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Urban Labs Innovation Challenge

In a first-of-a-kind collaboration with the University of Chicago (USA), the Dialogue and Development Commission of Delhi (DDC Delhi) organised an open public competition called ‘The Urban Labs Innovation Challenge: Delhi’ to solicit ideas in energy and environment related areas in Delhi. DDC Delhi’s proposal for the same consisted of details regarding application and selection process of competition, timelines, logistics and funding support from the University of Chicago etc.

The competition was focused to crowdsource the best local innovative ideas to reduce Delhi’s share of pollution and meet the city’s future energy needs. The competition introduced a unique approach of identifying, refining, testing and scaling up innovative policy solutions.

Current Stage

The Challenge was a project of the Tata Centre for Development, which is supported by Tata Trust. Three winners were selected from nearly 250 students, researchers, entrepreneurs, nonprofit and for-profit organizations and citizens from across India and around the world who submitted their ideas for the Delhi Innovation Challenge. They collectively received a sum of Rs 2 crore ($300,000) to help them pilot and test their ideas at scale.

The winners are working with the University of Chicago Urban Labs, the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago’s India team (EPIC-India), and DDC Delhi to pilot and test their ideas. If successful, Delhi Government could implement the programs at a large scale, providing an important model for other cities to follow in India and beyond.


This Group Uses Soot from Gensets to Leave its Mark

Particulate matter pollution is known to cause strokes, asthma and even cancer. Vehicle exhaust, including diesel generators, contributes up to 34 percent of Delhi’s particulate pollution. This project would employ a device which when coupled with the exhaust pipe of diesel engines absorbs over 72 percent of the particulate matter—all without negative effects on engine performance. The technology can then convert this captured particulate matter into black ink and paints which can be sold to literally “Print from Pollution.”

The project would pilot the technology initially on diesel generators used as power back-ups for mobile telephone towers in Delhi, which are off the grid and consume over 50 litres of diesel each day to run. There are over 14,000 mobile towers in Delhi and most of them have a diesel generator installed either as the primary source of power or as power back-up in case of load shedding. From there, the project will use the technology for larger diesel generators used at big hospitals and hotels, followed commercial vehicles.

How Crop Waste Can Give Back to Soil and Keep the Air Clean Too

Most farmers in Punjab and Haryana burn rice straw after harvesting is over to prepare fields quickly for the next season’s crops. Burning from the two states comprises 48 percent of total emissions from rice straw burning across India. During the months rice straw is burned, Delhi experiences a much higher air pollution, with PM 2.5 levels commonly exceeding 400 ppm.

Governments in Punjab and Haryana have acknowledged the importance of the issue. Straw burning is actually illegal, but inexpensive, and thus widely practiced. “Charvesters” affordably recycle rice straw into biochar with clean emissions using the Biochar Reactors developed by the Climate Foundation. “Charvesting” allows farmers to comply with existing air pollution laws at minimal cost and effort, increase soil productivity and restore depleted lands. Several villages in Haryana support this project and have agreed to change the practice of open rice¬ straw burning and pilot the proposed “Charvesting” system.

This approach will ultimately lead to a significant reduction in air and water pollution in Northern India including Delhi, provide a cost ¬effective, reliable, sustainable and decentralized approach to address local needs, increase crop growth, improve farmer productivity, sequester carbon in soils, and provide a valuable income source for rural villages.

A Cool Idea on the Roof can Bring Down Slum Home Heat

Access to light, ventilation, and efficient energy is critical to improving the quality of life and productivity of the poor, especially women who spend the majority of their time indoors. Unfortunately, these women only have illegal and irregular access to electricity. Poor light and ventilation make them depend more on electrical lighting and cooling devices, and the dwellings are often constructed with materials that absorb heat and require more energy to cool down. Slum communities often use cooling fans for hours a day, raising their energy bills by over 3000 INR per month especially during summers.

This project will pilot modular roofs in three slums of Delhi to reduce home temperatures and improve ventilation. It will also mobilize communities to generate awareness on the benefits of using the product by training women entrepreneurs and design a loan product to create a sustainable business model. The improved indoor environment will help reduce exposure to extreme heat. The reduction in household energy costs will allow poor households to increase spending on food, health, and education, resulting in improvements in the quality of life. And the low energy, better designed homes will make the households less vulnerable to weather impacts, improve their resilience against climate change risks.


Vertical Gardens to Control Outdoor Air Pollution

Bhalswa Jahangir Pur Slums in Delhi are home to the poorest of the poor, who are the worst victims of swelling air pollution in the city. Apart from inhaling the routine automobile exhaust, the slum dwellers are exposed to a highly toxic air due to burning of solid waste and wooden feedstock used in cooking stoves. The prolonged exposure to such unhygienic conditions has been shown to retard the physical and mental growth of residents, especially children.

This project would provide the Bhalswa Jahangir Pur slum dwellers cleaner air through a techno-societal intervention comprised of two pillars: A vertical garden/green wall that substantially absorbs the major air pollutants through an avant-garde hydroponic media embedded with selective smart adsorbents, and community ownership to slum dwellers for operation and maintenance of the commons. The project would reduce pollutants by as much as 30 percent in the immediate area of the slums.

Looking for a Solid Idea to Guard Against Waste Burning

The burning of municipal solid waste contributes to about 10 percent of particulate matter pollution during Delhi’s winters. This project would tackle waste burning by addressing the challenge of waste burning by security guards during winter nights. Delhi’s air could be poisoned by at least 30,000 small fires every night from November to February, also the peak air pollution months, by security guards to keep warm. Even the best waste management systems cannot address this, hence it requires a focused intervention to yield impactful results.

The long-term goal of the project is to eliminate air pollution where it is caused by burning of waste locally by combining behavior change and low-cost technical and engineered innovations at the mohalla level.

Chintan will influence behavior change amongst residents, security guards and security agencies as well as test tangible technical solutions with 50 guards, gleaned via an open, public competition for improved clothing and kiosks. Enabling security guards to remain warmer, along with education about the impact of burning waste on their own health, will prevent them from burning waste by as much as 60 percent.

Reap Benefit

Making a city livable is not the government’s responsibility alone. This project puts some of the power in the hands of citizens through the ‘U-Governance’ app. The App aims to assist citizens in solving local environment and civic issues, in concert with their local municipality, starting with a focus on water and sanitation. The app will make accessible local data and information on appropriate government bodies, a database of customizable solutions, and community engagement and mutual learning between citizens and the government.

The goal of the app is to empower citizens to bring about a transformation through a combination of report features, solutions and rich local data generated through the app. It will solve local issues along with the government through local data & local solutions.

Food for Thought: How to Plug Water Leaks at City Restaurants

Water is under a constant stress, with growing demand from all sectors including restaurants. Much of this stress is caused because of water wastage or inefficient use. In 2015, Delhi Jal Board has fined over 850 people including owners of hotels, restaurants, and commercial complexes for misuse of water and illegal water and sewer connections.

This project would initiate the process of efficient water management in this sector by encouraging restaurants to take simple steps like plugging leaks, serving customers with half a glass of water and raising awareness of various key stakeholders on the importance of water conservation. The restaurants would be awarded with a blue star for their efforts, which would inspire other restaurants and others to follow suit. In the long-run, this project would promote water conservation in all sectors across the city and establish rating system of water use.



The Challenge is run by the University of Chicago Urban Labs, with close coordination and implementation support from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago's India Office, and the Dialogue Development Commission of Delhi. It is a project of the Tata Centre for Development and is supported by Tata Trusts.