Sun Ra and the Future City of Africa

Before we get to the heart of this week’s post, dear reader, please join me on a little pre-amble.

The Downfall of the West

First published in 1918, Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of The West was a great influence on Fitzgerald’s The Great Gasby and on the writers of the Beat Generation. I’d love to know if Jack and the boys actually made it through both volumes of The Decline. I retired hurt after about thirty pages.

As I’ve watched the hundreds of thousands of refugees finding their way into Europe by any means necessary, I’ve returned to Spengler’s big idea again and again. But I’m still unable to answer the question of whether the West is actually falling down - ‘downfall’ is apparently a better translation from the original German than ‘decline' – or if it simply remains the only game in town.

If the West is the best the developed world can offer, the poorer, browner people of Planet Earth will stay at the bottom of the pile forever. Or will they?

The mighty Ra

The mighty Ra

All hail Sun Ra and Afrofuturism

When I think of Afrofuturism, the mighty jazz prophet Sun Ra comes immediately to mind. For me, Ra embodies the idea that, as Ytasha L. Womack writes in her essay Afrofuturism: An Aesthetic and Exploration of Identity‘Afrofuturists seek to inspire and forge a stronger self-identity and respect for humanity by encouraging enthusiasts to reexamine their environments and reimagine the future in a cross cultural context’.

Ra, and acolytes like George Clinton and Afrika Bambaata, adopted (or believed) the idea that African people had originally come from outer space and were better off heading back there. The other option, of course, was to go back to Africa. But, as the history of the Back to Africa Movement AKA Black Zionism shows, the reality of taking the best of the West back to Africa has not been known for its successes.

Afrofuturism, as I understand it, takes the notion of a mythical Africa into a future on Earth and in space which is bright black.

1950s vision of the city of the future

1950s vision of the city of the future

Cities are the future

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, over the next 12 years, ‘600 cities will account for nearly 65 percent of global GDP growth’. We’re already seeing massive urbanization worldwide and it’s causing enormous problems – from terrible pollution to toxic alienation.

Here, we can return to Spengler who wrote ‘Long ago the country bore the country-town and nourished it with her best blood. Now the giant city sucks the country, insatiably and incessantly demanding and devouring fresh streams of men, till it wearies and dies in the midst of an almost uninhabited waste of country.’

Of course, a technoptimist would argue we have nothing to fear from the smart cities of the future. Wired magazine argues that ‘High tech materials, sensor networks, new science, and better data are all letting architects, designers, and planners work smarter and more precisely. Cities are getting more environmentally sound, more fun, and more beautiful. And just in time, because today more human beings live in cities than not.’

But who are our future cities going to be more fun and more beautiful for? Do we think that refugees from f*cked over Africa are going to be able to frolic gaily in the shining paradise of the urban tomorrow? Not if things stay the way they are economically and racially.

And this brings us back to Africa.

Enter Hjörtur Smárason

Hjörtur Smárason trained as an anthropologist but has mainly worked in marketing and innovation. Today, he focuses on place branding and city development. His projects have included some of the world’s most isolated villages in East Greenland, the capital cities of Scandinavia, Russian republics or Nepal after the earthquakes. I met Hjörtur through a global network of likeminded individuals we’re both part of.

About a month ago it occurred to me to ask Hjörtur what he was working on. It turned out to be something called The Future City of Africa , a conference running in Nairobi, Kenya on 9-11 June 2016.

I asked Hjörtur to tell me more.

But first…

I’m going to do a Jack Webb on you, dear reader:

  • 700 million people will be moving into African cities in the next 35 years – that means building an entire New York City every six months until 2050
  • Nine out of the 20 fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa
  • African startups raised USD 187.5 million last year
  • African venture capital companies reported up to 330% growth last year
  • Africa is home to one billion people and 200 million of these are aged 15-24
  • Africa has the fastest growing middle class in the world
  • Smartphone usage is at a tipping point, expected to reach 400 million users in 2020.

Now, Hjörtur. How and why did you come up with The Future City of Africa concept?

I work with the branding of cities and I’ve yet to see an African city claiming to be the go-to city on the continent. Many cities are on the rise and doing fantastic things but their stories have not been told loudly enough. Cape Town is probably the only true international city brand in Africa at the moment. Many more have great potential but maybe lack focus in their vision or the communication.

Working with the organizers of Digital Health Days in Stockholm in Sweden I noticed that many of the best and brightest ideas in digital health were actually coming from Africa. And the best part is that contrary to the West and because of their lack of existing infrastructure, Africans are capable of implementing their solutions.

What they've got to work with is the mobile phone which is why Africa has taken the lead in developing mHealth solutions. The Ebola crisis last year sped up this development even more. The same is true of mobile banking. This was invented in Kenya more than a decade ago but only just arrived in Europe. Thanks to the lack of infrastructure, Africa is way ahead in both mobile health and mobile banking. 

Considering how underdeveloped most of the major cities in Africa are and the way they're taking off right now makes this the perfect time to rethink the city as a concept. With all the new technology being developed - smart cities, big data and the Internet of things - we have a whole toolset to play with when designing cities. Africa is standing at a crossroads where it has the opportunity to leapfrog over the cities of the West and take the lead in designing the future city.

From the  Kofi Ofori-Mensah blog

From the Kofi Ofori-Mensah blog

Is your concept unique?

I’ve not come across any conference that brings together all the African key players with thought leaders from around the world when it comes to both sustainable urban development and the tech industry. It’s important to mix the two because the tech industry is disrupting all the old business models. Not just in the taxi and hotel business, but also in the way we can run a city. Water, electricity, transportation, banking, taxation and even democracy. The magic lies in the new business models and I think African cities have the best chance of developing and applying these.

What are the practical logistics involved in the event?

We’re bringing in over 40 world class speakers from all over the world and expect around 500 attendees. The attendees are up and coming thought leaders that are already starting to shape the future. Visionary architects, brave entrepreneurs, mad innovators and critical authors. Mayors that care about the future of their city and the prosperity of their people. Investors and business people that are ready to think out of the box and seize the opportunity of building the businesses of tomorrow. 

We will also have an exhibition showcasing the leading companies within sustainability, architecture, construction and smart cities technologies. We even have a special startup section where we will be inviting the 50 most promising startups on the continent to exhibit their services.

How do your perception and experience of Africa differ from the stereotype?

When I talk about Africa people usually picture two things. One is exotic animals. The other is misery. Misery in the form of war, famine, diseases and poverty. There is a third Africa that is rising very fast and that's Urban Africa. The Africa of the middle classes. Of consumers. Of entrepreneurs that are not just building funny new gadgets but actually changing the world for the better. Of course there are still many challenges but I'm impressed by the energy and creativity that is thriving all over the continent at the moment. I'm expecting big things coming out of Africa in the coming years.

Are there African belief systems about work etc that are giving business in Africa a unique flavour?

Africa is an entire continent with one billion people, so it is impossible to generalize. It is definitely more colourful though, and like with any other cultures you are entering, you need to learn the system and build trust with your business partners. 

We talked about Africa's potential to leapfrog over many of the problems of the developed world - can you give me some concrete examples?

Like I mentioned earlier, Africa is already vaulting over the 20th century banking and health care systems. The reason is the lack of infrastructure that has done two things. One is forcing people to think in different solutions - primarily the mobile phone, and secondly it doesn't create a resistance to the implementation of new technologies or new solutions. The same applies to the cities.

Underdeveloped utilities and infrastructure look like a challenge but they could be the African cities greatest asset as they can bypass the outdated 20th century infrastructure. Instead they can create and implement the solutions of the 21st century. Solutions based on mobile technology, big data and the sharing economy. Electric grids where every household is also a producer. City centres where private cars are simply banned but people can grab shared electric cars, like the scheme Copenhagen has recently introduced. Completely new masterplans that include organic urban farming, co-working spaces and new designs based on the needs of the African community of tomorrow.

Future Cape Town?

Future Cape Town?

What are the business opportunities in Africa and what are the challenges?

Growth. Both as an opportunity and challenge. We are looking at seven out of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world in Africa. It is a continent of one billion people and has the youngest population in the world that is entering the job market. Some will find work in production which is developing very fast. People are starting to call it the fourth industrial revolution. Others will create their own work through co-working and entrepreneurship and I believe it’s there that the biggest opportunities exist. The biggest challenge however, is corruption. Even though many countries are improving, the leading economies are not.

Corruption kills too many good projects which is also why corruption will be a topic at Future City of Africa. The success of the cities in Africa is also vital to Europe, because it changes the migration flows as people will start chasing the African dream in the new buzzing metropolises of Africa.

Could you explain how you propose to tackle the question of endemic corruption in Africa at the conference?

I think the best way to tackle corruption is to stop demonizing it and fighting it like any other crime. We need to understand that corruption is simply the way the system works. It may not be the system on paper, but it is the system in reality and if we just remove corruption the system collapses. We need to think in solutions. Understand how we can change the system and replace corruption with something else that works. Independence of judges and ensuring financing of public services and public servants are key elements. If you can't pay your police or officials they will have to make a living through different means. 

I'm bringing in two mayors from Russia and South-America who have been very successful in fighting crime and corruption and will share their experiences and methods with the African mayors at the conference.

Thanks, Hjörtur.

Obviously, building a shiny new Afrotopia involves overcoming plenty of challenges. But it’s an exciting prospect, especially for hungry, smart young Africans who no longer have to trek to the West. My only reservations are to do with the danger of building a future based on the value of commodities in the global marketplace and relying too heavily on Westerners.

But if I were Sun Ra, I think I’d say ‘Far out’.