FUTURING AFRICAN CITIES

Co-producing desirable urban realities for our continent

Nairobi Urban Rush – by Peter Irungu

CONTEXT

Sustainable urban futures are conceptualised as desirable, equitable, just and democratic futures. However, sustainability is in itself complex and the future is full of uncertainties. The question thus remains in how to deal with unforeseen complexities and how to bring a measure of development certainty into uncertainties. Indeed, how we think about the future will influence how we act in the present which goes a long way in minimising uncertainties. Therefore, in envisioning future African cities, local governments need to ensure that urban challenges are well understood in the context of the complex urban systems that they find themselves by including the voices of urban actors and citizens and building the capabilities of diverse stakeholders to enable their full participation in developing urban visions for their cities. This could result in urban plans that reduce environmental impact, tackle social injustices, provide for ALL citizens and ultimately create livable and healthy urban environments.

Many African cities have started the process of producing long-term, 30-50 year, strategic plans and visions for their cities. These provide the blueprint for future development and are usually based on the ideas put forward by city officials, mayors, urban planners, designers and engineers who bring expert knowledge, but are often far removed from citizen’s lived experiences. In addition, these visions and plans often resonate with ‘comparable’/existing case studies drawn from Northern and Western development perspectives and/or projected societal definitions of modern, ‘world-class’, successful cities equipped with high-rise buildings and mega highways. These ‘ímported visions’ and relying on only expert knowledge often neither consider the needs, desires and aspirations of everyday urban citizens, nor do they encapsulate the uniqueness of these cities through emphasizing their cultures, local context, diversity, supportive economic and social systems, informal practices, vibrancy, creativity, and so forth. What’s left are stark ‘future cities’ that continue to entrench inequalities by catering for an elite few whose development agenda disregards socio-economic and environmental considerations. These stark future cities thus also have adverse effects on the degradation and erosion of African values and practices.

There is a need for future African cities that are ‘futured’/dreamed/designed by various stakeholders who, through participation, would provide diversified perspectives into contextualizing and better understanding the urban challenges that affect them directly. The current technocratic, top-down processes followed to develop these future visions means that individuals and communities are unable to exercise their agency and participate in the process of envisioning different futures based on different perspectives, experiences and knowledge. This is extremely disempowering, reduces representation and varied voices which eventually leads to a lack of ownership.

The Good Ol’ Days – by Ghana Must Go

WHAT IS FUTURING

Futuring is a field which uses a systematic process for thinking about, imagining possible outcomes, and planning for the future. It is a process that seeks to support strategic planning and actions oriented towards the future. An overarching goal of futuring is to reject deterministic notions of the future by pluralising and multiplying possibility. As such, futuring is not merely ‘preparing for the future’ but rather opening up the possibility of alternative futures. In the creation of alternative futures, futuring then strives to develop both the individual and organisational capacity required to create or deliver the desired future.

Futuring uses various methodologies to plan for futures. The most commonly used futuring methodologies include foresight and forecasting. Foresight uses different input data to produce multiple potential future scenarios, while forecasting uses historical data to predict/determine future trends which informs planning. Although these futuring methods are valuable in providing evidence-based future scenarios and trends, these are largely top-down approaches that require strong technical expertise and have often been critiqued for its lack of emphasis on collaboration. 

However, futuring can also follow a process-based approach that forms the basis to build the capabilities of diverse actors and takes participants on a journey that enables collective meaning-making to build future visions for their communities, spaces and cities. This process empowers individuals and communities to be a part of the development of their cities, builds human agency and allows citizens to take ownership of the narrative. It further enables representation and diversity in future visions and includes a plurality of perspectives.

Growing up To know my Origin (Africa) is a blessing – by Mukong Ngong

WHY IS FUTURING IMPORTANT

Although cities are sites of vulnerability, poverty, inequality and injustice, they are also sites of multiple knowledges, experiences and perspectives which all form a solid basis for innovation and imagination, and could lead to the development of positive futures. Whereas the future is uncertain, we can imagine different possibilities and begin to develop relevant strategies to ensure the future we want.

The benefits we can derive from futuring are multifarious. The merits of critical inquiry into the future using futures thinking range from its potential for risk reduction thus avoiding negative futures, to the development of diverse desired positive futures. Futuring helps us to unpack and disentangle what is possible, what is achievable and what is desirable in our cities. It provides the tools and skills which can transform our aims of shaping the future possibly through changing the present. As cities are becoming increasingly complex, futures thinking can assist planners and city officials to unpack the future, shifting from “the” future to alternative futures

In light of rapidly changing contexts and processes, the need to collaborate to address the food, water, energy, mobility and other systemic challenges confronting our cities is now more important than ever. Along similar lines, increasing calls for a people-centred approach to development and inclusive cities have brought to the fore the need to democratise knowledge, planning processes and indeed the future. Collaborating to imagine and plan towards desirable futures is extremely crucial given the complex challenges our cities deal with. Futuring provides useful methods with which we can foster agency and the co-creation of our collective futures. 

KINSHASA BY NIGHT – by Herman Kambala

HOW CAN FUTURING HELP SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT IN AFRICAN CITIES

Over the years, city officials, planners and policy makers have been striving to make cities more prosperous and to bring development in a sustainable way to the ever growing population of cities. However, progress towards these objectives has been slow and uneven. Even in times where some semblance of economic progress is being achieved, this has often come at the expense of growing negative externalities such as environmental degradation, climate change, malnutrition, income inequality among others. All of these compromise our ability to achieve the future we want and point to the need to plan for desirable futures in our cities. 

Now more than ever, cities are in a position where they need to enact radical, transformative and just urban change to ensure that the cities and institutions of the future are equipped to eliminate poverty, economic and social exclusion, and inequality, while ensuring that urban changes respects and protects the planet, natural environment and resources. This means that cities need to adopt whole-of-society approaches that are inclusive of diverse actors and build collective (and multiple) visions that are contextually appropriate. 

Futuring has the potential to build both the individual and collective capacities of city officials, planners, civil society, businesses and urban citizens to envision alternative sustainable futures and plan accordingly to actualize desirable futures. Building both the individual and collective capacities to envision a future is not only based on ideas and discourses  but encompasses methodologies and tools that are useful for the generation, manipulation and evaluation of information about the future. Process-based futuring methodologies can assist with creating plans and projects that are both collaborative and transformative, thus shifting away from business as usual approaches. By participating in this initiative, local governments will be able to build their capacities to strategically think and plan about the future in such a way as to be able to frame realistic expectations, identify emerging opportunities and threats to their cities, and anticipate actions that will lead to sustainable futures.