African cities are one of the planet’s examples of dynamic human organisation happening in the middle of a digital revolution which we do not fully understand. Travel across the continent, you’ll find storied towns that offer a rich mix of culture, colonial reorganisation or roots, political intrigue and boomtown–style growth fuelled by people pouring in from the surrounding countryside. Urban planners, politicians and even tech entrepreneurs want to remake these dynamic metropolises or create new ones that are smart. But what will this mean?

By the end of this century, the UN projects that Africa will be home to to 3.9 billion people, or 40% of humanity. By mid-century, 400 million of these people will reside along a 600 km stretch on the Atlantic coast in West Africa. Where will they live?

Alongside this growing urban population, African cities often lack the trappings of what we have come to see as basic necessities for modern city life. Where they exist these infrastructures and services are unequally distributed. As the population grows and places existing services and infrastructure under severe stress, a motley of urban professionals, activists, entrepreneurs and government are talking about this thing called “smart cities”.

There was a time (that we have not fully exited) when erecting or revamping older towns as new grand capital cities were the dream projects of leaders in developing countries. Especially those recently free from colonial governments. Dodoma, Abuja, Gaborone are a few living relics of this thinking; and the Egyptian government is currently constructing its belated new capital. Simply put, it was governments who did this type of thing. Constructing buildings—schools, administrative complexes, residential buildings, etc—are the sort of thing one would associate with technology startups that receive most of their funding from venture capitalists sitting in California.

But Iyin Aboyeji, VC and founder of Talent City, a privately-owned charter city in Lagos, believes technology companies cannot overlook urban development. “Maybe in the rush to get Silicon Valley funding or a lack of foresight, I think we’ve ignored the more foundational pieces of the economy for what I call ‘apps and APIs’. I think we need to go back to the fundamentals, and one of the fundamentals is ‘How do people live?’” he said during an episode of TechCabal’s Next Wave show. “It’s something I tell my VC friends every time, that you cannot build something on nothing,” Aboyegi added.

Sited on a 72,000-square-metre plot of land located in Alaro City, in Lagos, Aboyegi’s Talent City was conceived as a response to his experience at Andela, a tech talent provider he co-founded and helped midwife to unicorn status. Andela spent heavily on office settings and living quarters between 2014 and 2017 “because most real estate developers in Lagos didn’t understand how to build real estate for tech people”, TechCrunch reports Aboyegi as saying. So he set out to remedy this.

As for the definition of a smart city, Aboyegi believes the name is a misnomer because cities are inherently smart, “otherwise no one would want to live in them”.

“For a very long time, we’ve been importing a lot of Western responses to those questions without really doing a lot of deep thinking ourselves,” he said on the show.

Digital smart cities

Spanning several streets in Ikeja, Lagos, is the site of an ever-growing pastiche of phone parts dealers, computer shops and digital device mechanics huddled under colourful umbrellas or in low-slung shops and one-storey “offices”. You have arrived at Computer Village in Lagos, a sprawling market run by members of the Computer and Allied Products Dealers Association of Nigeria (CAPDAN). The market is a living testimony of how digital technology has evolved since the first memory chip shops opened in Surulere, the birthplace of Computer Village in Lagos.

Computer Village’s boom is not unconnected to the fact that its host city, Lagos, is itself growing. Current population figures differ, but by 2035, the UN projects that Lagos will be home to 24.5 million people. Lagos is also the commercial and economic hub of Nigeria and West Africa to a large extent. It is also the home of Nigeria’s venture-backed technology ecosystem.

Tech-focused smart city projects are emerging in African countries to drive economic growth. | Infographic: Ayomide Agbaje — TechCabal Insights.

With digital technology penetrating all aspects of urban life, the idea of cities that are smart, where services and infrastructure are optimal for all residents, has taken hold. Especially when paired with technology solutions that are supposed to deliver this urban transformation. Slums have been reimagined in glowing utopian visions.

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“Venture capital is not about writing code,” Aboyegi said on the show, “Sometimes the problems you need to solve require you to put some cement on the ground.”

But one question I cannot get out of my mind is, how well do we know Africa’s sprawling cities? Or why they exist in the form that they currently do. This is especially pertinent for government-developed smart city projects because, going back their history, African governments display a rather bewildering ignorance of the dynamics of the peri–urban areas that seem irrevocably attached to their governance remit.

How well is not just what you know, it’s also about what knowledge we have that is being documented and used rather than passively accepted. Think about it for a second. It’s easy to have passive internalised knowledge of how a place works. So much so that in thinking about African “cities of the future” we easily overlook everything we do not know about the complex human organisation levels that are called “cities”.

This is especially important because as these researchers note, “In post-independence African countries, planners dealt with a general adverse context “where poverty is pervasive, urban boundaries are fluid, the rights of urban citizenship are not universally claimed or bestowed, and there is no clear conception of what constitutes an Africa city or an African urbanite.” A case in point is the now languishing but once famed development led by US celebrity rapper, Aliaune “Akon” Thiam.

The researchers cited above say these cities embrace a Functional City theory that emphasises “a totalising rationality; redefinition of the social functions of urban organisation; development of building typologies and planning conventions as instruments of social change; and decontextualization and environmental determinism.” Long “grammar”, I know, but it basically means that these cities are top-down approaches that want to mould the social lives of people that are not understood or have any input into the decisions that created the cities.

Is this why a lot of urban re-imagining and smart city talk is delivered in infantilising consultancy speak? I don’t know. And I suspect even some people who use these terms may not know too. “Technology can diminish our society. Or it can free up our society to make us more human in a way that we’ve not seen in the past,” Jonathan Hursh, founder of Utopia, a service provider for tech workers admitted. But he points out that to solve some of the world’s pressing problems, like climate change, cities are the best place to drive change because a lot of the decisions that affect these global problems are made daily at the city level. He also points out that smart cities is only one of the dozens of approaches he supports to building better cities, stressing that smart cities are a viable option because of the opportunity for entrepreneurs and tech firms to provide decentralised solutions.

I’ll end with a question for you. Can private investors like venture capitalists midwife “smart African cities”? What may need to change for this to be a possibility if you think private capital, in the form of venture equity, cannot cause meaningful change?

Before you go, watch Iyin Aboyeji and Jonathan Hursh dive deeper into smart cities here.

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Abraham Augustine,

Senior Reporter, Business and Insights

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