this program by providing more extensive services, and expand it geographically? Then there can be other other add-ons. Recently in Penang, we launched a demonstrative urban farm (Kebun Kitar). This is a farm which is a closed-circuit loop, growing vegetables, hydroponically. Our prototype model is located [on land] at the Digital Library in Penang and we are looking for opportunities to scale it, and have already been approached by a number of organisations.

How do you link or integrate projects like this with public housing?

Uta Dietrich: We started really only around a year ago with actual interventions in public housing. But to get the maximum impact, it is really a layering of interventions. If we just have the digital app, that may not appeal or be accessible to everybody. [For example] urban agriculture may not be something that everybody wants to be engaged in. Maybe there are other opportunities to connect communities? 

We’ve been looking at something called a social credit system. If you think about it in [the context of] of time banking; someone offers a service to a neighbour but this neighbour doesn’t pay. [Instead] you get a credit that can then be redeemed for something else. So all these systems and ideas are in the making and need to be layered on top of each other, so that there is something for everybody in these communities and we get cross-synergies between these programmes that make them more effective. 

My own background is in health promotion and we know that a simple education campaign is not effective. The more variety [in the] interventions and [the more] we layer them on top of each other, the more impact, both short-term and long-term, can be achieved. And with that, we also need to refine our impact indicators so that we can assess whether this approach is making a difference to the community.

How do you make those assessments or determine the level of existing resilience in a community?

Uta Dietrich: Measuring resilience is an area that is greatly in development. There are a lot of resilience measures internationally that can be used. Most of them look at it not so much at a neighbourhood level but more at a city at eye level, top-down approach, looking at some of the standard data that is collected at city at eye level already. At Think City, we’ve been looking at how we can find different ways of including a community voice and local community data and combine that with [the kind of] city-wide or local-wide data that is collected routinely already. 

It’s actually a piece of research work that Think City is undertaking at the moment. The usual process when we go into communities is that we do a community assessment. This would usually mean that we have developed a survey tool to measures normal demographic questions along with questions tailored to the issue that we’re trying to research and measure. 

How has the current pandemic changed the way you approach these assessments?

Uta Dietrich: Normally,  you take a group of researchers or data collectors and you move from flat to flat. At the moment, under the Movement Control Order (MCO) this is not really a good idea. So, we have looked at how can we use this as an opportunity to see whether digitising this process using a digital platform would work. Think City developed an app (K2K) that can collect this data and engage with [targeted] communities. We ask them to complete a survey and in return, we can offer the community some incentives via the app. 

One of the biggest [obstacles] when we first proposed this, was the comment that you’re talking to B40 communities, so they don’t have mobile smartphones to use apps; and what we actually found is that that is not the case: 99% of households have at least one smartphone, over 50% have two smartphones. Issues we faced were things like [access to] fast and stable Wi-Fi. If you’re collecting the survey and the site Wi-Fi link breaks, you have to start again. When we talked to them, people were quite happy to answer the questions. So that was really an affirmation that digital data collection is possible, but requires some incentive for the community in terms of some bantuan [help]. 

Do you see this digital approach as a long-term solution?

Uta Dietrich: Building on that, maybe the way to go to look forward as this pandemic continues, is [to ask] how we can build on digital platform like this to engage with communities in more detail. So this is not a one-way road of asking questions of the community, but a flow of information, jobs, programmes and maybe aid in various ways or goods at below-cost to the community. Digital infrastructure that can be developed to connect the community with partners, with aid, with jobs, with goods.

At the moment we’re looking at how this could be developed in a way that’s very user-friendly and handy. This links to another issue that seems to be widening very quickly in this pandemic, and that is the digital divide. We can see that every day. Every day if we go shopping, if we go to a store, everywhere we go, we now need to scan a QR code. The tighter the lockdown, the more we have to do online shopping. So working on a digital level, using the smartphone on a regular basis, as more a day-to-day way of operating and hence, increasing digital literacy and helping to reduce the gap of this widening digital divide.

You mentioned indicators; what would the results of these kind of initiatives and surveys look like?

Uta Dietrich: One way of measuring results in a community is through research tools. So if we do quantitative research, like surveys and the like, we get a picture but it’s a picture for an entire community and if we see a shift, then that can be very rewarding. But I think we need to always complement this type of research with qualitative research.

When [you] see families connecting with each other; when people are telling us their life story of how something has changed for them on the ground, I think this personal connection is critical and it is also a way of illustrating those often more dull, numeric research results. The personal stories bring them to life. There may be another component to that, in observing how communities have changed. When we go into a community, often we see that the public spaces are not very well-utilised. But if, [after implementation], we see people gathering and we see parts of communities that have previously not spoken to each other and are now working together, that I think is something that illustrates and showcases the difference that has been made.

How do you ensure that this digital divide is bridged and you don’t simply replace one form of discrimination for another?

Uta Dietrich: I think there are two aspects to that. [As I mentioned], one is making good quality Wi-Fi freely available. I think that is very much an enabling factor. If the digital platform is providing what the community is looking for, then people will utilise it more, and by using, you’re learning. So it’s like an active learning approach.

But coming back to the B40 communities in the high-rise buildings, what we found is that only 2% use online shopping. Most of them go to neighbouring [shops]; but living together in a high-rise block provides a great opportunity for bulk-buying. So if something like an app can facilitate groups of people ordering bulk together, then the foundation is that we create the platform to order. The other part is the trust between community members that we need to build; that they trust each other to purchase things together bulk, online. And one way [household income] can be stretched is if these discounts from bulk-buying are available.

When we undertake social resilience projects, it’s important that we have some sort of equity-lens on our projects. Like a doctor who’s obliged not to do harm, we have to make sure that we are benefiting everybody and, in the UN’s terms, ‘not leaving anybody behind’. It has to be a conscious process to make sure that everybody has an opportunity and that those that are most vulnerable get some additional support, so that they can participate in an equal way.

You can find out more about Think City’s programmes at

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