Teaching for Tomorrow

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.

The big challenge has been to transform the discourse from that of a problem into an opportunity.

EP: I’d like to hear more about how you’re biting into this challenge, and what the pragmatic approach to this is. But, if I can, I want to reflect what you’re saying onto the African context. Our reality is that we have both the human challenge, on the one hand, and then the financing and institutional challenge as well. Obviously one can’t equate Africa with India. We’re not seeing the same levels of growth. There are about a dozen countries with resource portfolios on the continent that are achieving growth, but then there’s still another 40 countries left. I’m trying to think about what the implications could be for how we should be thinking about this challenge in the African context. I’m curious whether you have some thoughts on that too?

AR: I’m not an African specialist but I think a critical opportunity would be a pan-African response, linking up between experiences, ideas and people across different contexts. If you’re able to do that and not become completely constrained by national boundaries, or particular ethnicities, that would be a significant beginning. I think what you are trying to do here, with the ACC, for example, is a very important step in that direction—educating a cadre of people who can think in wider and deeper terms. If I look back, there was a whole generation of people from a particular university in the Eastern Cape [University of Fort Hare] who transformed this part of Africa.

Contemporary challenges are no less, except that responses may not only come from political leadership. A new generation of change-makers would need to have new technical competencies and the ability to go and actually muck around and work in cities. They may well become future political leaders.

EP: This has been our central learning from the last two years of building up the ACC: the moment is absolutely ripe, if not overripe. What’s been instructive for us as we’ve gone about trying to imagine what a curriculum could look like, one that could really equip these practitioners, is the realisation just how redundant a lot of ‘world class knowledge’ and ‘best practice’ is in our context, especially in a situation where the current pressures are so extreme and unprecedented. Of course, in your case, you’ve actually gone out and you’ve reviewed what the best in the world has to offer, Can you share a few reflections on what that process revealed for you, and how that has informed your thinking?

AR: It’s actually been very interesting for us, because we started with the hypothesis that from our experience much of what we were teaching was less relevant—and then we went out to prove it, formally. We reviewed programmes from across the world, from maybe 60 odd universities, 2,000 courses or so. What we found was startling. The first thing was that even at the best places in the world, the theory was lagging, even innovative practice—it was anywhere between ten to 20 years behind. And we were able to test that, because we had people involved in the process that could speak to that question, in India, in Europe, the United States and China.

The second thing, of course, which we knew beforehand, was that what we are typically teaching in India is about 20 years behind what is already redundant elsewhere. So we were effectively transacting ‘knowledge’ that was 40 years out of date, which had nothing to do with the reality that people are experiencing today.
How can we move teaching and learning out of that trap? The challenge was to reconstruct knowledge that would be relevant for today, knowledge that would be important for practitioners and policymakers. We asked one basic question: What will be relevant in 2030 for the young people today who have the potential to transform the system? We’re therefore teaching for tomorrow, not only for today. There’s almost a three-generation difference between what’s being taught and what needs to be engaged in—that’s been a very interesting shift that we have started to make progress on at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS).

EP: I’m curious about that revolutionary approach to thinking about curriculum. What has the response been amongst India’s established system of academics, those people who currently transact and produce urban planners? What and how are you managing those potential tensions?

AR: It’s a mix of things. At the moment we’re going through a process of educational sector reform. At the top end of the system, there’s a degree of openness—there is consensus that we need a dramatic change in our higher education system, if India is to make many of the transitions we talked about. We are teaching stuff that is 30 or 40 years old.

You cannot build a knowledge economy around this. For a service sector-led economy this could have dramatic impact. There are a number of dramatic new educational initiatives, like the IIHS, India’s first prospective National University for Innovation that focuses on its urban transformation.

But that is at the macro level. Practitioners are desperately looking for this opportunity and we have such tremendous people innovating across the country. From the practitioner’s side, there’s a great deal of engagement with the IIHS because we’re an open institution where there’s little of the traditional hierarchy between academics—the ‘experts’ if you will—and practitioners. It leads to a good synergy between these cultures.

In terms of people who are in academic roles at the moment, there is the excitement of a new openness to a dialogue around problem solving and knowledge creation from below that cuts through traditional barriers. I was teaching one of our interdisciplinary programmes a couple of months ago, and many people came up and said, ‘This is fantastic, this is what we started to do 30 years ago, but we lost ourselves in a maze of bureaucracy. It’s nice to know that you’re trying to make a change in such a measured and systematic way. Can we come and help you?’

Most of today’s solutions are basically linked with today’s crisis and tomorrow’s opportunities.

EP: The one thing I really want to probe, and that I think is potentially really important for the larger community to understand, is if you design a curriculum and if you’re trying to prepare practitioners for the future that is in 20 or 30 years time how do you go about that? How do you source the new kind of knowledge that’s required? Maybe just a few thoughts on how you’ve practically engaged with that kind of work?

AR: There are two realities. One reality is that most of today’s solutions are linked with today’s crisis and tomorrow’s opportunities. There are tens of thousands of innovative responses taking form across our cities and towns. The question is how to connect those processes and innovators with other actors and systems—you have to reach out and connect them in ways that have been rarely explored before, except maybe by movements and markets.

EP: It’s how one taps the energy at the bottom.

AR: Absolutely. We want to try and bridge the asymmetry of language, and hence the asymmetry of power and hierarchy. The bulk of expert knowledge is embedded in control of advanced technical systems. As soon as you’re able to bridge that, in a somewhat more effective manner, that has the benefit of joining markets. The reality is that we have to be completely open to different worlds.

Latin America does great things in their cities, which we don’t do very well. If one reflects with them on their experiences, we’re in a sense experiencing our future today. Similarly with China and various parts of Africa, including Southern Africa. A key question for us when we examine trans-national experiences is if this is the place that we want to go to. And, what can we learn from this process?

EP: What’s been striking for me being part of this experiment is that you (the IIHS) deliberately and consciously opened yourselves up both to the north and the south?

AR: Absolutely, we’re at an age in which openness to all geographies is important. We traditionally had a colonial and northern engagement, but our orientation has slowly shifted. The real innovation is actually happening in the southern hemisphere. Whether it’s Brazil, Mexico or Colombia, various parts of Africa, South Africa—that’s where the real experimentation is happening. People in our cites and parts of the world have to innovate just to survive, it’s very simple. The challenge is of aggregation of this innovation, to be able to engage and adapt and co-create at a cross-country scale.

EP: It seems to me that there is a new paradigm in the making. So all of the biology with it is between university and society, or between the state, the private sector and society, between qualified academic knowledge and practitioner knowledge. You’re collapsing all of these boundaries, but still there is a method to the madness, in a sense.

AR: Yes.

EP: And, it seems to me that this idea of experimentation and innovation is a very powerful notion to unpack, because what we’re grappling with in our case is how to animate a capacity to be rigorous and systematic in understanding the obstacles to structural change, but at the same time imbue people with a capacity to be passionate about driving change. The structural reading of the problem often leads to a kind of paralysis, in part because the programmatic expressions that have been tied to that have often run aground. There’s been this endless splintering off of various efforts and collectives.

So, there seems to me to be something really profound at the core of what you do. It presents the seeds for a much larger re-theorisation of structural change. It is about how to invent new institutions, new categories, new concepts, new classes of things, and, of course, figure out how they network together and intersect. Is there a mechanism within this methodology you’re adopting to build up the institution and embed it in society? In other words, is this just about delivering the vehicle to produce new people, or are you also thinking about it, and building out the capacities to actually document and capture these processes so that you can begin the process of re-theorising from these experiences?

AR: I guess it’s all three of those things, but probably more of the first one. In a sense, we build the vehicle, and the vehicle has to be viable and sustainable, physically, financially, institutionally and so on. We’ve tried to be reflective as far as that is concerned.

We’re also attempting to be flexible. History will only tell whether we have been adaptable enough, but mostly what we are trying to do is reflect as much as we can.

Our team currently is fairly small; reflection does require redundancy in terms of time and effort, which is difficult in early stage institutional development.

EP: I can see the point of really building effective change agents, but if those agents are restricted to a particular class and cultural category, there’s a problem?

AR: There’s this absolutely huge challenge of class capture, or capture by a particular interest group. We come from a terrain in which educational institutional capture is the hobby of most political parties and interest groups. What we will try to do to counter that is to reach as deep as we can across the country, into pockets of ‘disadvantage’ or those advantaged with life experiences of struggle. Our success will be dependent on actually reaching out.

The Renaissance was a good idea but maybe not in our part of the world.

EP: Can you give some sense of what kind of timeframe you are working with? When do you start with your first intake of students?

AR: We’re hopeful of initiating our master’s programme next year. This year, we’ve already started teaching a whole range of professionals and students, via more than a dozen short courses that span quite a range of questions as far as cities are concerned—traditional challenges like water, sanitation and housing, but also strategy and municipal finance. We’re simultaneously testing the integrated Masters in Urban Practice curriculum.

EP: Why don’t we go straight to some of your thinking around the emergent south-south dialogue? In what way is this south-south articulation different to earlier efforts at tri-continentalism, non-lateralism and so forth?

AR: Well, I think the world is changing quite quickly, and the new south-south dialogue is different from the 1970s and 80s, because global geopolitics and the global economy has changed quite dramatically. A big shift is the rise of China and a change in perspective from 20th century imperialism and its model of hard boundaries. The Chinese view of the world is not based on classical western political theory. Its perspective is less within the Westphalian frame but much more civilizational—soft boundaries, zones of influence; a dynamic view of cultures and spatial and temporal relationships between each other.
So, the shift from an Atlantic to a Pacific-centric world-system which partitioned Africa into planes and straight lines—to a much more nuanced kind of engagement.

It is not as if the United States will wither away as a great power. Its asymmetry as far as hard and possibly economic power is going to persist for a significant time. Early 21st century south-south engagement needs to be seen in that context.

A range of engagements that are building and how they will coalesce and work themselves out is still unclear. If you look at the old dependency theories, Brazil, South Africa and India are somewhere in the ‘semi-periphery’.

EP: What do you see as the main difference between China and India’s particular conception of itself and approach to this kind of journey? Because, presumably that will be a fairly key variable in how this unfolds.

AR: To some extent India is still fairly messed up. We don’t really have a very clear sense, geopolitically, of where we are and where we may be going. We’re still moving out of the phase of looking at the rest of South Asia as a ‘significant other’, to looking at other kinds of regional and continental relationships. We’re still in our middle adolescence, so to speak. China has a much longer view of history. It is much more organised and a much older nation state, which is difficult to compete with if you are primarily a soft power However, India’s resilience is something that may come into play as things become rather tough.

So, whether it’s the firms or it is civil society, or it is individuals there’s a lot more flux and suppleness in India, partially because the idea of India is a relatively new one. South Asia has typically absorbed and integrated influences that have come to it from across the world. The ability to absorb external forces and transform them is a particular strength. I think it is going to be a really important capacity as we move into a more fractured future. The fact also that we have, for better or for worse, a functioning democracy at the scale of a billion plus that has held together for 65 years is really important.

If I think historically, when the United Nations was founded in 1945 it comprised 50 countries. A decade later it doubled, because of decolonization and the retreat of western imperialism. And so the number kept growing. By the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it numbered 170 countries. I think the UN is about 190 now. So there has been a trend of the creation of new nation states and the breakdown of some large agglomerations, especially the Soviet Union.

But there are also large pockets of experimentation around nation-state consolidation, of which the largest is the European Union. One of the fundamental challenges there, of course, is how do you assemble a multi-poplar, multi-cultural system of scale, which is able to bring together the economy, politics and regional socio-cultural diversity simultaneously. I guess that was part of the project that was imagined, but seems a long distance away for many parts of Southern Africa, at least.

EP: It is interesting that in the last while, this has probably been the most important Achilles heel of the African Project, making the regional economic blocks work. To even think beyond that has been quite a challenge. But I think the penny is starting to drop, both in terms of the cost implications, the infrastructure investments that need to happen, and also the need to coordinate in a much more efficient way across these geographies.

AR: There is greater acceptance now that, in some ways, there are no effective barriers to the flow of capital and finance. Setting up a global system to manage that is one of the most significant challenges in the international order. There is an understanding that in order to enable trade and physical movement of goods and services, you need to establish infrastructures that allow movement back and forth as part of the project. But I think the real challenge is the movement of people.

One big part of this intellectual south-south project is trying to reconceptualise that. Sub-Saharan Africa is one place that could be tested and have the most significant dividend, because of the history of how territory was defined leading to genocide at the one end, and suboptimal economic outcomes and development outcomes at the other end.

EP: What is interesting is how the kind of partial engagement of China, and to some extent India and other Asian states wishing to access particular resources, is undermining that to some extent.

AR: Yes, absolutely.

EP: So, it seems until we get a stronger cohort of forward-looking leaders across the continent, it’s going to be quite an uphill battle for Africa, going forward.

AR: Absolutely. I think the core of that is the political imagination of what is possible with one’s resources, and the fact that Africa as a continent, and particular parts of Africa are where the future is going to unfold. That realisation has probably not struck home so clearly. It is because it hasn’t struck home that accommodations are possible, and alliances around interests are not so clearly organised.

EP: I want to move in theme, Aro, to this question around the relationship between academic research, advisory services and practice. Since this is something that’s fairly fundamental to the design of IIHS, could you share some reflections on that? Is there really a virtual circle, or are we actually potentially setting up something that could undermine the quality of scholarship or dilute the strategic focus of advisory work? What are your views on this, and why have you decided to make it so central in the design of the institute?

AR: It’s a tricky question. If you look at it within a conventional institutional development frame, it’s a significant risk, partially because there are bringing together people who often think quite differently. You’re setting yourself for a battle between those cultures and possibly setting yourself up to fail. But we are looking at a larger project.

An older colleague paraphrased it by saying, ‘The Renaissance was a good idea but maybe not in our part of the world.’ We don’t need to reproduce the social organisation of western Atlantic institutions, which came out of a particular tradition and history starting from the collapse of the Roman Empire through the Black Death to the Renaissance. One of the legacies of that development is the separation of practice and theory. We have somewhat different histories.

One of the questions we are asking is how the 21st century will reconfigure this? The socio-cultural environment is so different. Technology can play a very different role. Innovation is happening all over the place. Is there a way of trying to aggregate and focus this innovation and by doing that, transform the greater tradition itself?

EP: How do you translate this intent into practice, particularly in terms of the institutional design of IIHS? Presumably, at a very concrete level, the qualifications to access higher education will present a very practical barrier to entry.

The fundamental challenge is to enable and draw out full human beings. That’s the core of the process, if you don’t get that, then you haven’t got very much.

AR: Well, the opportunity of scaling before us is quite substantial. India is starting to universalise its elementary education and close to. 90 per cent or more of our young people up to grade eight go to some form of school. In another five years, that will probably be extended to secondary school. So there are going to be a large number of people who will come out of secondary school who will be looking for a university education. This large pool of people really presents an opportunity for the IIHS and India.

The challenge is to move from an elitist view of knowledge creation to a more inclusive one. We are saying something a little different from top-of-the pyramid institutions: ‘Innovation is actually happening at tremendous scale at the middle of the system. The elites are useful but not as effective or efficient as in a pre-networked society.’

In a society that’s highly concentrated, both geographic and temporarily, economies of scale tend to dominate. But as you expand using network-based systems, that becomes less important. Moving to the middle of that system is really the place to go in terms of social transformation a fundamental IIHS agenda. Our secondary aims are economic and political transformation.

We’re trying to build a highly inclusive institution that values people’s life experience, both in terms of the curriculum and the learner engagement. What might normally have counted as a disadvantage may actually becomes a significant advantage. We are looking for people who can learn fast and learn effectively. We want to enable other people to learn, because in a world that’s changing so quickly, the ability to learn is really a huge comparative advantage. People from an elite tradition of knowledge may not be the best people to actually take the processes forward.

EP: Yes, thanks for that, you’ve usefully explained the importance of the access aspect. But on the other end of it, once you have your structures in place, your academics or your faculty, will these people be expected to be able to go into an environment where they provide consultative or advisory services? How do you retain your criticality and autonomy while crafting a practice that can really engage with the problems of clients? So, if possible, some thoughts on that.

And then related to that. What is very clear is that in the global structure of the production of knowledge, 95 per cent, if not more, of what is considered valid knowledge—work published in journals and books—still emanates from northern universities. Clearly if one is going to shift that, it’s going to be important that institutions like yours publish. There is certainly a school of thought that we encounter in our context, that says, if you contaminate people with getting too close to the messy realities of practice, it strips out the criticality and they’re not able to produce high quality scholarship because they are too immersed in the realities.

The business of writing and scholarship requires a very different kind of training. It is about disposition and distance. You know all these arguments, and I know that this has obviously featured in your design processes, but what are your thoughts on all these questions?

AR: I think they are very valid arguments. It’s about distancing yourself in the classical subject-object orientation. You do have to have a particular quality of preparation to be a good researcher and a good academic. The counter question is this: Is it not also important simultaneously to be able to be a good pedagogue, researcher and academic? We want to train at least 50,000 students over the next 30 years, which is the minimum we require to actually transform our system. This is why we need a markedly good set of teachers.

While I agree with you that if you are overly embedded in institutional and other contestations, you may lose your sense of criticality. The redefinition of rigorous subjectivity even in the cutting edge sciences, some areas of physics and certainly in the life sciences, are changing this very dramatically.

We want to train at least 50,000 students over the next 30 years, which is the minimum we require to actually transform our system.

We have very old living traditions of knowledge in India, much older than the beginnings of what we know as western scholarship. It’s a strongly ‘scientific’ tradition, of using subjectivity as a basis of criticality. If the philosophical underpinnings of your knowledge system are connected with the challenges of everyday life, there is no reason why your science should not actually reflect that. The geography of science actually changes. I imagine we will see a rather different way of doing science, and hence a rather different definition of what is acceptable as good science.

EP: I want to turn to something a little bit more personal. You straddle these different domains, and you’ve got a keen interest in the arts, music and composition. How does that translate into a south-south institutional project?

AR: I’m not sure whether I’m a very good example, but what an important thing is to be open to multiple cultures from across the world, and to accept that everybody is both a learner and a teacher. Cultural engagement is a high form of exploration, something is deeply embedded within South Asia. You really have to know or try to engage with yourself, your own cultures, and other cultures in their own terms, not in colonial or post-colonial asymmetries or artificial dichotomies.

EP: Yes, I see. And, if you will, non-verbal or non-written texts will be a key part of how IIHS will transact, and how your pedagogy will transact?

AR: I think it’s an important point, because one thing that we often forget about in India is that we are largely an oral culture. I imagine that the web, not the text web, but the oral web is going to be a really important part of our own cultural experience and scholarship.

EP: What do you mean, the oral web, I don’t understand?

AR: There are large numbers of people who are not comfortable with text or don’t actually read it, but as processing of voice becomes much more ubiquitous, it becomes easy to navigate around a knowledge system by just speaking. You don’t have to be ‘literate’ to have control over knowledge.

EP: Interesting. Now, I raise this question because part of what we are trying to do with Cityscapes is to implant the idea that different registers of knowledge are equally important. It’s important to facilitate a translation between these different formats. In that articulation we will be able to build this new language of innovation that’s required to deal with the kind of really interesting phenomena that are emerging at present, but also to resolve some of the challenges that we’re engaging with. Your thought?

AR: I think it’s important, you’re reaching out to a very interesting space. I think the fundamental thing that we’re all trying to do is to explore a postcolonial, transmodern revisioning of humanism. The fundamental challenge is to enable and draw out full human beings. That’s the core of the process, if you don’t get that, then you haven’t got very much. Added to that is a need to integrate a whole range of different ways of knowing. Like you just said, Edgar, knowledge exists in multiple registers. If you want to create a composition, you have to be able to bring them altogether.

In fact, a good example lies in the difference between Indian and western classical music. The great western compositions are put together; they’re written to a score. Great Indian classical music is never written to a score; they are built around what we call a raga. Multiple musicians will come together, they know what composition of the raga is, and they will create as they play—a new composition will never be repeated again, both in time or space. So it’s a little bit like our biology, the biology of the earth. No individual in a species will be repeated again and we are all unique. Yet there is continuity and great harmony in the music of life

EP: That’s very helpful, and a very nice metaphor also. One last question, and a shift in register: You are offering a pilot course this year on the ‘world class city’. We were curious why you chose that theme, given how bankrupt this idea is that cities can be ‘world class’. It promotes a kind of simplistic mimicry that reproduces political elites. Why did you choose that theme?

AR: We chose that theme precisely because it is bankrupt, and also because it tends to capture the imagination of local and global elites. It followed in the wake of the Commonwealth Games, which were a little bit like the World Cup in South Africa, a grand event which was really the emperor’s new clothes in Imax 3D. So the course worked around that. We were building up from professional experience, and using that as a means of trying to enable a critical reflection on the context in which we work.

We were also trying to challenge people to address some of the complex issues that these imaginations attempt to respond to, using a simulated teaching case to establish a new Global Financial centre that will create one million jobs with a capital investment of $15 billion. This is an impossible learning challenge to deal with, that our learners had three days to work on. They had to throw away all the baggage of prior experience and learn to work as an interdisciplinary problem solving team to address this challenge


Aromar Revi (b. 1961, India) is an international practitioner, consultant, researcher and educator with significant inter-disciplinary experience in public policy and governance, the political economy of reform, development, technology, sustainability and human settlements. Currently director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, he has been a senior advisor to various Indian governmental ministries, consulted with a wide range of UN, multilateral, bilateral development and private sector institutions and works on economic, environmental and social change at global, regional and urban scales. He has led over 100 major research, consulting and implementation assignments in India and abroad. A fellow of the India China Institute at the New School University, New York, he has written and edited five books. He is also one of South Asia’s leading disaster mitigation and management experts and has led emergency teams to assess, plan and execute recovery and rehabilitation programmes for ten major earthquake, cyclone, surge and flood events affecting over five million people.


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