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“Informality” as a concept first emerged in the 1960s among Western social scientists who adopted the formal-informal dualistic framework to understand urban migration and labor markets in developing countries. The International Labor Organization (ILO) picked up and popularized the idea of the informal sector, and many international donors and governments followed suit. They implemented a plethora of initiatives aiming to formalize the “informals”, who were deemed unorganized, self-employed, and poor. Then came Hernado De Soto, who celebrated the informal sector as being dynamic, competitive, and entrepreneurial. Informal activities to him are rational responses to the state’s excessive controls, providing people with “the other path to development”.
A few decades have passed, and we still see informal activities everywhere in Southeast Asian cities, partly because the rural-urban migration as the catalyst for informality is still occurring. Of course, real world phenomena evolve faster than academic concepts that try to explain them. “Informal” activities are changing rapidly due to the dynamic nature of the economy, polity, and society. Increasing globalization of information, goods and services, and technological advancement—especially in information and communication—are making the informal sector even more dynamic and volatile than ever. Informality remains a key issue with serious implications for development and poverty.
This issue of TRENDNOVATION SOUTHEAST attempts to spot some recent signals of informality in Southeast Asia. The first article traces the emerging trends and issues in the informal transport sector. Mobility has direct implications for human security and growth; without adequate and affordable means of travel, people have limited access to employment and other sources of livelihood. As the state often fails to provide such basic services, informal transport, such as motorcycle taxis, jeepneys, vans, and minibuses, gladly fill in the void.
The second article features an array of innovative solutions in the informal sector in Southeast Asia. By learning about these innovations, we see their entrepreneurial spirit, dynamism, and a great potential for development and poverty alleviation. So far policies on informality have rightly aimed at building social protection and safety nets for informal workers, but perhaps we also need to look beyond that and do more to enhance their innovative capabilities.
The third article takes a different view on informality, focusing on “leaderless” organizations that could potentially change the way in which business and development initiatives are undertaken in Southeast Asia. This type of “informal” organization is increasingly observed in various sectors, ranging from terrorism to Open Source software development.
TRENDNOVATION SOUTHEAST this month interviews Dr. ATM Nurul Amin, Professor of the Department of Environmental Science and Management of North South University (NSU), Dhaka, Bangladesh. An expert on the urban informal sector in the region, he shares his views on the informal sector in Southeast Asia, particularly from the decent-work perspective adopted by the ILO.
Our Infographic of the month features partial results from a regional research project entitled “Towards Innovative, Liveable, and Prosperous Asian Megacities”. City Innovations towards Bangkok 2030 highlight 18 expectable and desirable innovations that correspond to three scenarios for Bangkok in the year 2030, namely, Green City, Google City, and Gray City.