In conversation with Prathima Manohar, Founder of Urban Vision

Last week I had a chance to converse with the founder of Urban Vision, Prathima Manohar, an urban think-tank of India. Urban Vision is organizing a week-long Immersion Program in Mumbai for Architects, Urban Planners and Real Estate & Infrastructure Professionals in one of the weeks in December 2012. More about the program and its ideology from her.

Pallavi: What is the idea behind the India Immersion Program – Study Tour? And how did it come about, can you give a brief background of the program?

Prathima: The India Immersion Tour has been designed to create opportunities for exchange on innovation in a wide spectrum of issues in the arena of architecture, built environment, planning, city building, real estate and infrastructure development.

The goal of the program is to create ways for participants to better understand the challenges & opportunities in India’s growing infrastructure & real estate sector; understanding the appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks; meeting potential partners; fostering new business connections and collaboration; advocacy of innovative practices that can enable inclusive & sustainable urbanization.

India is only about 30 per cent urban at this point. So, there is a huge opportunity to leapfrog into a society that is environmentally and socially sustainable; especially by learning from the successes and failures of the more urbanized & developed parts of the world; this is a focused program aligned with that approach of knowledge  exchange.

Pallavi: What kind of participants do you envisage participating in this program? What does the program and participants aim to achieve from the program?

Prathima: The program is aimed at architects, planners, real estate Professionals & other Infrastructure specialists. It will be a small and diverse group who are looking to learn more about trends in Indian urban development and better understand the market.  The program will allow them to increase their knowledge of the India market through experiential learning.  The opportunity to connect with & learn from the key leaders who are shaping India’s Real Estate & Infrastructure sector. We think that this program offers international practitioners an excellent platform to learn more and build connections in arguably one of the most exciting and growing markets in the world.

Pallavi:What is the format of the program?

Prathima: Our itinerary will feature one week of extensive and intimate meetings in Mumbai with leaders & experts from the industry along with networking receptions, study tours, conference & a charrette.

Pallavi: Do you think getting professionals from multi-disciplinary background together on one platform is more beneficial than focusing on single field of expertise, say architects or urban planners?

Prathima: I agree. We have tried to emphasize on bringing together a diverse set of individuals in terms of geography & disciplines.  It adds much more to the richness of the dialogue.  Dean Nitin Nohria of the Harvard Business School had once said to me, ‘Great innovations happen at the intersection of things’. I think diverse perspectives are much needed to think through innovative solutions to address this big transformation we are going through as a nation.

Pallavi: What is the response like been so far from the industry? Are there challenges that you have come across and would like to express?

Prathima: It has been great up till now and we hope to make this program part of our annual calendar. We have already had applications from Africa, North America, Europe and the Middle East. We also hope to host similar programs in other important cities in the world.

Pallavi: What according to you, are the major challenges that are faced by India right now with respect to urban planning and built environment?

Prathima: Urbanization in India was never addressed in a strategic and planned manner. All our plans are often outdated even before they are released. They are also so rigid that they limit a city’s ability to develop in line with new contexts and needs. The dire and unbearable conditions of our cities are a result of slow and minor interventions to ever worsening conditions. They are a result of a complete lack of long term strategic thinking. We need to develop long term vision. Unplanned development will not only have an adverse impact on real estate investment and development; but also on our macro-economic and societal development.

There is no dearth of ideas on what principles we need to adapt to create inclusive, environmentally sustainable cities; but the problem really is about implementing these ideas. Even the most highly regarded cities of today whether London or New York have gone through successful urban transformations after having dealt with massive challenges at some point in their history. Even developing world cities like Bogota or Curatiba in South America that have more dire problems of crime and drugs have been able to move towards the path of successful urban transformation.

So, it is really a leadership challenge in India. Today, our cities do not have accountable and empowered administration that can carry on bold visions. We need to review our city governance structures and make them more accountable and transparent.

Pallavi: Do you see larger issues still being ignored by the government and key players at this point of time in responding to rapid urbanization that is taking place in Mumbai?

Prathima: Urbanization is widely recognized as an essential component of economic growth. But in India, we have clearly not been able to capitalize on urbanization and use it to work as part of a national growth strategy. In fact, I would go on and add that we have actually been able to attain a commendable level of economic success in the face of failing urban infrastructure and services. Even though only 30% of India’s population live in urban areas; cities contribute to over 60% of the country’s GDP and account for 90% of government revenues. But as reflected in state of most of the Indian cities- little attention is given to their well-being and advancement.

The challenges are enormous and will require a response from all segments of the society. We must not just only look towards the government to address these big challenges but also look at how we can engage the civil society & the private sector entrepreneurs. We must of course continue to push our government for policy reforms & innovative policy agendas that can lead to transformative change in our cities. We should work on amplifying our small urban innovations or successes.

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