Pre thinking:

Robert Neuwirth spent four years among the chaotic stalls of street markets, talking to pushcart hawkers and gray marketers, to study the remarkable “System D,” the world’s unlicensed economic network. Responsible for some 1.8 billion jobs, it’s an economy of underappreciated power and scope.

Who is he:

Robert Neuwirth, author of “Shadow Cities,” finds the world’s squatter sites — where a billion people now make their homes — to be thriving centers of ingenuity and innovation. Neuwirth spent two years exploring one of the most profound trends of our time: the mass migration of the world’s population into urban shantytowns. A billion people live as squatters. Life in a favela, slum, shantytown is hard: no water, no transport, no sewage. But in the squatter cities of Rio, Nairobi, Istanbul and Mumbai, Neuwirth discovered restaurants, markets, clinics and effective forms of self-organization.

Why you should View?:

Robert Neuwirth challenges conventional thinking by examining the world’s informal economy close up. To do so, he spent four years living and working with street vendors and gray marketers, to capture its scope, its vigor — and its lessons. He calls it “System D,” and he argues that it’s not a hidden economy but a very visible, growing, effective one that fosters entrepreneurship and represents 1.8 billion jobs worldwide.

Our challenge, Neuwirth says, isn’t to end squatter cities or shut down gray markets but to engage and empower those who live and work in them.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Squatters, shantytowns, underground economies are perhaps the fastest growing forms of urban development. What does the individual who moves there must bring to the community?
  2. Are we likely to see this kind of development in the first world? Why or why not?
  3. “I’ve pirated the term System D from the former French colonies. There’s a word in French that is débrouillardise, that means to be self-reliant, and the former French colonies have turned that into System D for the economy of self-reliance, or the DIY economy.” Says Neuwirth. Do you think that we are losing that spirit in the developed world’s economy?
  4. He describes the Turkish way of integrating Shantytown development into the regular economy. Should this become a worldwide model?

Making Connections:

Before I travel to any country, I try to read its fiction and poetry and immerse myself in as much of its written culture as I can. I’ve found that fiction and poetry often get there first and, beyond works involving individual countries, here are some books that inspired me as I was writing *Stealth of Nations* and *Shadow Cities*.


Pig Earth

John Berger
Vintage, 1992

Berger finds poetry in the humdrum, and pragmatism in big dreams. This trilogy movingly chronicles the social dislocations and new social conglomerations of rural-to-urban migration.


Once in Europa

John Berger
Bloomsbury USA, 2000


Lilac and Flag

John Berger
Vintage, 1992



Patrick Chamoiseau
Vintage, 1998

Chamoiseau and Latife Tekin (below) offer evocative accounts in which squatters and street vendors are fully formed characters and participants in their own communities and political life. In Juan Goytisolo’s book (also below), the street market functions as a welcoming oasis, the antithesis of a separated, elitist, regimented, rule-bound Western city.


Solibo Magnificent

Patrick Chamoiseau
Anchor, 1999


Berji Kristin

Latife Tekin
Marion Boyars Publishers, 2000



Juan Goytisolo
Dalkey Archive Press, 2008


I was an organizer before I became a writer and I still believe in the power of disenfranchised communities to band together and grapple with 21st-century pressures.


Abahlali baseMjondolo

This Durban, South Africa-based shackdwellers’ group specializes in speaking truth to power.


Slum Dwellers International

I’m not convinced that scaling up is always good, but if any poor people’s movement can operate at a global scale, SDI would be the one.


Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing

This is a consortium of NGOs from around the world promoting rights, recognition and dignity for informal workers.


These are some visionary works that help flip standard perceptions on their head.


Freedom to Build

John F. C. Turner, ed. and Robert Fichter, ed.
Collier Macmillan, 1973

Turner was the first builder/planner/architect to articulate the obvious: that squatters were creative neighborhood developers who ought to have the right to build their own communities.


Housing by People

John F. C. Turner
Marion Boyars Publishers, 2000


Congo-Paris: Transnational Traders on the Margins of the Law

Janet MacGaffey and Rémy Bazenguissa-Ganga
Indiana University Press, 2000

This is an innovative look at a uniquely African version of globalization.


The works of Colin Ward

The gentle British anarchist, who died in 2010, wrote widely on planning, housing and organizing. Some of his essays can be found at The Anarchist Library.


Cotters and Squatters: Housing’s Hidden History

Colin Ward
AKPress, 2005


Owning the Earth

Andro Linklater
Bloomsbury USA, 2013

Linklater’s latest, and, sadly, last book (he died suddenly, as it was being published), started as an examination of the roots of the fiscal meltdown of 2008-2009 and morphed into a nuanced history of the power and perils of private property.



The “Shadow Cities” of Our Future – with Robert Neuwirth


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