Cool Infrastructures: Life With Heat in the Off Grid City

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Social and Political Science


Rising temperatures in cities make access to cool infrastructures a global challenge. The UN's 'Cooling for All' coalition estimates that 1.1 billion people worldwide have little or no access to cooling to protect them against extreme heat . Those defined as most at risk include 630 million people across South Asia, South East Asia and Sub Saharan Africa who live in poor quality housing on low incomes, with limited, intermittent or insecure access to electricity and few if any electrical cooling appliances. Current global and national frameworks for action on heat in global cities categorise the negative effects of heat on these urban residents as either a public health issue (i.e. leading to heat illness, dehydration and disease) or an economic issue (i.e. leading to a decline in employment, worker productivity and output). Yet this categorisation significantly limits the way that frameworks for action on heat account for socio-economic inequality and gender.

In some countries, like India and Pakistan, international and national frameworks for responding to extreme heat in cities have led to urban heat action plans and public awareness raising. However, action on overheating by city planners and policy makers remains typically top-down and technology driven; frequently challenged by silo-ed agendas, unexamined assumptions about energy cultures and practices, and the vulnerabilities of the poorest groups. There have been no systematic, comparative attempts to document how people living in contexts of urban poverty manage heat or meet their needs for cool food, water and space. As a result, there is little evidence about whether current strategies are a good fit for the contexts in which they are deployed.

Over 36 months, this project will put 'access to cooling' at the centre of a major new interdisciplinary and comparative study of human-infrastructure interactions in 'the off-grid city'. The projected effects of 2-4 degrees C global heating on cities make the impact of uneven grids for energy, water and transportation on cool infrastructures and practices an urgent arena for scholarship. Against this backdrop, human-centred approaches to the study of energy infrastructures have the potential to make a major contribution to action on overheating by transforming the way cooling needs and capacities are understood at the global, national and city level; by establishing cooling as social as well as technical; and by promoting sustainable interventions.

Our research will take place in four cities - Hyderabad (India), Karachi (Pakistan), Yaoundé (Cameroon) and Jakarta (Indonesia) - enabling us to develop the first globally comparative study of cool infrastructures across the Global South. These four cities are critical global sites for research on heat and cooling. India, Pakistan and Indonesia are home to three of the nine largest low income urban populations in the world currently facing heat related risks. Cameroon is home to two of the twelve fastest growing urban populations facing heat related risks in Sub Saharan Africa. In each location, post-colonial patterns of urban growth, increasing population density, and pressures on infrastructures for water and energy are compounding the effect of 'urban heat islands', exacerbating the risks from heat for marginalised people, especially women, and shaping the specific context in which people negotiate access to cooling. Comparative research will allow us to bring these practices into relief, whilst building new South-South partnerships between cities (like Karachi and Hyderabad) in which extreme heat is attracting urgent attention in the present and cities (like Jakarta, Yaoundé) in which action on extreme heat is being deferred into the future.

Planned Impact

The principal beneficiaries of this research are women and men living with partial or limited access to electricity in low income urban settlements across Yaoundé, Karachi, Hyderabad, and Jakarta, and beyond. Improving access to affordable, sustainable cooling and reducing the impact of heat waves for these groups requires us to stimulate debate and facilitate action on cooling amongst:

Urban Civil Society Practitioners: Across all four cities, we will link our research on the effects of heat on urban communities, and the intersection with access to electricity and water with work undertaken by grassroots organisations, NGOs and civil society practitioners based in low income urban settlements.

City Planners, Policy Makers and Politicians: Local government practices, plans and policies are vital to the reduction of heat related urban vulnerabilities. We will inform municipal planning by targeting specific actors, supporting two-way learning on heat and cooling, and advising on the development of heat indices and strategies.

Pro Poor Designers: Technology roadmaps for low cost cooling technologies in 'bottom of the pyramid' markets currently encourage designers to focus on universal, electrically powered consumer appliances (fans and refrigerators).

Heat/Cooling Experts in International Organisations: including experts on the UN's Cooling for All Secretariat, the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Programme, the World Meteorological Organisation's Climate and Health Office and the International Federation of the Red Cross's Climate Centre.

We will translate our research methods, data, analysis and outputs into action on a national and global level by developing:
1) gender based assessments and forecasts of vulnerability to heat risk in the case study cities, and beyond.
2) a social-practice based needs assessment protocol (including adaptable survey and ethnographic approaches) for use by international, national and regional organisations working to accelerate 'access to cooling for all'.
3) updated technology roadmaps on cooling and promote context sensitive, passive or vernacular design to designers.
4) A Portfolio of professional images and films (4 x ~5 min films and 1x~30 min film/city). Filmmaker commissioned to edit these into 1 project length film (~1 hour).
5) A digital archive/open source repository of at least 80 cool innovations (the 'coolbox').
6) a print catalogue, translating the text into French, Urdu, Telugu and Bahasa Indonesia. 1000 copies of each catalogue published for distribution in a newspaper format to our research participants, city-based stakeholders and organisations;
7) Collaborations with four city specific arts-based organisations to exhibit/screen all materials (points 1-3) in contexts accessible to principal beneficiaries and contexts accessible to city based planners, policy makers and politicians.
8) A five-part series of 30 min webinars on bottom up approaches to cooling made available to at least 50 experts and specialists via the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Programme's web portal.
9) 5 week face-to-face curriculum for professional development on cooling.
10) A 5 module Massive Online Open Course, to be made available online in English and French. Example modules might include: assumptions about cooling behaviour; understanding cooling cultures and practices.
11) 2 hackathons for national, regional and international designers.


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