Accelerating Possibility: 3 Propositions for Architecting Inclusive Future Cities in the Global South
By Geci Karuri-Sebina, PhD
By 2050, it is estimated that global urban population will double, and over two thirds of us will live in cities with populations of over 1 million. The majority of this urban growth will be in Africa, the world's youngest continent, with 60% of our population being under 25. These are the wow statistics doing the rounds, and they have everyone clambering around wondering what risks or opportunities are implied.
What we can already read and extrapolate from present trends is that our demographic trajectory spells worrisome challenges of growing inequality and exclusion, even as it has also showed signs of surfacing opportunities for new markets, innovation and economies of scale. For many in the development, enterprise and governance spaces, there is great uncertainty in the face of the dramatic claims and narratives about what futures face us. Will masses of radicalised youth take over and steer us into the apocalypse? Or do we face bright and shiny Dubai-esque futures complete with fountains and lush parks - in spite of the 1.5° global warming alarm bells? Or will tech save us all with its artificial smarts and bots? Or what about this “informal as the new normal” future - does that mean all cities in the south are going to look like present-day Mumbai or Mexico City?
As an urban futurist, my interest is not so much in speculating about where we might end up; I don’t think any of us can really predict that literally or meaningfully. What does concern me is how we are making sense of and engaging with the present given the horizon. A few months ago, I had the wonderful opportunity of hosting a panel of four international organisations that are actively engaged with what was referred to as “architecting” the inclusive cities of the future at the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford. Borrowing from the session and the Forum’s inspiring theme of “Accelerating Possibilities,” it seems useful to widely share some of the key ideas and illustrations that we explored towards expanding dialogue and action.
I framed 3 questions for the panel, based on an observation that we would seem to be faced with a level of “stuck-ness” within our current urban models, systems and hierarchies – which in turn resist the possibility of transformative, alternative futures.
1. Are we open to new imaginaries about “city-ness” and what the future cities of the south might look and feel like?
2. Do we know how to work with the abundant and diverse genius around us in new ways, such that new inclusive processes enable “co-creation” of future cities?
3. Can we decolonise our institutions to evolve new “rules of the game” that enable us to do (and experiment with) genuinely new things and drive for different outcomes?
The issues were boldly taken on by the panellists, who shared their illustrations of the innovations that they are pursuing around these questions.
Smruti Jukur of SPARC/SDI who works mainly in South East Asia and Africa concurs on the limited imaginary that we have about cities. Her organisation has taken this on by working with communities and local governments to explore how urban planning and design in the global south might be reframed, leveraging the agency of poor communities themselves, and enabled by new technologies. This firstly requires new information and understandings. Their project, Know Your City, is therefore a global campaign to collect and consolidate city-wide data on informal settlements as the basis for such inclusive development. Through projects like this that build up rich local knowledge and stories as the basis for development action, cities begin to be rendered and read differently and uniquely, inviting new imaginaries.
Co-creation and participation are hardly new concepts, but Shauna Carey of IDEO.org shared her very practical illustrations on how deliberate approaches of human-centered design combined with using technology (including basic social media and mobile platforms) are crucial to actually using these ideas towards achieving inclusive cities. Listening, co-designing, and building systems that adapt are crucial to appreciating people’s aspirations and motivations, and thereby to delivering services and products that the can and will value and use. Their examples which range from working with communities to retrofit housing, to social / behaviour change campaigns all demonstrate how important – and also how possible – it is to work with the many (society), and not just with the few disciplinary experts who are often the singular, evangelical drivers of development.
For the pragmatic, the real test is the third question: can we really do anything different even if we can imagine it and reconfigure out processes? We had two great illustrations on this. Moitreyee Sinha and Chris Underhill of citiesRISE are working in cities around the world towards the development of cities that are healthier, particularly considering the oft ignored issue of mental health. Doing this requires not just ideas and processes, but also fundamental institutional transformations, rethinking the vertical systems of health care that are typical in classical big cities. They combine this vision of “a mental health friendly city,” with inclusive processes (such as their youth-centred city playbook (which generates new data and ideas) and multi-level networked activities from the local to the global to create the enabling systems for change.
The second implementation illustration was from Mayor Mohammed Adjei Sowa of Accra, Ghana, who is charged with leading a city towards the inclusive, resilience and sustainable goals set for Accra, driven by their vision in their recently-released Accra Resilience Strategy. As a politician who also comes from a social entrepreneurship background, the Mayor shared the basis for his vision for Accra based on both local conditions and global influences. He shared examples of the range of “discovery” areas – opportunities – that can be focused on and driven through institutional programming and behaviours that are bold, inclusive, and that also leverage new tech and data. But he did not pretend that it was easy. A range of structural conditions in governance systems, in economies, and in societies make for a tough job.
These modest but powerful illustrations tell stories about seeking new imaginaries, new processes and new institutional approaches that might just help us evolve towards new, more inclusive cities for the future in the global south. And the purposeful deployment of technology plays a big role in augmenting the possibilities.
But accelerating these possibilities will require a radical reframing in what we think about what cities and city-building are about. Cities are not just bricks and mortar, made slicker by bytes and bots. And better futures are largely not going to be enabled by most of our conventional visions, processes, institutions and orthodoxies which are vested in an old, vertical order. If we can open up to the range of human and non-human factors that are driving the new urbanisms, and be more attuned to the interplays that sometimes defy our limited imaginaries, we might find the seeds for new, heretofore unimagined possibilities for our cities of the future.
Dr Geci Karuri-Sebina is an Associate with South African Cities Network, a peer-based network of South Africa’s largest cities, a Visiting Research Fellow at the Wits School of Governance, and a Global Faculty Member of Singularity University. Geci has experience and interests spanning a range of planning, innovation and foresight topics at the intersection between tech, city systems and society.
About the panellists:
• Smruti Jukur from Mumbai is an architect and urban planner working in SE Asia and Africa with SPARC (the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centre), which is an affiliate for the transnational Slum Dwellers International (SDI) network.
• Chris Underhill and Moitreyee Sinha are the co-founders of citiesRISE, which is a multi-stakeholder initiative designed to promote mental health by catalysing collective actions across sectors within urban centres around the world.
• Shauna Carey is Managing Director and Director of Communications of IDEO.org. She oversees the international work of this multi-disciplinary design firm which partners with organisations to design, develop and scale products , services, and experiences.
• Mayor Mohammed Adjei Sowah is a social entrepreneur and Mayor of Accra, the capital city of Ghana.