Social engineers: mediators working for cities


© Sarangib

One third of the population of emerging countries—or one billion people (UN Habitat)—live in “informal neighbourhoods” that often lack basic urban services, such as access to water, electricity or wastewater treatment.

Informal cities have become a serious worldwide issue, because they impede the provision of decent conditions of health and safety and economic development. But these informal zones cannot be transformed without the cooperation of the inhabitants. Social engineering, which consists of explaining, supporting and coordinating, has been at the heart of SUEZ’s activity for more than 15 years.

© Suez

Informal neighbourhoods are not part of any urban development plans. They have no legal status, they are often overpopulated by the poorest citizens and they represent the huge challenge that rampant urbanization is creating in the modern world. Integrating informal neighbourhoods into the traditional urban fabric is one of the priorities of UN Habitat.
The transformation of these informal cities into places that are healthy and liveable demands the cooperation and the support of their inhabitants for urban renovation and for connection to the drinking water, sanitation, electric power, waste collection and transport networks. As an urban operator, SUEZ has been developing its social engineering expertise for more than 15 years, in an effort to support these changes and transform cities, hand in hand with the people who live in them.

Discover this little-known activity with Sachin and Abdelatif, social engineers working in Mumbai and Casablanca.

“Working with and for the population”

“The populations of informal neighbourhoods are usually in difficulty. They often have to collect their water from communal fountains that are far away. The quality of the water is poor, and the need to collect water also creates social problems, because women and children have to collect water instead of going to work or to school.” Abdelatif, who works in a zone that is an extension of the city of Casablanca, has figured out the heart of the problem: the urban zones that have the greatest need for access to water and sanitation, are also the least accessible, the worst informed and the poorest zones. Therefore, social engineering is essential. “You cannot simply turn up in a neighbourhood and connect it. We are working with and for the local populations”, adds Sachin.

SUEZ has developed a flexible methodology that is quite the opposite of imposed planning that is bound to fail. This methodology has already succeeded in Johannesburg, La Paz, Cartagena, Manila and Buenos Aires. The simple idea behind this action plan consists of proposing a framework to support the populations that takes the specifics of every neighbourhood into consideration.


This is the most important mission of a social engineer. Tools such as inventories or mapping enable the social engineer to identify the “resource people” who can guarantee the success of a project. From this point onwards, local leaders, who wield influence and are respected, become the preferred partners. “You will never succeed, if these people do not support you. We call them, one by one,” explains Sachin. When we ask Abdelatif just who they are, he explains that it depends, before adding that they are “landlords, Imams and often women, who are more readily available than their husbands in Morocco.”


This often hackneyed term becomes really meaningful in the context of social engineering. It is essential that inhabitants adopt their project. And to achieve this, regular contacts are necessary. Sachin describes a process that consists of three meetings. “First, we explain the project and share it with the inhabitants. Then we address the technical aspects. And finally, we look for a consensus.”

Information and training

“We inform the inhabitants of the best practices in the network, of the average cost of a bill, of contacts people can call if they have a problem. It’s a way of raising awareness,” explains Abdelatif. And one golden rule always applies: never make a promise that you cannot keep and never offer unrealistic prospects.

Mediation is necessary

Social engineers operate like mediators, organizing the dialogue between two worlds that are not inclined to talk: the official and the unofficial, the city and the slum. Sachin has been working in the slums in Mumbai for more than eight years. He sums up his mission in a few words: “We have to diagnose the neighbourhood, understand the local economic situation then bring the local community onboard, so that they buy into the project. We also have to act as the link between the various institutional stakeholders.”

A theoretical definition that hides an issue of enormous proportions in the field. According to Sachin, Mumbai, which has 661 slums, inhabited by about 7.5 million people, is more complex than any other city. “The density of the population is extremely high. And informal neighbourhoods are springingup everywhere, replacing woods and along the coastline.” The administrative and legal obstacles do not help either. Sachin has to deal with three levels of institutional contacts: the city of Mumbai, in the shape of the city’s authorities, managers of NGOs operating throughout the city, research centres and universities. Then come the wards, with their elected representatives, council employees and local associations. And finally, the communities in the slums, comprising local associations, elected representatives and public sector employees who work in these districts on a daily basis.

Making politics work for people

“One day, the owner of a plot of land that the network crosses came after us with a gun. He thought that we were going to take his land away from him. But after lengthy explanations and exchanges, we came to an agreement, and installed the network,” explains Abdelatif.

The mistrust of social projects amongst the inhabitants of informal neighbourhoods is often due to policies that are difficult to understand and sometimes hardly egalitarian. When Sachin lists the challenges that he faces day after day, one word keeps coming back: policy. “Our job also consists of recommending and pushing through changes in policy,” he explains.

Mohammed, one of Abdelatif’s colleagues in Casablanca, emphasises the structural importance of the transformation of shanty towns and their integration in the city. “We have to integrate the most underprivileged populations and bring them up to a level where they can demand their rightful place in the world.” While connecting informal districts provides them with access to water, it also gives a legal standing to populations that are often pushed aside. The ultimate goal is to banish any distinctions from the rest of the city.

Mumbai and Casablanca are both scenes of very specific urban transformations, but the underlying challenges can still be applied on a global scale. The involvement of residents and the co-building of urban policies deserve to be at the very heart of every urban initiative, not only in emerging countries. Social engineering offers a response to a need that exists in cities in the South and the North: the need for sustainable, economical and smart cities.

Find the full article in the second issue of open_resource magazine: “Shaping resourceful cities


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