Cool Infrastructures: Life With Heat in the Off Grid City

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh


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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Description Key findings to date highlight the contradictions between heat-health governance interventions and interventions intended to limit the spread of COVID-19 in overheating cities. We have collected data from 4400 people on their experience of heat-stress during COVID-19, and have identified key changes as a result of lockdown and social distancing measures.

We identified clear associations between heat exposure, health and wellbeing as the result of poor-quality housing, as well as reductions in access to electricity and water, during the pandemic. Our research found a statistically significant increase in experiences of thermal discomfort and in symptoms of heat related illnesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, even in regions that did not experience higher than usual surface temperatures at the time of the survey. Vulnerabilities to domestic heat exposure - including those related to building materials, access to electricity and water, and gender - were also accentuated by lockdowns and social distancing measures intended to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. We found a close correlation between reduced access to water and electricity during the pandemic, an increase in the experience of thermal discomfort, and symptoms of heat related illness. We found that heat-health can be impacted whenever levels of vulnerability and exposure to heat increase.
Exploitation Route Key findings have been written up for the Red Cross Climate Centre (ETA, April 2022)
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Energy

Description Scottish Funding Council (SFC) - GCRF projects
Amount £99,540 (GBP)
Organisation SFC 
Sector Private
Country Korea, Republic of
Start 03/2020 
End 05/2020
Title Multi-Country Heat-COVID-19 Nexus Survey 
Description Multi-country, remote survey to evaluate the interplay between COVID-19 mitigation measures, heat-health, and livelihoods for populations living in densely populated urban areas. Survey data available for Pakistan, India, Indonesia, and Cameroon. Data collected remotely via mobile phone survey with ~4400 randomly identified respondents. Answers to open questions have been cleaned, coded, and grouped within a common thematic coding framework. Temperature and humidity data sourced from to correspond to survey dates. Heat Index (HI) calculation added to determine the incorporated effects. English language translations of answers to open questions provided by Aalok Khandekar (India), Anindrya Nastiti and Wika Maulany Fatimah (Indonesia); Kirsten Campbell (Cameroon); and Adam Abdullah (Pakistan). Data available in CSV file format. Data generated as part of the ESRC/GCRF project "Cool Infrastructures: Life with heat in the Off Grid City (ES/T008091/1), with additional funding from the Scottish Funding Council. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Multi-country, remote survey to evaluate the interplay between COVID-19 mitigation measures, heat-health, and livelihoods for populations living in densely populated urban areas, this dataset will have significant impact, not least in informing practitioners and policy makers An explanatory post can be found on the project website here 
Description Can't Take the Heat : COVID-19 Lockdowns and Extreme Heat in Informal Settlements 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The 'Can't Take the Heat' podcast explores how people will adapt to a warming world. Host Roop Singh approaches the biggest challenges posed by climate change, like more intense and frequent heatwaves, from a humanitarian perspective. How will the impacts of climate change affect people around the world? What are the big solutions that are in the works? How do we make them happen? The podcast features experts from around the world including leading scientists developing climate solutions, and humanitarian volunteers telling stories of climate change from the frontlines of disasters

COVID-19 Lockdowns and Extreme Heat in Informal Settlements

In the northern hemisphere, as countries were starting to enter the hottest time of the year, the world shut down in lockdowns intended to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus. What happened to people living in informal settlements who had to deal with the dual impacts of COVID-19 lockdowns and the heat season?

Elspeth Oppermann, Senior Research Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, conducted surveys in Cameroon, Pakistan, India, and Indonesia through the Cool Infrastructures project to understand if responses to the pandemic had shaped people's ability to manage extreme heat in off-grid settlements. Poor building materials created "oven-like" conditions for some, and finely-tuned practices to cool down were disrupted in many cases.

References and Supplemental Materials:

Blog explaining the COVID-19 & Heat survey work
Explore the raw data from the Cool Infrastructure project's surveys
Anwar, N., et al. (2020) Heat and Covid-19 in the Off-Grid City. Somatosphere, July 2, 2020.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Engagement and research focused website 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact The project website was created to convey the research and activities of the group throughout the project. Engagement with the site has been encouraging at this stage with over 100 unique views since its inception. It's audience is international, and primarily research or practitioner. The website is acting as a repository for papers, blogs and social media at the moment, this has brought some attention to our research group from decision makers across the cities and subject areas that Cool Infrastructures addresses.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020