Ramola Naik Singru
An architect drawing her own path
Ramola reveals how the process of unearthing her intentions in life – from doodling to design to development – ended up paving a way for empowering people to own their future through participatory planning.
By all means, senior urban development specialist Ramola Naik Singru is an archetype—and not.
Born to progressive Indian parents with a gender neutral attitude (her father is a lawyer and her mother is a doctor), she was raised “to believe that [she and her sister] can do everything so long as [they] put [their] 100% commitment towards achieving it”. At age 12, she competed in badminton at the national level. Later on, she studied in prominent schools in Mumbai and London, taking up her bachelor's degree at Sir J.J. College of Architecture and graduate studies at the London School of Economics (LSE), respectively.
It may not appear so, but Ramola did break the mold. She is the first architect in a family of doctors and lawyers. She gravitated towards design, having from an early age been keen to doodle and exposed to her mom’s artistry.
Architecture gave her the perfect foundation to philosophize—what is design and its purpose? “There has always been this debate about form following function or function following form, but for me, it was really about people first at every point,” she mused. Her undergraduate thesis covering socioeconomic issues of regeneration to promote local economic development of a small textile weavers' town in Maharashtra was unique in linking historic temple architecture with saree designs. This keen interest in urban design led her to the Cities Programme at LSE, where multi-disciplinary professionals (architects, planners, social scientists, lawyers, and transport engineers) come together in a studio setting to design cities.
Truly, she neither followed form nor function of her forebears, and instead because of dissecting design to its social constructs, she carved for herself a role in international development, to work with people to create livable urban spaces. Her training enabled her to seamlessly move between spatial scales, from architecture and urban design to urban and regional planning. Like most architects in development, she imagined working for the United Nations, which she did as a consultant for UN-Habitat, and with the Cities Development Initiative for Asia (CDIA). However, it was her forte of bringing together multi-disciplinary thinking for urban planning that led her to work with ADB under the Urban Sector Group (then the Urban Community of Practice) in 2010.
She formulated the framework for undertaking national urban assessments and developed toolkits for enabling inclusive cities under the Urban Operational Plan. She worked on several projects, notably the GrEEEn Cities initiative in Southeast Asia. Ramola joined ADB as full-fledged staff of the Central and West Asia Urban Development and Water Division (CWUW) in 2015 to bring a fresh impetus to the integrated planning approach being initiated in the region.
In CWUW, she is the country focal for Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, and is the alternate cluster leader for the urban sector cluster that includes both countries along with Azerbaijan and Georgia. She is also the urban sector focal for the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) and the Almaty-Bishkek Economic Corridor. One of the upcoming projects she is jointly leading with the Central and West Asia Public Management, Financial Sector, and Trade Division (CWPF) is a $500 million loan for the Kazakhstan Urban Infrastructure Modernization Program and Finance Facility, a joint project with the World Bank and a clear example of a One ADB project with team members from across divisions and departments.
By this point, it’s not unheard of for any professional (whether in development or otherwise) to become a bit worn down, or even jaded, but here is where Ramola subverts the stereotype again. “That’s the thing. You have to keep this passion alive all the time… You have to get out of the numbers. When you’re working here you can get too deep into the administration, but we have to always remember the vision and mission we came for. That’s what matters.”
“If we don't reach out to people, if we don't make them aware in a language that is easy for them to understand, then there will not be a long-term systemic change. If they don't make a change in their practices, then no miracle will make a city livable.”
Ramola Naik Singru
Senior Urban Development Specialist
Central and West Asia Urban Development and Water Division
What drives you? What motivates you?
Ramola: For me, I think right from the beginning I was always very motivated to help people. Everything comes from a ‘people-first’ perspective. I genuinely enjoy talking to people, working with them, and knowing more about their lives and how we can contribute in a positive way. I come from a family where everybody is a doctor, lawyer, or in the armed forces, so I was the first architect. My choice of pursuing architecture was due to my fascination with design, on one hand; and the fact that architecture touches people's lives everyday at a very basic scale. We live in buildings. We are surrounded by architecture and the environment it creates. As I studied architecture, I became interested with how the overall city is based on people’s economic activities and how culture merges with architecture to give a city its character. People identify very strongly with their cities. A person from Mumbai will never want to move to Delhi... its healthy rivalry between cities. Instinctively, I transitioned towards a larger scale. When I got the scholarship to study a master's degree at LSE – this was a very unique course for city design and social science, which brought people from all walks of life to the drawing table – it was a life-changing moment as a new world of urban economics and social studies opened up, giving me the opportunity to connect the dots on what drives cities. It also made me realize that I am a life-long learner and I really like to know the cause of things—Rerum Cognoscere Causas, the LSE motto.
Social development is a key aspect of what I wanted to do. I looked for opportunities where I could bring together urban planning, economics, and social development. And this drove a lot of the work I have done. If you see the publications on GrEEEn Cities, Livable Cities, and Inclusive Cities, it all comes from this multi-pronged approach to making cities more livable, productive, and inclusive. It’s about people’s overall well-being.
Do you think you were also influenced by your parents’ professions or even more so your surroundings in India?
Ramola: Yes, I think so. We always see our parents as role models and I would see that my mom as a doctor was always stepping up to help everyone. My grandmother, too, was a strong woman. In 1944, she was widowed when my mother was just 12 days old. She raised my mother independently, a single mother. She inspired quiet confidence. So we were brought up with the notion that we had to be considerate and see beyond ourselves, see the big picture. I think that big picture was what drew me towards ADB. Similar to what I did working as a consultant for UN-Habitat, CDIA, as well as in the UK, I was working on strategic policies and projects because we have to work both ways, top-down and bottom-up. With GrEEEn Cities in Southeast Asia and now Livable Urban Areas in Georgia, we have applied this two-pronged approach approach to building the vision of a city. How do you work with people and get their dreams and aspirations for the places that they live in on to the planning drafting board? My focus is really to bring in upstream planning that can help with forward-looking investments, which is why I applied city visioning in my projects for participatory planning.
This is also the forward-looking integrated planning approach we have in CWUW. With the Livable Urban Areas technical assistance that I'm leading, it's about ensuring that we build more consensus and ownership from the people and the institutions we work with. Whatever we invest in has to be sustainable, and that can only happen with a buy-in from the communities, bureaucrats, and the politicians. So I see myself as an enabler, a facilitator to bring everyone to the table and match these aspirations, kind of connect the dots between what people want, what the politicians want, and what the overall economic direction the city needs, and then how do we all together steer this growth.
Of course, that is the ideal scenario. How challenging is it to actually implement on the ground to get people participating in building the city that they want?
Ramola: It is challenging because everyone always says urban development is very complex. I see that we should take that as a given. Cities are complex. We live in cities. Our lives are complex. The point is, because it is complex it doesn’t mean we cannot resolve things. I look it as an opportunity. We at ADB have the ability to work at all the different levels of interaction, with the government, communities, the private sector, and academia; and hence, are best placed to be the enablers.
For example, we're working in three different regions in Georgia since the government wanted to develop tourism and have balanced regional development. We enabled the youth to participate in city visioning from an early point, and now they are job-shadowing the consultants. University students are working with our TA consultants to understand what is the role played by the different specialists such as the urban planner, environmental engineer, social development specialist, and the IT specialist, in the various tasks they do, say an urban needs assessment or a city profile. That will get them interested in how the city works and develops. The students, for instance, are using mobile technology to gather data because that’s something youngsters are very accustomed to. How do you tap into their potential? You speak to them through their language. Because their knowledge of their city is immense, so they bring something and they learn something. It’s a win-win situation.
This was also in response to people's needs and aspirations. During scoping, locals mentioned that they wanted their youth to stay in their respective home towns and cities. So you look at the competitive advantage of each region and you work through that, such that they will stay, get jobs there, and you open up opportunities for people to have better lives in the city where they can live, work, and play.
We need to listen more and I think that’s the way to move forward. You listen more and then act, strategically through investments. We were very appreciative that the government supported this initiative as they saw a value in taking time to strategically prepare investments through master planning. We even had a joint brainstorming retreat among three ministries to select the regions. We managed to get diverse participation with engaged and interested people everywhere.
If you could pick one, what would you say is the most special moment in your 20-year-long career?
Ramola: You know there are a lot of moments when you do feel that you’ve at least touched someone’s life. I remember sometime back in Georgia when we were on a loan review mission for a water supply and sanitation project in one of the cities, there was this old couple who came and stood out. They had been standing there for a long time just observing us. I kept wondering why they were standing there with so much noise around, so I asked for one of the translators to come with me and I crossed the street and went to them. I asked them if everything was okay and if there was any concern with the noise. They said, ‘No, we’re just standing here to thank you’. I asked, ‘Thank us?’ The lady, who was probably in her 70s, said, ‘Yes, this is the first time I’m going to have water inside my house… in all my life’. You can imagine what that must have meant during the harsh winters.
For me this was a special moment… that's when, you know, we may think big and plan strategically, but at the end of the day when you touch someone’s life and make it easier… you’re doing something good.
You seem to be one of the more vocal advocates of livable cities. Why is it important for people to know more about livable cities?
Ramola: I think if you want change to be sustainable, it has to be people-driven. Sustainable change can only come through transformative change. Creating 'Livable Cities' is a long-term process that can happen through mindset and behavior change that occurs over a period of time. We have to engage with cities over the long term to ensure this happens. Livable cities and the whole notion of raising quality of life, ensuring that we use resources in a sustainable manner, or that there’s equity and we need to be inclusive, it’s not going to come along with one or two people following or even advocating it. We have to bring more awareness and you want people to bring about change in their lives. If we don’t reach out to people, if we don’t make them aware in a language that is easy for them to understand, then there will not be a long-term systemic change. If they don't make a change in their practices, then no miracle will make a city livable. It’s important that no matter how small an element it is, behavior change should form a part of the communication strategy of urban projects. We are initiating this in Tajikistan in our first urban project in Dushanbe, where water conservation will be introduced through behavior change communication. Such initiatives will enable us to meet the SDGs, really making sustainability not just a catchphrase but implementable on the ground.
Being an architect and into design, do you have other creative pursuits?
Ramola: I like photography. Whenever I travel I like to bring my camera and take photos. I even used my own photos for the cover of the Georgia national assessment. My co-author and I also helped conceptualize the illustration for our flagship publication, Green Solutions for Livable Cities. I like to explore design in all aspects. I designed my own furniture and sourced a local craftsman to make it with local materials. I teach my domestic helpers to sew and do embroidery. Eventually, after retirement, I want to work in livelihoods and skills development to promote indigenous handicrafts, handlooms, and textiles. In fact, in one of the tourist clusters in Georgia, an idea came up for souvenir development so the small tourist town can have a marketplace and the women can have a livelihood making souvenirs. I guess you tend to bring something of yourself to every project.