Learning through collective intelligence in Santo Domingo
Spatial governance, culture and waste management: learning through collective intelligence in Santo Domingo
January 20, 2021
Throughout the world, waste generation rates continue to increase in tandem with rapid urbanization, population growth, and economic development. As a World Bank study puts it, "growth in prosperity and movement to urban areas are linked to increases in per capita generation of waste". Although cities are the preeminent drivers of the economic, political, and socio-cultural life of nations, modern consumption patterns of urban lifestyles also pose significant environmental pressure, given the amount of waste produced to sustain it. Moreover, waste's ecological risks are greater for developing nations, where rapid urbanization and increments in consumption are seen as a catalyst for economic progress and a positive signal of social mobility.
As one of Latin America's best-performing economies, urbanization in the Dominican Republic (DR) has transformed the socioeconomic dynamics and facilitated poverty reduction. In this transition, however, appropriate solid waste management (SWM) has lagged economic progress. In the DR, SWM is precarious, underfunded, and environmentally unfriendly -- posing severe health risks. Most municipalities have no SWM regulation enforced as the legal framework has only just been recently been created. In addition, basic SWM services such as garbage collection and disposal are inconsistent and unsustainable.
For UNDP Dominican Republic and its accelerator lab, SWM is a pressing challenge, as it threatens sustainable human development and puts the health of the Dominican people at risk. Our initial questions investigated why collection services were different from one area to another. We also sought to learn who is responsible for the garbage polluting the city's main rivers; how is the urban governance articulated, why are some communities not serviced at all, and what is the role of households and individual practices.
Answering these questions required a more nuanced and novel approach. Our learning process was supported by Nesta's collective intelligence (CI) framework, defined as the result of "people work[ing] together, often with the help of technology, to mobilize a wider range of information, ideas, and insights to address a social challenge." In this instance, the participatory CI methodologies were applied specifically in two low-income neighborhoods of Santo Domingo.
This blog post is a summary and reflection of how CI guided this journey.
Solid waste management in Santo Domingo
The Greater Santo Domingo (GSD) area is the country's largest metropolitan conglomerate, comprising the nation's capital and other seven municipalities. Its urban geography consists of both developed, centric, and suburban neighborhoods, where waste is collected more consistently as well as low-income areas where collection is less frequent and, in some cases, inexistent or provided by outsourced local waste pickers.
The GSD generates about 4,000 of the 11,000 tons of solid waste per day nationwide, and most of the waste collected is disposed of in Duquesa, an open-air landfill that raises serious health concerns, and urgently requires a sustainable solution. In contrast to the cleanliness and aesthetic appearance of public space in middle and upper-class neighborhoods, littering and informal garbage dumping sites are a ubiquitous scene for the most socioeconomically deprived neighborhoods.
Collective intelligence: a method for understanding SWM’s complexity
Collective intelligence informed our learning process twofold. For one, standard social research techniques, which are usually a means to an end, became center stage. As a research-intensive organization, we had knowledge resources at our disposal that would have provided enough information “to know” the issue without interacting closely with stakeholders. However, the CI framework also challenged us to construe a knowledge that emerged from the problem’s central locus and through the voices and experiences of people. Thus, research techniques became a tool to enhance the collective learning process rather than definitive knowledge sources.
The CI process helped us address a fundamental epistemological question on whose knowledge is valid and who counts as an informed stakeholder. Applying CI meant all voices were knowledgeable; each stakeholder brought a distinct understanding and level of experience to the table. We were also aware of potential biases because of the organization we represented; thus, in the quest to develop a portfolio of solutions, CI prevented us from going into the field as “development experts.”
In addition, CI helped define and map the issue, which helped us stir away from potential bias. In the DR, the issue of SWM has its “usual suspects” (agents usually seen as the subject experts and key stakeholders), but mapping the issue through CI enriched the process with a broader approach to include other, not so visible, stakeholders who were just as relevant.
We conducted interviews and focus groups with the private sector, NGOs, subject experts, municipal authorities, grassroots community organizations, community leaders, and community members in two of the most affected neighborhoods in GSD: Los Tres Brazos and Domingo Savio. As part of the initiative, we designed a game prototype to gauge youth’s knowledge of SWM, to be piloted with high-school students. A 'mapathon,' an activity for citizens to spot open-air informal dumping sites through their smartphones, was also designed although not implemented.
Solid waste management: patterns emerging
As the learning process advanced, there were a few clear patterns emerging from CI that we found salient. We learned that previous efforts to improve SWM in riverbank communities had rendered little change. When asked, community members felt excluded from the decision-making processes. Municipal governments pointed to financial and logistical constraints, while private sector stakeholders feared SWM was too much of an institutional gray area.
Empirical observations suggested there was a cultural aspect to the problem, deeply rooted in decades of social practices in waste management (for instance, ubiquitous littering) which were hardly going to disappear with short-term interventions. We inferred the current state of SWM was at the intersection of spatial governance and socio-cultural practices.
Spatial governance and inequality in Santo Domingo
Spatial governance is "the political processes that articulate and legitimize urban and territorial changes, and... a tool for redistributing, ordering, and controlling the use of space." The CI process showed that although waste generation is a collective activity, the burden of its solution currently rests solely on municipal governments. Moreover, governance in GSD exhibits an image of social inequality: a suburban, middle-class configuration of space vs. impoverished neighborhoods in the peripheries of the city. Thus, CI was instrumental in underscoring governance as a matter of who occupies what space.
While on the surface, it appeared as if inefficient SWM was exclusively a municipal responsibility, a CI approach revealed a more nuanced set of problems. On the one hand, agents (local governments, private sector, households, and individuals) face diffuse and conflicting roles, and territorial decision-making is largely one-sided when it comes to SWM. On the other hand, the current SWM situation reflects cultural (institutional and individual) practices that reinforce dispersion and exclusion.
Culture and SWM
Culture, in this context understood as a repertoire or 'toolkit' of habits, skills, and styles from which people construct strategies of action, emerged as a significant element in SWM and it matters in our analysis because waste generation and disposal operate within an ecology of social practices. CI helped us challenge the dominant discourse on SWM in GSD, which essentially focuses on technical, financial and environmental concerns but largely ignores institutional, communal and individual practices. Culture permeates the political and institutional realms, impacting the subjectivity of how people appropriate the physical space and perceive their sense of place in it.
1) SWM in the DR is usually seen as a government/municipal matter. However, the issue is multi-fold, with institutional, community, and household/individual responsibilities and varying degrees of decision-making power.
2) Competing discourses on fixing the SWM problem might contribute to the institutional inertia around the issue, which may result to in a disarticulate and fragmented national response.
3) No-policy or policy stalemate can become a de facto mode of policymaking. For SWM, the permissiveness to harmful practices might constitute the unwritten, fuzzy rules by which agents abide.
4) Culture mediates in SWM by reproducing socially validated behavior, especially in the context of longstanding, disorderly practices. For environmentally harmful activities such as littering, culture seems to nullify the penalizing effects of rules as they have remained impractical and unenforced.
5) SWM discourse is impregnated with social stratification thinking, imbued in the public narrative, which negatively impacts the city's social cohesion. Marginalized neighborhoods have come to expect a lower-quality service than those from middle-class suburbs. These social markers are also reinforced through local governments’ response to community demands, often perpetuating the idea that the poor are a different kind of citizen.
6) Trust and cooperation appear to have been eroded in some of the marginalized neighborhoods in GSD, as these communities feel forgotten and neglected. Using CI enabled participants to elaborate more concretely how they perceive their social capital as of lesser value as opposed to other stakeholders.
Insights and learning
A key takeaway is that while the CI framework employs various well-known research methodologies, its relevance lies in the process through which a project is organized and how all the pieces (people, tools, resources) come together. The project is dependent upon collective meaning-making and ownership, premised on the idea of “becoming smarter together” as we search for a solution.
Spatial governance for SWM in GSD needs to be mindful of the urban poor and how spatial capital inequality plays a role in service delivery. Inclusive policymaking can foster social capital. Good SWM requires a systemwide change at all levels: individuals’ consumption patterns; local governments’ SWM funding mechanism; socio-pedagogical policymaking, because, when it comes to SWM, unsustainable habits are pervasive across all SES groups.
For UNDP Dominican Republic’s Accelerator lab, CI helped us initiate more meaningful conversations at the locations where the SWM problem is most critical, facilitating a deeper understanding of the landscape and widening the perspectives of participants on major societal issues.
For our UNDP office, these findings will inform our approach to support relevant government and local actors, as we develop Rescate Ozama (Ozama River Rescue), a multisector platform that aims to articulate prevention, education and sustainable solutions to SWM problem in GSD. We hope the practical lessons learned from this effort also benefit the broader development community.