Edgar Pieterse speaks to Aromar Revi, The Indian Institute for Human Settlements future-orientated director, about his revolutionary approach to curriculum and imagining what is possible. The Indian Institute for Human Settlements is an independent, privately funded, globally ranked education and action-oriented research institution created by a number of India’s leading entrepreneurs, professionals and thought leaders to address the multi-dimensional and inter-disciplinary challenge of the country’s urban growth.
India’s urban population is expected to increase from a little over 375-million in 2011 to about 800-million by the middle of the 21st century. At this future point, urban India will account for more than half of the country’s population. Nearly two-thirds of India’s economic output already comes from urban areas. The challenge of equipping the country to deal with this pervasive urban future has been taken up by an ambitious independent research institution and prospective national university for innovation, the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. Headed up by Aromar Revi, this fledgling institute aims to create a new profession and new discipline focused on “urban practice” to address the needs of working professionals and younger learners, practitioners and researchers.
Edgar Pieterse: From the vantage point of the African Centre for Cities, and the community of scholars and practitioners in Africa who are all beginning to wake up to the magnitude and implications of the urban transition in Africa, we’ve really been inspired by the scale and ambition of your work. By what it means in the Asian context, and specifically in the South Asian context, but also because you haven’t been overwhelmed by the scale of it. Can you give us some background as to how you stumbled into this field, and how come you’ve ended up leading a systematic educational response to the organisation question? It is probably the largest experiment of its kind in the world?
Aromar Revi: The big challenge has been to transform the discourse from that of a problem into an opportunity, and I think that has happened over the last ten-odd years or so. Many of us have been involved for a quarter century in trying to address this challenge, but we’re just starting to pick up a new momentum. It provides us with a tremendous opportunity of a new trajectory of development, a new way of life, and addressing many challenges—from the lack of water and power to sustainability. But centrally, it is an opportunity for social transformation.
This is something that some of the leaders of India’s Freedom movement from nearly 60 years ago saw—that cities were an opportunity to address questions of social transformation. If cities are going to provide t opportunities for this transformation, then the question is: How can you help educate and train a new generation of change-makers? Things are happening at such a quick pace, and at such a large scale, giving us the opportunity to create the environment to make transformational change happen. But we’re really short on time. It takes a decade or two to build a new educational regime—that means a couple of hundred million new urban residents. To be honest, we should have done what we are doing now over 15 years ago, when India’s economic reforms were just taking root.
EP: Do politicians and policy makers grasp or understand the need for higher education and training?
AR: They are starting to understand that now. A recent report talked about the need to do this at scale, to train not only ‘leaders’, but also a wider range of people. Part of this discourse comes from the fact that we are imagining what it is possible in the future, with the recognition that constraints today are less resources and technology but people and institutions. It’s a contradiction in terms: in a region that has almost 1.5-billion people, the constraint being appropriately educated and trained people. But that’s because of the way our higher educational system has developed or degraded over the last two decades.