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Let’s drown in creativity – not garbage!

A solution to Karachi’s garbage and other civic problems may lie in hackathons and self-cultivation

By Asad I Mian |
For the residents of Karachi, it is more than a garbage dump — it is a forever looming health hazard. PHOTO: FILE
PUBLISHED May 02, 2021

Karachi is a mess and is only getting messier. I feel this more acutely every time I return from my work trips to Lahore, Multan or Islamabad. The comparison and contrast between Karachi and any other major city of our nation makes me keenly aware of the civic amenities that are sorely lacking in my beloved ‘K-town.’

Back in 2017, I wrote about the paan and betel nut chewing and spitting habits of the Karachiites, and how that was creating red ugly tapestries on walls, sidewalks and tiled floors, alongside the rising heaps of garbage. Sadly nothing has changed in four years since that blog. In fact, what is more likely is that the trashing of Karachi is proceeding unchecked. Perhaps not a novel speculation, I sincerely believe that the more one writes about the environmental woes of Pakistan’s largest city – and putatively most important from a financial perspective - the better it is for the denizens of this wretched city of 20 million.

This becomes all the more crucial amidst the pandemic, the increasing likelihood of us occupying the virtual (online) world notwithstanding. Add to that the urban flooding of last year - a stark reminder that climate change will henceforth ravage our city unapologetically. The condition of the infrastructure, roads per se, or lack thereof (especially during the torrential monsoon rains), becomes another concerning Karachi issue to contend with.

As you are well aware, Karachi is within the top 10 megacities of the world. In terms of global rankings, our metropolis is also placed high on lists of urban insecurity and violence, and other public health crises, such as infections, pollution, and garbage. It is the latter that I bring to your attention, yet again. This concrete jungle I have called home for the past seven years (since relocating from Houston where I resided for 15 years), has not only become dirtier but has also grown thoroughly unaesthetic and distinctively less creative.

Having visited and lived in quite a few major cities of the world, I feel there is a direct link between urban cleanliness and presence of creative zones. In other words, the cleaner and more organised the city, the happier and more creative the people seem to be. Maybe there is no scientific evidence to support this statement, but it does make intuitive sense. I believe that Karachi’s rising heaps of garbage, ugly and pointless graffiti and flyers on walls, political flags and banners on lampposts and expressways, coupled with rampant cutting down of trees, among other things, may correlate with the rising levels of interpersonal belligerence and disrespect.

Why do I bother to write about this issue, yet again? I do this because our individual and collective mental, spiritual, and physical well-being is intimately linked to our physical environment. A green and clean city with ample spaces where we can all practice our creativity is much-needed for our community’s equanimity and sanity. This will benefit not just adults, but everyone: be they our little children, elderly parents, or even plants and animals around us.

Although the problems may seem humongous, all is not lost. I beseech like-minded people to come forth and answer my call to action. Collectivism shall help address the above issues through sustainable solutions. Collective effort equals collective wisdom equals better solutions. We can start simple – say with neighborhood chai discussions (being mindful of Covid-19 SOPs). This may be preceded or followed by creating a group of one’s neighbours that is willing to communicate effectively using WhatsApp for deliberations. Whether the virtual or face-to-face discussions lead to a formalised neighborhood and community advocacy group (with bylaws including an organogram or governance structure) depends on the energy and drive of said group. Perhaps such things are already happening in Karachi at small scale. If so, then this could be an opportunity to connect individual ‘nodes’ for escalating the ‘noise’ (in a good way) around issues that matter most to us – or should – such as cleanliness, greenery, clean air/water/soil, respecting the young and the old, and not to forget, respecting plants and animals under our care.

Another fabulous intervention to maximally engage the neighborhood could be community-based hackathons. A hackathon is an event in which multi-disciplinary teams of young and old people identify and solve problems in real time. Although civic hackathons have already been run in Karachi as early as 2013, this time around they may be repeated in select neighbourhoods on specific themes through virtual means. This grass roots level approach may be an empathetic way to involve the real stakeholders in both problem identification and solution development. For happier urban living in Karachi, a top down approach might not work as effectively or sustainably as a neighbourhood or community-driven hackathon approach may. The hackathons may also lead to meaningful reflection on the attitudes and behaviours of Karachiites around garbage; for instance they could be probed as to why we tend to throw trash out of moving cars, spit or piss on walls, etc in Karachi, but take us to another city and we would dare not do so? Is that because of fear of repercussions; of being fined or jailed, even? We don’t even need to imagine being in another city - we wouldn’t do the same inside our own homes in Karachi, yet the moment we step outside onto the streets our attitude shifts and we become trigger happy vis-à-vis throwing garbage willy-nilly. What is the psychology behind that? I think the hackathon process itself could really help hack the careless attitudes of the citizens.

Hence, to summarise, I am hopeful that several perennial and vexing garbage-related and other problems of Karachi may be systematically identified and hacked in groups that could include children, youth and the elderly. In doing so, we would also be democratizing the community innovation process and creating citizen scientists along the way.

During an online course titled ‘Creativity, Innovation and Transformation’ on Coursera, not too long ago, I came across an intriguing German concept called Bildung, which refers to self-cultivation. It is a lifelong process in which mind and heart facilitate personal growth through self-reflection. It may also help establish profoundly meaningful connections with yourself and those around you, so you may focus your energy on what is truly relevant to you. I am reminded of a question that I was asked in the last module in the course: “In what ways can you use Bildung to enhance your capacity for self-determination, co-determination and solidarity? And how can you use it to connect with others to tackle problems collectively?”

Climate change came to mind – a pressing 21st Century issue that we could tackle together. It then occurred to me that my passion to hack Karachi’s environmental issues was merely stemming from Bildung principles that I strongly affiliated with. Furthermore, the process would ensure that others without the same privileges as I would also be able to practice self-determination and co-determination, get opportunity to contribute to the world around them, and thus achieve their inner Bildungs.

Here is an opportunity to work with a team of like-minded individuals on an issue that has been frequently ignored by me, thinking that it is not my problem but the city government’s. Perhaps I am merely dumping the responsibility of my city’s environment onto the politician’s plate? Rather than being adversarial towards city governance that we may feel has achieved diddly squat year in and year out, we could collaborate with the local government wholeheartedly. Ultimately, to scale any impactful outcomes of the initiatives mentioned above, civic hackathons per se, it would require a robust public-private partnership, including government officials, social innovators, entrepreneurs and investors.

In conclusion, I truly believe that Karachiites can co-create cleaner, greener, and happier urban living for themselves. In a spirit of inclusivity, all in the community, regardless of age, gender, literacy or income level, socio-religio-political affiliation (or its lack), could be encouraged to join. Through such combined effort, we shall be a tour de force addressing the longstanding issues of Karachi’s garbage, and all shall become beneficiaries. Inshallah, with clean soil, water, air, courtyards, streets, and walls, the purity shall reflect in people’s emotions and actions. Last, but not least, our community’s creativity shall thrive in such a milieu.