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The Collaborative Urban Resilience Exchange: lessons on informal settlement data and partnership building

The Collaborative Urban Resilience Exchange took place in Cape Town, from 16–18th July 2018, as part of a collaboration between Slum Dwellers International (SDI), 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) and Itad. In this blog, discover lessons on informal settlement data, community knowledge and partnership strengthening.


After a three-day learning exchange focused on city resilience, urban development planning and informal settlement upgrading, what have we learnt about informal settlement data, community knowledge and partnership strengthening?

The Collaborative Urban Resilience Exchange took place in Cape Town, from 16–18th July 2018, as part of a collaboration between Slum Dwellers International (SDI), 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) and Itad. The exchange brought together community leaders and city officials with the aim to facilitate learning between SDI-affiliated community organisations (affiliates) and support NGOs (*full details below) with city representatives from Accra, Cape Town and Durban, by promoting data sharing and emphasising the importance of partnership between informal communities and cities. If participants could identify critical entry points and barriers to community-government partnerships, then this could offer practical guidance to inform approaches in other cities determined to enhance urban equity.

Overall, when encouraging city resilience planners to acknowledge the needs of both cities and informal communities through data sharing and improving collaborations, we learnt that change is possible, but the process is far from easy. Discussions between participants on entry points and pathways to change revealed three important themes, listed below.

Building resilience in the context of informality: exploring community-led solutions to address community priorities in Cape Town (photo credit: Vicky Sword-Daniels, Itad).

High-quality data is effective but not sufficient as an entry point for change

Simply handing data over isn’t enough: this is unlikely to result in invitations to discuss issues with city officials for a number of reasons, such as how data competes with a variety of sources of information, often conflicting – who is to say which source is most accurate, most representative or most valid? Likewise, who are the ‘right’ groups for cities to engage with to ensure legitimacy among diverse communities? These are the sorts of questions raised when cities receive data from unfamiliar sources. Of course, high risks remain for cities if they use data without understanding its legitimacy: they may face protests, damage to facilities and a continued lack of knowledge about who has authority within communities to represent needs.

Possible solutions to this include encouraging exposure visits and promoting the participation of cities in data gathering, which helps to build experience in jointly collecting data and demonstrates the data’s methodology and representativeness. Improving preparation can also enhance the data’s relevance for addressing priority issues, as well as the overall readiness to share this information with city officials.

Yet, data alone cannot incentivise further engagement. In the words of the Accra affiliates: “information is power, but only if you know how to use it“. So, how can this understanding be deepened and harmonised across all parties?

Engagement and dialogue is key

Firstly, the conditions have to be right, with both informal communities and cities truly ready for change: communities need to be mobilised, organised and informed about issues that affect them, and city individuals or departments have to be mandated or willing to address issues of informality.

It’s also important not to neglect contextual factors that, if properly recognised, can help to encourage change. Frequently encountered examples include:

  • The awareness and need to address the lack of data about informal settlements and knowledge about their constituents.
  • The specific needs of communities: often critical, these have to be addressed for communities to successfully confront the challenges of informality in rapidly growing cities. Chiefly, these include gaining access to basic services, adequate sanitation and decent housing, in addition to improving unsafe neighbourhoods that suffer from crime and the exploitation of the most vulnerable.
  • Resilience planning processes: those that require inclusion can create conditions for changes and a willingness to engage. For example, the City Resilience Strategy offers a definitive process for facilitating collaboration and engagement, alongside a tangible deliverable that can be co-created and used to inform future collaborations. Similarly, the Chief Resilience Officer, a new position in city government, can act as a dedicated point-person to support this process, regular engagement and ongoing dialogue.
  • The institutionalisation of community-government partnerships: if avoided, this can become a pervasive barrier to transformative change as partnerships and relationships based on individual champions fail to last beyond the tenure of those individuals. In city governments with a high turnover of officials or staff, politics can shift incentives for collaboration meaning that communities and officials may need to repeat the cycle of trust building.
  • New international frameworks: targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals and New Urban Agenda can create higher-level incentives to promote participation and develop locally-led solutions.

Here, the pathway to opening up spaces for further dialogue with city officials relies on demonstrating knowledge beyond the data. By this, we mean it is vital to include communities in discussions to articulate challenges, understand local priority issues and reinforce the value of community leadership and mobilisation. This is a long-term process to cultivate continued engagement and a willingness to find shared solutions, which can happen faster or slower depending on the context, organisational culture and incentives for change.

Real change is possible, but sustaining relationships is the real challenge

Discussions must be followed by action: if visible changes on the ground follow directly from engagement with informal communities, local officials can gain their trust and develop closer relationships. For instance, in Accra, dialogues with cities, affiliates and community leaders to articulate challenges and find locally-acceptable solutions materialised with changes. These included welcome changes in markets to demarcate areas for vendors to avoid encroachment and improve access, as well as changes in frequency and commitment to rubbish collection.

Crucially, these material changes can only occur if all sides engage honestly and openly about what is possible. This is especially true since broken promises are not easily forgotten and often erode trust in both the cities and affiliate groups representing communities, which can undermine careful progress. Since reaching communities can take many years, community expectations should, therefore, be carefully managed by everybody involved.

It’s here that a willingness to find solutions that meet both community and city needs becomes a vital ingredient. For example, in Accra, dialogue and negotiation between cities and affiliates to find mutually-acceptable solutions resulted in joint community-city demolition of some illegal electricity infrastructure, and improved access to an informal settlement by widening existing roads (rather than demolishing homes to create new ones).

However, whilst working together can gradually strengthen partnerships, progress may still be upset by political change. On occasions where politics has challenged the growth of progressive relationships between different affiliates and city officials, affiliates have discovered the importance of building relationships more widely across city administrative departments. Through persistence, patience and collaborative mindsets, affiliates can reach beyond city resilience planning officers and processes to other development planning opportunities to better institutionalise relationships. In Cape Town for example, affiliates successfully nurtured a relationship over several years with the Department of Human Settlements, based on continued dialogue on specific issues and collaboration. This has improved mutual understanding and trust, and led to joint implementation of infrastructure projects in informal settlements.

Another challenge arises when finances expire in resource-poor contexts: how to best maintain these partnerships? As dedicated funds can pay for transport costs, as well as spaces to convene and discuss issues, new challenges arise without this funding. In some cases, funding will likely be taken away from other activities. So, innovation efforts should focus on ways to leverage existing partnerships in order to sustain interest and efforts.


Overall it is possible to build collaborations between cities and informal communities that achieve joint goals and real change for communities. Attitudes towards each other have improved and the next steps are planned in Accra, Cape Town and Durban, which highlights the potential to build a better future. These cities show that a shift to more inclusive resilience and development planning is achievable, but one question remains: will change last? To fully understand our progress to-date, we’ll need to know if these collaborations will continue to lead to fruit-bearing, material actions in the communities. This could take time – for now, we’ll have to wait and see.


*List of SDI-affiliated community organisations (affiliates):


Ghana Federation of the Urban Poor (GHAFUP)

Support NGO: People’s Dialogue on Human Settlements (PD)


Cape Town:

Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDUP)

Informal Settlement Network (ISN)

Utshani Fund: Federation Urban Poor Fund

Support NGO: Community Organisation Resource Centre (CORC)


For more information, including a breakdown of talking points from the exchange and further details on urban resilience as a practical framework for improving community-city collaboration, see articles from Itad’s partners:

SDI: The Collaborative Urban Resilience Exchange: How KYC data & partnerships support more inclusive development outcomes

100RC: A New Kind of Collaboration: Using Community-Generated Data to Build Urban Resilience