View of Rocinha, largest slum in Rio de Janeiro (Image:

Slums in the world’s fast-growing cities are often seen as problems and, in most cases, outside the law. But, from Paris and Tokyo 150 years ago to Mumbai and Johannesburg today, slums consistently emerge as a byproduct of the socioeconomic pressures of rapid urbanization, and they often don’t get the credit they deserve as entry points to the city for poor migrants, or for the economic activity they generate.

With as many as a billion people now living in slums, understanding what might place these communities and their cities on paths of increasing socioeconomic opportunity is a priority.

A new research project now under way at SFI, in collaboration with the nonprofit Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and backed by a generous grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, seeks to expand the scientific study of urban slums worldwide.

Read the article in Txchnologist (January 22, 2013)

“We expect this project to be an unprecedented systematic scientific analysis of the general characteristics of urban informal settlements,” says principal investigator and SFI Professor Luis Bettencourt, a physicist whose research includes studying urban organization and dynamics.

For years, the groups that comprise Slum Dwellers International have been collecting census-like data on many of the world’s slums. These data have been aimed primarily at empowering slum residents in their contact with city and national governments. Using SDI’s data together with other information, the SFI researchers hope to uncover some of the general underlying principles common to fast urbanization and the emergence of informal settlements.

The first stage of the research, Bettencourt says, is to analyze the existing SDI data using statistical tools and experience SFI has developed in its scientific studies of cities worldwide.

“Part of what we will do is analyze data from 7,000 slum settlements around the world,” says Bettencourt. The researchers will combine and compare the SDI data across cultures, levels of socioeconomic development, geography, and time to identify common features of informal settlements and test the data for accuracy and potential biases.

The second stage of the project will be to study how the SDI data was collected and find ways to establish its consistency and make it most useful to scientists, policy makers, NGOs, and others interested in urban development. In the final stage, the project will help design new and expanded data-collection practices and generate new datasets.

“We want to find ways to make the greatest use of the data SDI collects,” Bettencourt says. “In this way, the project will help create standards through which informal communities can collect and use data about themselves and develop economic models to sustain these efforts.“

This, in turn, should help better articulate the needs of those living in slums, and suggest planning and development solutions that maximize the welfare of resident communities and of their cities and nations.

More about SFI's research of the science of cities here.

Read the MediaBistro article