This introduction offers an alternative means for understanding smart cities in Africa by surfacing the contradictions and problematic discourses that often inform them. It introduces the structuring themes of the book: mobility, food security, social mobilization and public culture. This chapter is also central to establishing the ethos and conceptual lens that inform its narrative.
In 2017, I was invited to speak at a workshop in Calgary, Canada, on the African smart city. I found this to be a curiously ill-defined task given the size and diversity of the continent. The central message I hoped to convey was that the manifestation of digital technologies is intrinsically connected to people’s livelihood strategies. What distinguishes African cities, if one is to generalize, are a number of features that colour the incorporation of information and communication technology (ICT) into city processes: informality, crumbling infrastructure and increasing urban poverty. These facts are not surprising, and this is not a new argument, but I nevertheless experienced some challenges to my presentation. My choice of projected images of street vendors using mobile phones and billboards promoting ubiquitous connectivity juxtaposed with immediate city surroundings showing dilapidated road infrastructure was an uncomfortable contrast to the smart city imaginary. Corporate displays of smart cities in Africa are eerie in their similarities: tall, glass-clad skyscrapers interspersed with wide avenues and slick inhabitants glued to their mobile phones. They portray a strange ‘placeless-ness’ that could be Dubai, Singapore or Seoul. Regardless of the imaginaries that inspire them, they bear very little resemblance to the ‘real’ city, in Africa or elsewhere.
At the same event, a colleague remarked on how my hometown, Cape Town, had a mythical quality to it, a Shangri-La of sorts: beautiful and historically and geographically compelling, perched on the Southern tip of Africa and thus geographically remote enough to reinforce this fantasy. I was reminded of yet another compelling narrative: Cape Town as the ‘Silicon Cape’, the ‘Investment Connection into Africa’ displayed on a billboard at Cape International Airport. It struck me that my research included many aspirations: the smart city, the connected citizen and, of course, innovation as central to African livelihoods. I appear to peddle in fanciful ideas, but I believe it imperative to probe them and confront the contradictions contained therein.
The relationship between technology and social development has been subject to important areas of criticism that feature in a diverse range of disciplines: urban studies, development studies and urban geography are among them. In my early academic career, I was largely dissatisfied with the structural approaches often taken, where the hegemony of multinational technology and infrastructure producers is seen to determine local socio-technical agendas. Science and technology studies (STS) resonates because it is interdisciplinary and enables a relational frame of analysis that acknowledges the interface between technical and human agency. It opens the conceptual door to contextuality, embeddedness and inquiry into how technology travels and morphs in different places. Thus, this book is not about smart cities; on the contrary, it aims at disrupting many of the associations that surface when considering the interface between technology and African cities. It is ostensibly a book about hope, seeking to understand the subaltern and modest but powerful, digitally informed innovations that could potentially shift conditions for people living in African cities in a meaningful way. The aim is to explore how these are shaped and what impact they may have on people’s livelihoods in urban spaces.
This book is essentially a journey across a number of places, both physical and digital. I explore initiatives in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa to determine how smart urbanism manifests when driven by Africans. These instances of technology appropriation are discussed as vignettes – examples used to inform an overall narrative on how digital platforms impact cities. They are based on a review of academic and grey literature, interviews with a number of respondents, the online perusal of web sites and social media, and a little netnography. The lens for my exploration is informed by the African urbanism literature – a recognition that cities on the continent have their own peculiarities and qualities that feature in both the online and the offline lives of their inhabitants. In this introduction, I discuss what these key concepts are, the rationale for my approach and the structure of the book. I start with the key theme of the title of this book – ‘disruption’ – and transition to explorations of the claims of African smart city initiatives and how they often contradict the realities of city life on the continent. These characteristics are introduced thematically as the structuring elements of the book.
Thinking about disruption
Using the term ‘disruption’ within the context of debates on smart cities in Africa is a risky endeavour. The word has become so loaded with promise that it is difficult to disassociate it from its neoliberal gloss, or to step away from its promise of technology nirvana or the mythical leapfrogging towards modernist emancipation. In some ways, the term lends itself to irony. While disruption in the platform economy has led to an entrenchment of the economic power and social influence of tech multinationals, a dictionary definition enables a broader enquiry, with the Oxford English Dictionary describing it as: ‘a process that makes it difficult for something to continue in the normal way, or the act of stopping something from continuing in the normal way’,1 implying a disruption of the status quo. In other words, technology disruption could also be interpreted as, or, indeed, harnessed for, subversion.
In the business studies literature, the distinction is often made between ‘incremental’, ‘radical’ and ‘disruptive’ change (Dixon et al, 2018). Central is Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation, which implies substitution: extract firms replace incumbents with a technological solution that it more attuned to the market needs of a particular niche market. This application then expands in its influence, with research and development, as well as market exposure, to satisfy the requirements of the mainstream market (Danneels, 2004). In an urban setting, the term is often used in relation to digital platforms and associated concerns that multinational companies (MNCs), such as Airbnb and Uber, are undermining public governance – or, as a more positive interpretation, that they enable greater market agility and user satisfaction. The literature on this as an extension of urban infrastructure and a technology architecture that lends itself to reinvention is explored in more detail in Chapter 2. The interplay between public and private is often explored in the literature on platform urbanism and smart cities (Sadowski, 2020a; Söderström and Mermet, 2020; van Doorn, 2019), with the underlying anxiety about the power and influence platform MNCs exercise in everyday city governance and the impacts for citizens. This is an important debate and clearly needs to be taken seriously in resource-stretched environments. The spirit of this book is, however, that there is space for innovation and reinvention.
The issue of displacement is a necessary enquiry and cannot be ignored. With disruption comes fallout, and in marginal urban circumstances within African cities that are divided along income lines, this can be risky yet also pertinent in a context where state institutions are weak. What may be deemed disruptive is deeply contextual: innovation for one social group could be seen as part of the everyday by others, depending on functionality and familiarity (Dixon et al, 2018). The need to consider disruptive technological processes within policy and institutional arrangements is essential, and within a socio-technical framework, that would relate to the ‘landscape’ and ‘regime’ elements of a multi-scalar perspective (Dixon et al, 2018). My intention is to explore how technology-led processes from the bottom up lead to city processes not continuing as normal, that is, how they disrupt the city. While one conventional definition of disruption could be ‘the process of distribution of innovations that are based on IoT [Internet of Things] and replacing existing market leaders and prevalent systems’ (Roy et al, 2016: 200), my enquiry focuses on how ‘business as usual’ in the city is unsettled by technology innovation. Any such process takes into account social acceptance, technological awareness and consumer needs, seen as critical to ‘cooperative design processes’, in human–computer interaction language (Roy et al, 2016). By its nature, the notion of disruption lends itself to an interface with socio-economic realities – or it should. This is the central ethos of this book. Rather than seeing the producers of technology as central agents in their influence, the practices captured here are enacted and developed over time, and represent a distributed agency that could impact in ways contrary to what was intended. In many ways, this book is speculative, in that it explores possibilities for everyday knowledge production that responds to endogenous urban problems. Thus, it considers not only technology ‘landings’ in the African context, but also how different material realities can activate agency, sometimes in unexpected ways. Interpreting and knowing the material contextually opens up spaces where conversations about alternative socio-technical futures can happen.
There are many examples of socially outward-looking technology innovations that impact the city, for example, the combination of the IoT, cloud storage and 3D printing in healthcare and, of course, education. The COVID-19 pandemic has mainstreamed many of these as we applied technology to everyday problems by necessity. If you type ‘disruption’ or ‘innovation’ into Google or, indeed, Google Scholar, discussions of innovation hubs most often pop up. Mythical constructs, such as the ‘Silicon Savannah’ of East Africa (Nairobi) or, indeed, the case of Cape Town’s reputation as the aforementioned ‘Silicon Cape’, are not only compelling, but also criticized as narratives that mask the true struggles and small appropriations that typify African urbanism (Guma, 2019; Odendaal, 2020). These accounts ignore how these corporate governance practices reinforce exclusionary macroeconomic narratives (Pollio, 2019). Technology disruption in African cities, like in other parts of the world, is contextually embedded and associated with structural legacies, as well as local livelihoods. This premise is in stark contradiction to the popular narrative of the African smart city.
The African smart city
The smart city narrative in Africa is more attuned to anticipated opportunities than problem solving, even though corporate language often claims that the smart city is a panacea for the difficulties that cities experience in relation to climate change and urbanization. As a discourse, the focus is on an envisioned future: technology-enhanced cities that provide flawless urban experiences unencumbered by the characteristics that are generally ubiquitous: traffic, informality and infrastructure disfunction. The language of ‘world-class status’ is an integral part of the smart city argument that drives such developments as Nairobi’s Konza Tech City and Hope City outside Accra (Watson, 2015). These ‘utopian imaginings’ (Watson, 2015: 37) share very little detail on what the problems are to be solved or, indeed, how they aim to solve them. As Watson (2015: 37) eloquently points out, the rendered glass buildings, wide boulevards and irrigated gardens visually captured in artists’ digital impressions would rely on basic water supply, uninterrupted power supply and maintenance regimes that are seldom available to the majority of African urban dwellers. Practically, the plans reveal futuristic representations that bear greater resemblance to Dubai and Singapore than Nairobi or Kigali. The marketing discourse overrides any attempt at stakeholder needs analysis, despite the claims to solve the multifaceted problems associated with rapid urbanization and climate change. In all of this, technology is promoted as possessing the agency to effect change. The problem is that these fantasies are often pursued by national governments together with property speculators and engineering and tech MNCs at the expense of basic services and infrastructure maintenance in existing cities.
The development of smart cities is not necessarily done in isolation from plans or public visions, however. In Nairobi, Kenya, for example, large-scale master-planned satellite cities that conform to the smart city tag are underpinned by the city’s long-term development strategy (‘Nairobi Metro 2030’), the national ‘Vision 2030’ and the country’s ICT transformation roadmap (Guma and Monstadt, 2020). In South Africa, recent proposals for smart cities in Gauteng province and the Eastern Cape coast are driven by the country’s embrace of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) as a solution to high degrees of joblessness and the decline in economic growth (Söderström et al, 2021). In Lagos, the construction of Eko Atlantic, a satellite city on reclaimed land off the coast of Victoria Island, claims to offer solutions for resilience and ecological reclamation, but its long-term impact for the residents of Lagos and its fragile ecosystem is in question (Ajibade, 2017). Konza Tech City in Nairobi is portrayed as a haven for businesses, away from the city’s notorious traffic and therefore also a safe space for investment. As discussed by Guma and Monstadt (2020: 2), the value that drives these plans sees ICT as a developmental tool that can cure urban problems, contribute to entrepreneurial development and transform Nairobi into a ‘Silicon Savannah’. Despite these intentions, the authors correctly claim: ‘technological visions and techno-centred strategies are detached from the ways the majority of urban residents in Nairobi interacts with ICTs’ (Guma and Monstadt, 2020: 2). Thus, the separation between public and private actors is not distinct in the envisioning of corporate smart cities; many national and local African governments are directly implicated in these utopian narratives. These are largely ‘band-aid’ interventions that do not engage the systemic issues that impact cities.
In many ways, the questioning of these initiatives foregrounds the notion of values and the roles played by normative constructs of what the ideal city should be, who it is for and what it should look like. As a visual narrative, the African smart city shares more with Dubai and Singapore than it does with any cultural reference to place and history evident in the messy and vibrant qualities that define the continent’s urban spaces. The intention is not to over-romanticize messiness or lack of infrastructure; many suffer as a result of a lack of basic urban services. The issue relates to the contradictions that surface when one considers the smart city discourse in relation to the potential impact on ordinary livelihoods. What this encapsulates is a clash in values, as represented in different visions for the city: an ordered, predictable and modernist city driven by smart technology and artificial intelligence (AI), in contrast to aspirations towards inclusive, diverse urban spaces that articulate with the qualities and histories of place and the livelihood strategies employed to traverse them. Thus, the actual technology-mediated city in Africa looks very different, of course, from the visual imagery that accompanies such proposals. I have argued elsewhere that smart urbanism is largely ‘in the making’ as survival strategies interface with technology appropriation (Odendaal, 2020). Similarly, Prince Guma’s (2019) work in Nairobi shows us that the relationship between utility infrastructures and digital technology is not a straightforwardly functional one, as poor communities in Nairobi find ways to repurpose electricity metering to fit their budgetary needs, while Baptista (2015) shows how closely tied smart metering systems are to household planning in her work on Maputo. What emerges from careful case-study research in these published cases is a mediated agency that represents a more relational unfolding, as opposed to that presupposed by the determinist rhetoric that underpins so many corporate representations of the African smart city.
New technologies are, of course, useful and increasingly critical to urban functioning. Infrastructural functions and connectivity impulses enabled by digital tools enable managed responses to climate crisis events and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. With lockdown measures forming the centrepiece of COVID-19 pandemic national responses, the need for connectivity surfaced significantly during 2020, building on an exponential trend towards smartphone ownership on the continent. According to the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), 45 per cent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa were subscribed to mobile phone services by 2020, with an anticipated 1 billion mobile connections anticipated in 2024. Many of the contributing factors to this uptake include corporate responses that acknowledge the need for agility and contextualized financial and technical mechanisms, such as the production of cheaper phones, including sub-US$100 devices from Chinese brands such as Tecno and Infinix, as well as the development of smart feature phones (CSM Association, 2020).
In the day-to-day survival strategies of urban dwellers in African cities, affordable access to hardware and data remains an issue. It is common for individuals to own multiple SIM cards, switching between them in order to take advantage of a particular network’s deals or to maintain service when one network goes down. At the same time, if an individual does not own a phone, they may have access to someone else’s. Initiatives that enable more granular payment schemes contribute to an increase in affordability. Kenyan company Safaricom’s Lipa Mdogo Mdogo initiative, in partnership with Google’s operating system partner Android, allows customers to access 4G Internet services through a smartphone that they can pay for as they use on a daily or weekly basis. The GSMA anticipates that the number of smartphone connections in sub-Saharan Africa will almost double to reach 678 million by the end of 2025, with an adoption rate of 65 per cent in 2020. The mobile phone is not only a critical piece of infrastructure, but also a node in the connectivity ecosystem that includes both material artefacts and the continuously emerging strategies employed to gain access within the limits of affordability. Key to an understanding of these strategies deployed towards greater connectivity is an analytical lens that allows for a socio-technical analysis in which material and human agency are recognized to be intertwined.
Corporate responses are, of course, about expanding markets, as are many master-planned smart cities, as Africa has become the ‘next big market’ for technology MNCs partnering with speculative property developers, often employing a ‘rhetoric of urgency’ (Datta, 2015: 5) as part of their promotional logic. This can be seen in the following quotation from management consultants (Deloitte & Touche, 2015: 6):
Due to increased access to connectivity and the associated predicted urbanization, African cities are going to have to start focusing on what the city of tomorrow will look like. African cities are well positioned to leapfrog into the mid-21st century. Without the successful adoption and appropriate selection of technology, African cities will indeed be left behind as more and more Africans look for brighter futures on other continents.
These proposals problematize urbanization, citing the accelerated growth of African cities and lagging infrastructure investment within the context of the climate crisis as determining factors. There are, of course, varied experiences of urbanization across the continent and variation in growth rates, and in some instances, secondary cities are experiencing greater growth rates than primary cities (Potts, 2009). Connections to rural areas, circular migration and such spatial configurations as peri-urban fringe development are important factors to consider (Parnell and Pieterse, 2014). The concern that top-down state-led satellite city development potentially only serves the elites in cities with widespread poverty is very pertinent; however, perhaps more worrying, as mentioned earlier, is that such master-planned areas can exacerbate spatial and social inequalities, and further deepen infrastructure backlogs.
My aim in this book is not to simply add to the critical literature of smart cities, nor is it to idealize bottom-up approaches as examples of subaltern urbanism (as compelling as that may be). Rather, it is to present an argument that teases out the opportunities that emerge from the sweet spot between corporate ambitions and grounded innovations. The vignettes in this book are situated in a range of sectors, with ambitions that range from the ideological to the unapologetically commercial. This nexus is informed by the unique and variable circumstances that shape African urban spaces yet sometimes takes cues from MNCs in developing home-grown digital solutions to urban problems. In doing so, I hypothesize that the very nature of these challenges is defined, probed and delineated through a local lens that informs the way technology is appropriated. As Watson (2015: 37) correctly observes about corporate smart city visions: ‘These plans completely ignore the quite obvious human and social dimensions of smart – the role of social capital and networks of trust and reciprocity that are prerequisites for innovation.’ Thus, the task is not only to probe what such innovations look like, but also to surface the inherent qualities of African urban spaces that provide the canvas for disruptive brushstrokes.
The African city
The ‘urbanization as problem’ discourse embedded in many corporate smart city literatures is accompanied by a corporate view that the economic growth and agglomeration economies of cities represent opportunities for innovation and invention. In the African context in particular, it also represents challenges for city governments in terms of service provision through addressing infrastructure backlogs and responding to pressures for spatial expansion. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat) predicts that by 2030, 50 per cent of the continent’s population will be urban (UNDP, 2017). Placing the onus on government, the agency reinforces the urgency for African governments to enable service delivery and housing for these needs, recognizing that informal settlements are a reality that cannot be wished away. This is a message that contrasts the top-down technology-driven messages from ICT corporates that use the city agenda as a marketing backdrop. Both messages contain a sense of urgency and action, as well as a call to reform the distribution of resources and public spending. Also implicit is the fact that government alone cannot respond meaningfully to these challenges. Some of the problems are fiscal, with inadequate fiscal decentralization to local government, polarization, inequality and growth in informality as urban dwellers are increasingly unable to secure jobs and shelter in cities (UNDP, 2017).
The many assumptions that informed the early planning of African cities, were tied to Anglo-American experiences following the Industrial Revolution, where population growth was assumed to be accompanied by economic and employment growth. It appears that not that much has changed. Many spatial plans for African cities are prepared by international consultants that apply Northern concepts to contingent and often volatile urban environments. Top-down interventions assume political stability but overestimate the ability of the state to deliver. The predictable outcome is often a ‘splintered urbanism’ (Graham and Marvin, 2001), where master-planned neighbourhoods and new industrial and business districts are spatially disassociated from the everyday experiences of the majority of urban dwellers.
At the time of writing, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the circumstances that inform urban livelihoods have become particularly dire. COVID-19 risk factors are acute in African cities, in part, due to the largely unplanned and poorly managed urbanization process resulting in widespread informal settlements and severe infrastructure and service deficits. In 2019, about 47 per cent of Africa’s urban population lived in slums or informal settlements, which translates into about 257 million people across the whole of Africa (UNDESA, 2019). Only 55 per cent and 47 per cent of Africa’s urban residents have access to basic sanitation services and hand-washing facilities, respectively. Furthermore, most urban residents rely on the informal sector that employs 71 per cent of Africans, making them highly vulnerable to loss of income and unable to abide by restrictions and lockdown measures (UNDESA, 2019). African city centres are dense spaces with crowded public transport and marketplaces, making social distancing almost impossible. Infrastructure deficits and high densities in informal settlements, coupled with limited social and health services, have made African cities particularly vulnerable to such shocks as the pandemic.
Increasingly, African urban scholars from the North and South are calling for a global perspective that recognizes African urbanism as possessing embedded qualities, not simply incomplete versions of the ideal developed (‘Western’) city, shining an investigative lens on the many approaches and strategies employed by a diversity of stakeholders in the continuous redefinition of urbanity. In what Simone and Pieterse (2017) refer to as an age of ‘dissonance’, the boundaries in urban Africa between the global and the national, between the public and the private, and between the formal and the informal are increasingly blurred. Africa has always been global and has influenced the rest of the world as much as it has been shaped by it, producing different modes and models of ‘worlding’ (Roy et al, 2016) that are also distinctly local.
The ubiquitous presence of technology potentially reveals a local–global dynamic, now deepened through digital platforms. The question that informs this book is whether these platforms, as they are appropriated and harnessed locally, potentially enable substantive change. In order to explore this question, I focus on four challenging features of African cities that I would argue are ubiquitous throughout the continent, and I explore examples of technology disruption that respond, directly or inadvertently, to those challenges. The term ‘disruption’ is therefore used in a number of ways. In addition to the emphasis on practices that disrupt markets in the conventional sense, it is also used in two other ways: disrupting the distinction between local and global, or, indeed, Global South and North; and in the context of this book, disrupting the city and its systems.
The underlying thesis is that endogenous initiatives that harness smart technologies are emblematic of ‘home-grown’ solutions to urban problems largely unresolved by the state. These local answers to pressing needs are not indigenous in the pure sense; rather, they are locally evolved and initiated, despite often being informed and sometimes constrained by MNC technology. Here, I am inspired by the work done under the auspices of postcolonial STS, particularly Warwick Anderson’s (2002: 649) statement that ‘Science and technology are necessarily local practices, yet they can travel.’ Some of the examples discussed in this book do, indeed, travel, but their landings are contingent upon many factors. Within this context, I would define the vignettes discussed as local disruptive socio-technical practices that respond to specific contextual needs. Thus, the significance is not so much the ‘landings’, but the social ecosystems and associational infrastructure that determine their ongoing functioning. The word ‘appropriation’ is one I often use to describe the agency displayed in repurposing, hacking and retooling digital tools to suit the immediate circumstances that inform urban life. In narrowing down the specific issues that are potentially open to digitally informed problem solving, I group these in accordance with the following themes: mobility, food security, urban activism and, finally, public life and imagination in African cities. These themes are not intended to give a comprehensive account of smart urbanism in relation to city systems. I would argue that they represent a range of qualities that speak to some of the most intractable challenges that impact cities and the future of urban spaces on the continent.
Enter any African city from an airport or bus station and one’s time budget needs to double given traffic and road conditions. For many, these frustrations translate into the everyday. Close to 15 per cent of Nairobi’s population spend an average of four hours in traffic to commute to work, while a 10 km commute in Seoul takes just 21 minutes and in London only 40 minutes; in Nairobi, the same commute can take 1 hour and 18 minutes, nearly double the London figure (Civic Data Design Lab, 2019).
A core part of household mobility strategies for many African city-dwellers is the use of paratransit, that is, travel forms that fall between passenger travel modes and autonomous private transport. In a region where the informal economy absorbs as much as 80 per cent of the labour force in cities and where mobility systems are simply not keeping pace with city expansion, informal transport provides essential incomes and affordable mobility to many.2 Paratransit plays an essential function in enabling the livelihoods of drivers and passengers (Behrens et al, 2015). These largely informal systems run concurrently with more formal means, which are woefully inadequate in many cases. Ride-hailing applications, such as Uber and Lyft, have not only found captive markets in cities such as Nairobi, Cape Town and Dar es Salaam for middle- to upper-income passengers, but also provided opportunities for income for drivers. Chapter 3 commences with a general view on how digital disruption has impacted the mobility sector (Uber, LittleCab and Lyft) and how it is manifested in African cities. There is a debate about the extent to which locals benefit from these apps, despite Uber’s claims that it is, for example, inherently developmental.
The needs and parameters of the paratransit sector are therefore central to understanding mobility. The first empirical vignette, SafeBoda, follows the development of a home-grown app for the safe and efficient use of boda-bodas, that is, motorcycle taxis, which form the backbone of public transportation in Kampala, Uganda and many other African cities. Discussion of this example will reveal a number of themes that relate to the purpose of the book, for example, the value of networks across transportation options as part of an economic ecosystem (another example is Sendy, a Kenyan start-up that is essentially an app-based delivery service), as well as insight into how these platform-based interventions can enable livelihoods, for example, SafeBoda connects users with informal food producers (Kya’kulya Chakula), which was an important function during the COVID-19 pandemic. Also included is a discussion of rider-owned or cooperative ride-hailing apps, such as BebaBeba in Kenya. The labour dimensions are important given the unstable conditions for workers in such marginalized circumstances. Also of interest is how the development of these applications were social and technical processes. Relations of trust and the connections that are enabled between actors through technology deployment point to a material–human interface that evolves in response to geographic and temporal contexts. Contingency as a function of flow and connection is one of the themes that emerges from many of the examples in this book, and it will be discussed more comprehensively in the conclusion.
Food security is central to understanding how the informal economy forms part of the food value chain and how rapid urbanization undermines urban food production. Access to adequate nutrition is as much a function of governance and planning as it is about the physical availability of markets and shops. With climate change and the phenomenon of climate refugees, the ability of cities to enable food distribution will become particularly urgent. The empirical vignettes in Chapter 4 will begin with a recap of the value of informal food production networks and their enrolment into digital platforms. The initial focus is on the food value chain and its inefficiencies in relation to food security. The first story is of Twiga in Nairobi, an application that connects small-scale farmers with informal food vendors. The firm has grown substantially and has plans for expansion into other parts of the continent, but its Kenyan operations illustrate the importance of urban infrastructure in relation to food distribution and the role that the platform economy can play in enabling efficiencies for large- and small-scale producers.
In Cape Town, South Africa, lockdown measures during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic had severe implications for informal food sellers and food security in general. The inefficiencies of the urban system and the spatial inequities still inherent in this post-apartheid city became apparent as the distribution of food was only open to large commercial suppliers. Many charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) stepped in to distribute food parcels. A second vignette focuses on Cape Town Together (CTT), an umbrella group that facilitated the formation of community action networks (CANs) in the city’s neighbourhoods. Using social media and WhatsApp group functioning, there were 170 CANs in the city at one point, focusing on building community and enabling food access. Each CAN is different and responds to its local milieu appropriately. Some expanded their array of community kitchens, others emphasized neighbourhood food gardens, while many relied on the distribution of food parcels. This diversity and emphasis on local needs form the nature of the movement and, I believe, a fascinating account of how platforms can enable decentralized community building. The model has spread to other parts of the country, but its origins in the Mother City and the density of its networks speak to structural qualities and spatial relationships that I return to in Chapter 6.
The proliferation of community gardens in some of the CAN neighbourhoods does shift the emphasis to the production part of the food chain. The climate crisis will continue to impact food security and having the data to understand the extent to which this is happening is an essential part of formulating resilience strategies. The final example in Chapter 4 highlights the use of drone technology to map the Zanzibar islands in Tanzania, a region that relies on agriculture as a dominant source of income. The mapping process is also seen as an act of empowerment for Muslim women, as they cross sociocultural boundaries to engage new technologies. The exclusionary dynamics that contribute to deepening urban poverty and marginalization are shown to be associated with political regimes and the inadequacies of governance. This theme recurs throughout the book and points to a tension between collective agency and governance frames. An angle of exploration is how new regimes are forged through techno-social relations in the political realm. Two of the vignettes discussed in Chapter 4 speak explicitly to the need to shift power dynamics and confront inequality. Understanding how social mobilization enables livelihoods and challenges state power is the subject of Chapter 5.
Digital platforms and social activism
The CAN initiative is representative of a form of community activism that is situated, informed by place and largely enabled through associational networks, both online and offline. The ability of city residents to challenge the state and corporate power is assisted by social media and community platforms, with the most prominent being WhatsApp. Popular protest appears to be both on the rise and simultaneously dispersed, showing a spectrum of social mobilization that, depending on and in response to different acts of the state, can range from formal, organized resistance to leaderless street politics, virtual defiance through social media and even acts of waiting. Digital platforms also have negative consequences, as shown in the impact of Airbnb on local property markets, as well as gentrification. The story of the Remain in the City campaign in Cape Town illustrates how disruption can be a two-sided coin, in that it can undermine housing access and unsettle livelihoods. Together with Ndifuna Ukwazi (NU), a social justice organization based in the city, this initiative succeeded in forcing the city of Cape Town to rethink its own stance on inclusionary housing. The focus of Chapter 5 is to develop the notion of cyborg activism as a form of mobilization that harnesses new technologies to expand networks, enabling a hybrid form of organizing that resists and resets power relations in the city.
I am interested in the diversity entailed in digitally enhanced livelihoods and the many entry points for disruption to make a difference through challenging governance from above and contributing to city management from below. However, oppositional practice is difficult in countries that have limited press freedom or curtail social mobilization. In some contexts, working more convivially with the state is more strategic. In Chapter 5, I explore how the power of data and generation of knowledge are critical to shifting views and policies on informal settlements in Sierra Leone. Of interest in relation to the theme of Chapter 5 is how analogue and digital resources are combined to form a flexible information and mobilization ecosystem. The SLURC in Freetown serves as an advocacy and co-productive research entity, particularly focused on enabling recognition of the urban informal economy. Working with affiliates of Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) and its ‘Know Your City’ campaign, the centre uses online and offline tools to mobilize, collaborate and disseminate information, while providing a central focal point for digital data on the urban poor in the country.
In all of the foregoing, how data are represented and communicated is key to influencing policymakers. The use of video and infographics is combined with regular updates on WhatsApp and social media. I pay particular attention to how the suite of available platforms are combined and used to connect and inform, drawing on the work of NU and CTT primarily. In Chapter 5, the notion of experiential knowledge, that is, a qualitative engagement with the problems of the ‘everyday’, features in the work of such social movements as NU and CTT, as well as the patient labour of the SLURC. I also refer briefly to the use of drone photography in this regard. The notion of cyborg activism assists conceptually in making sense of how this may differ from past forms of engagement. I am clearly inspired by Donna Haraway in this regard, particularly her reference to the notion of ‘world-changing fiction’ in the following quotation: ‘A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction’ (Haraway, 1991: 149). An exploration of ‘fictions’ employed in social mobilization is one of the threads in Chapter 5 and is also explored in the conclusion of this book. However, a core part of storytelling is imagination and the aim to capture the public imagination in advancing a particular cause. Exploring cultural practices is essential to employing a postcolonial STS lens – an examination of the textures of technology appropriation as it relates to place.
Cultural practices and place making
What emerges from Chapters 3 to 5 is the hybrid nature of the disrupted city, where the ‘old’ and ‘new’ reinforce each other in an ongoing dance of socio-technical evolution, and how the ongoing rhythms of African urban spaces speak to global connections and local cultures (Ling and Horst, 2011). In many ways, Chapter 6 explores the many imaginations of the digital city. It does this from three vantage points. The first explores intentional digital places that seek to use technology to define and articulate its textures (MapKibera) and establish global connections (iHubs). The second focuses on cultural practices. The entry point is an examination of the GoDown arts centre in Nairobi as a physical and digital melting pot of cultural talents, intended to disrupt urban space through cultural networking. The third dimension explores the cultural practices and representation of African urban futures through an examination of Afrofuturism as emblematic of the disrupted hybrid city. It is also the means whereby the future of society and technology are imagined. The aim in Chapter 6 is to look towards the future of African urban spaces by examining the present and how it engages the past.
The thread throughout this final thematic chapter is to not only follow on from the ambitions expressed in much of the social mobilization that I engaged in Chapter 5, but also look towards the future. Science fiction literature, cinema and popular explorations of the role of the digital in our everyday lives are profoundly informed by Northern constructs of the 21st-century citizen: urbane, generally North American or European, moneyed, and often male. The combination of the endogenous urban narratives, imagined technology-mediated futures and visual imagery that are captured in Chapter 6 unsettles these popular constructs. This provocation is a fitting entry point to my final conclusions on disruptive practices in African cities.
Threads or motifs that recur throughout the discussion of these vignettes inform the conclusion of the book on the socio-technical evolution of African cities. Data on these vignettes have been gathered through personal interviews, the perusal of online forums and social media, and reference to secondary and grey literature on these examples. To make sense of these examples, I frame this book in accordance with the aforementioned four substantive themes to answer a very straightforward question: if corporate smart promises are inadequate in responding meaningfully to urban challenges in Africa, how do disruptive practices that use digital platforms do so more effectively? This is the focus of the Chapter 7.
There is, of course, a theoretical aspiration also. The conceptual story is about how we make sense of socio-technical change in geographies that are politically unstable, spatially fragmented and highly inequitable. In Chapter 7, I am interested in how a postcolonial STS approach can enable the theoretical tools to continue such work into the future. The conceptual project underpinning this book is to destabilize and, to some extent, disrupt how we view technology and cities in Africa. My conclusions focus on the emerging qualities of this relationship: the importance of flow and connection in socio-technical relations; the centrality of trust and continuity in enabling the application of technology; the tensions between existing governance frames and emerging regimes as a result of digital evolution; and the African city as hybrid, that is, a messy entanglement of the old and the new.
Chapter 2 serves as a grounding in contemporary debates on digital platforms and cities. Towards this aim, I explore literature on platform urbanism in relation to contemporary socio-technical change in African cities. Nascent literature on ‘platform urbanism’ raises important questions about inequality and unevenness in the distribution of opportunities and benefits. In Chapter 2, platform urbanism is seen as a co-constitution of platform structures and urban space through a deepening of the geospatial dimensions of the platform economy (Stehlin et al, 2020). Söderström and Mermet (2020: 2) refer to one of the distinguishing features of platform urbanism as constituting ‘modes of engagement with technology in urban everyday life’, where the relationship between individuals and digital platforms has socio-spatial consequences. Impacts on the daily lives and governance of cities is questioned, as disruption typically precedes and outpaces regulation.
Typically, the features of platform urbanism cut across north–south boundaries through processes of formalization and informalization, sometimes through the same platforms (Stehlin et al, 2020). The relationship between disruption and city governance is therefore key to taking the debate on platform urbanism further, and this book seeks to contribute to that. While some work has been done on technology hubs and very specific features of the gig economy in African cities (Jiménez and Zheng, 2021), as well as its limitations (Friederici, 2018), what is largely missing from the more general literature on smart cities in the Global South, as well as the more recent work on platform urbanism, is an interrogation of the co-production of urban space through bottom-up innovation and disruption. Thus, as a theoretical project, this book builds on recent work on some of the relational trends in urban thinking, incorporating postcolonial STS, in arguing for a conceptual lens that operationalizes the notion of studying the city as a socio-technical construct, rather than the sum of its material and human parts.
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