African ideas for African cities

Abbas Jamie, Aurecon’s Market Director for Government and Transport
Our Africa City - high res-1-2.jpg

The cities of the future remain an interesting and thought provoking topic. With the transition to a digital, interconnected way of living, technology has been a key enabler and driver of inner city development. But African cities need African input.

This is one of the main reasons why the Our African City dialogue has brought together delegates from around the continent and the world to discuss urbanization in African cities, with a renewed focus on closing the rift between public and private sector, and the importance of local participation in planning and integration of public spaces.  

The event, held by Aurecon in partnership with the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), was launched in October this year at the Institute of Municipal Engineering of South Africa (IMESA) conference in Cape Town. Lulu Gwagwa, Chair of Aurecon RSA Board says that in pursuit of being future-ready, Aurecon with its partners commit to being at the forefront of shaping Africa’s destiny through transformation, innovation and advancing the African agenda.

According to Abbas Jamie, Aurecon’s Market Director for Government and Transport, Our African Cities is a dialogue on inclusive transformation that intends to craft a vision of what future African cities should look like. “We believe that the private sector needs to partner with and support local government in its role of developing world class African Cities. We have thus initiated this dialogue with the intention of aligning the private sector with the Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) document that will shortly be released by the Department of Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs (COGTA).”

In an exclusive with BBQ, Jamie tells us more about the exciting new developments and trends surrounding the growth and development of our African urban spaces. As Jamie explains, “Our African City is a dialogue on inclusive transformation with the intention of fostering a shared understanding across government and society about how best to manage urbanisation. Its culmination is a long story but essentially we recognised that good policy frameworks were emerging on the continent but that the successful execution of these depended on a much closer and supporting relationship between the private sector and government. At the same time, to successfully craft a vision of what future African cities should look like, we needed a more meaningful multi-stakeholder approach that includes communities and leverages academic and research input.

“Our African City is a collaborative dialogue that has been formed to address this challenge and help government and the private sector work together to advance successful, integrated urban development in Africa. Challenges are complex and require the collective intelligence of multi-stakeholder engagement to reconsider how we define and think about problems. If we can get that right, it would be an important step forward to transformation.”

Looking at some of the ideals and aspirations for our African cities of the future, Jamie says based on the history of the continent we need to develop a framework for what a future African City should be from an African perspective.  He says this is a future based on African ideals, African culture and African traditions. “Our societies operate differently and we use public spaces differently. The Our African Cities dialogue is about understanding the needs of our people and what our citizens want to see and experience in their cities so that we don’t marginalise people from their own history and culture but rather that we create true diversity,” he says.

Jamie says what also needs to happen is a taking a view on the urbanisation planning process through an African lens which says: How do we use environmentally sustainable economic growth as a means of achieving particular social goals? He says that therefore, the criteria for success have not just been economic, but social and environmentally irresponsible. According to Jamie, this means that marginalised communities are included in urban development planning for social spaces, economic development and in environmental management and protection.

Jamie says inclusivity is a key criterion and that they want to reduce the dislocation of citizens from efficient access to services and opportunities, where the crafting of roadmaps on how local resources and local advantages can be used to create tradable products and services that bring more urban residents into the urban economy is important.  

Looking at what some of the biggest challenges are that our African cities face at the moment, Jamie says when it comes to urban development, many different disciplines still operate in silos. According to him, Government, the private sector, non-profit organisations and communities will all have their own drivers and agendas, making it a complex process to create cities that truly benefit citizens.

“The problem of various sectors operating in silos isn’t an African problem; it’s a challenge that is experienced across the globe. We need to see beyond our silo if we want to achieve effective collaboration. Whether you’re implementing a new technology or planning a transport project, everyone needs to be involved. It sounds like a simple, straightforward solution but this type of inclusive collaboration is difficult to achieve. In the South African context, for example, various sectors had to collaborate in a way they have not done in the past to deliver the infrastructure that was needed for the soccer world cup in 2010.

“By bringing together public sector leadership with technical expertise from a variety of sectors such as transport, urban planning, stadia design as well community organisations and a broad range of stakeholders allowed us to reach consensus and deliver world class infrastructure and transport systems before the first whistle. The soccer world cup is an example of what can be achieved when all of the relevant sectors are forced to sit around the same table and discuss possible solutions and the way forward. We have broken down the silos in which we all operated individually in the past, so we can do it again for Our African City,” he says.

As Jamie points out, the private sector can play a significant role in contributing towards successful integrated urban development.  However, he says, we see a massive chasm between private sector and government at the moment in South Africa.  “We are hoping that through this dialogue we can make a contribution towards closing this gap.  It’s important for us as the private sector to support the government of the day and to celebrate the significant successes that we have achieved over the last twenty years.

“What the private sector is looking for from government is certainty with respect to processes, timeframes and procurement.  Private sector money will naturally move towards areas of stability and predictability.  But in order for this partnership to work, it requires trust between the partners.  We hope that the Our African City dialogue will be a platform that can contribute towards building this trust that we as a country so desperately need,” he says.

Technology is undeniably and inextricably linked to the evolution of our urban spaces. Jamie says globally, there is a great deal of innovation surrounding futuristic city planning. While many of these concepts, technologies and ideas are novel and relevant, they are not always implemented appropriately in Africa. Jamie says it is time that Africa takes ownership for developing, planning and creating the cities that meet the needs of Africans today and in the future.

“We are saying let’s move the discussion from smart cities to Our African City. It’s important to first have this high level vision and framework in place before implementing smart solutions.  In our view the smarts is a very important building block of the future African City but it cannot drive the process.  Under the Our African City dialogue we have identified the technology advisory space as one of the three key pillars that will support the broader dialogue,” he says.

So why is it important that African cities be seen in an African context? According to Jamie, to appreciate why Africa needs to take ownership and lead the initiative for the development of its own cities requires an appreciation that Africa cannot follow the same development path that has already been taken by developed countries. “Our times are different. Urbanisation in the West took place during a labour-absorbing manufacturing boom and those economies were able to grow wealthy while transitioning into different sectors, structural dynamics and global realities. Western countries too are now grappling with inequality and unemployment but on a much smaller scale and with greater resources to deal those social issues than countries in Africa,” he says.

Jamie mentions that they recognise that solving the challenges of urban development requires new thinking and new methods and approaches that are grounded in innovation. He says through innovation, we can leapfrog our developmental path rather than perpetually lag behind. An innovative developmental process requires tools grounded in a deep understanding of the underlying needs of our citizens and all stakeholders our society according to Jamie.

“Therefore we can’t rely on anyone else to do this, we all need to do it because only we can do it. We have all the intellectual resources and understanding of our local content we need right here. The Our African City dialogue will make use of design led thinking as a methodological tool for co-creating multi-stakeholder solutions to our African urban challenges. In support of this approach we will be hosting an Our African City conference in Tshwane in May 2106 where we will be introducing and workshopping the design led thinking philosophy. Delegates to the conference will be leaving with a powerful practical skillset that can be used by local authorities to effectively deliver in a holistic manner that is fully aligned with the IUDF,” he concludes.

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