Come together: an aerial view of Nairobi's outskirts and suburbs. As the city's population swells, unemployment has risen to 60 per cent. Image: Frederic Courtbet/Corbis
Show Hide image

Petropolis now: Are cities getting too big?

As we confront the challenge of urbanisation, we can deploy technology with two different intentions.

Imagine if you lived in a place where                                
the cool breeze caresses your face as                               
you stare at the lush green landscape,                               
where birds sing as you walk by,                               
where you can fish by the lake,                               
where your neighbours share your lifestyle dreams,                               
where your kids can play outdoors safely . . .                               

Where is this idyll? Migaa – a 20-minute drive from the rubble of the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, Kenya – is a new development complete with a private hospital, conference centre, “shop till you drop” mall facilities and a 200-acre executive golf course. Natasha, a sales rep, talks me through the mid-range Tamarind Tree residences – fully serviced apartments with a lift and a concierge, high-speed internet, a roof terrace with a solar-heated pool and a bar.

“We also have a wall,” she tells me. Patrolled by armed security guards, it is a 12- kilometre-long electrified stone wall around the perimeter of the compound.

Migaa is one of several “premier gated cities” springing up around Nairobi, from the $14.5bn Konza Techno City to Tatu City, with its helipad and biometric ID system, unveiled last year by the Moscow-based Renaissance Partners in Cannes, France. Nairobi is not the only place this is happening: a pan-African trend to upgrade to the “smart city” of the future is emerging. Uganda’s capital, Kampala, has Kakungulu eco-city, with two malls, a 50,000-seater stadium and a golf course with seeds for the greens flown in from Florida. Accra, Ghana, has Appolonia. Lagos, Nigeria, has Eko Atlantic, “rising like Aphrodite from the foam of the Atlantic”. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, not to be outdone, has la Cité du Fleuve, emerging, like a “water lily”, on reclaimed land in the middle of the Congo River near the capital, Kinshasa. The mansion designs on offer include “palace-style Arabe” and “Mediterranean villa”. Elsewhere, there’s Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, Norman Foster’s eco-oasis in the desert, coming in with an estimated $20bn price tag for 40,000 inhabitants.

In South Korea, Songdo is already open for business. Described by Cisco as a “model for future cities”, Songdo has smart water, smart garbage (pneumatically sucked out of sight), smart parking with cars guided to empty lots, centralised blood pressure monitoring consoles, elevators you can order from your television screen and ubiquitous 52- inch plasma screens for high-definition video conferencing. Plus, a green space modelled on New York’s Central Park and a canal system inspired by Venice.

Then there are the ambitions of China. After a decade of rolling out the infrastructure equivalent of Rome every two months, China, according to the news agency Xinhua, now aims to step up the pace, with 100 model cities, 200 model counties, 1,000 model districts and 10,000 model towns by 2015. It’s Grand Designs on steroids. Yet will these urban dreamscapes work in reality?

If urbanisation is the defining trend of the 21st century, with 4.9 billion people predicted to be living in African and Asian cities by 2030 (the population of the world as recently as the mid-1980s), are we up to the task? Or is this the next real estate bubble, not sub-prime but super-prime, dressed up in the mushy atmospherics of eco-bling? There are three potential problems.

The first is the demand for jobs. Around the world, some 200,000 people a day leave the countryside – crops failing, the agricultural model broken – in a pattern of distressed migration that takes them to the slums. Nairobi’s population has swollen to around 3.4 million. The figures are unreliable but some 60 per cent of its population is estimated to be slum-dwelling, concentrated in just 5 per cent of the city’s space.

The challenges are patent. Nairobi is bursting. Its streets are jammed (the city recently rose to fourth in the world in IBM’s Commuter Pain Index), its services are crumbling. Business, in a vicious circle accelerated by the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping centre, is leaving the city. As it leaves, it reduces still further the flow of tax revenue that, from roads to health to education, could transform public services.

Unemployment is at 60 per cent, with only 9 per cent (according to some estimates) in formal-sector unemployment. More than 500,000 new unemployed young people join the labour force every year; 90 per cent of the unemployed have no skills or formal training beyond primary education.

Why do the rural poor come to the city? For a woman such as Mama Felix, the owner of the Pink Lady hairdressing salon in the slum of Mathare, there’s a central answer – because that’s where the hope is. Braid by braid, customer by customer, she is working her way towards getting back the savings she lost to a loan shark. She has no running water and no lights. Half the money she earns goes out to relatives in the countryside. But she has some scissors, a mirror, an electric dryer and, above all, a market for her skills.

For all the “flying toilets”, Mungiki street gangs and illegal changaa breweries, Nairobi’s sprawling slums of Mathare, Kibera and Korogocho are concentrators not just of poverty but of opportunity. If the businesses move out to the new satellite city – if you move the engine that’s creating 45 per cent of Kenya’s GDP and economic opportunity 15 miles away – the migrants will follow and set up camp. You haven’t solved the underlying problem with a new city: you have just moved it on down the road. These new “smart” cities aren’t going to look like the architect’s model. They are going to have a lot of people camping in and around them, looking for jobs.

The second problem is the supply of jobs. Just how many will the smart city manage to offer? As part of its cultural life, Migaa, which is built on over 700 acres of a coffee plantation, will celebrate the rich heritage of that industry with the Coffee Museum, complete with digital displays and a café: a site for agricultural production transformed into a site for consumption and for the deployment of the development strategy known as “pacification by cappuccino”. As Slavoj Žižek notes in The Year of Dreaming Dangerously: “There is a wonderful expression in Persian, war nam nihadan, which means, ‘To murder somebody, bury his body, then grow flowers over the body to conceal it.’”

From its IT systems to the merchandise in its malls, the smart city risks being an import city, closed to local skills and goods, with a reduced capacity to develop or integrate local expertise in the supply chain. As a result, there’s the danger that it will become something close to an iPad city, a mesh of topdown, closed systems, both vulnerable and interdependent, with a deskilled local labour force that’s unable to repair or maintain it.

The smart city becomes a city that is only as good as its software, built for obsolescence. The impact of new cities such as Angola’s Kilamba, or China’s deserted Tianducheng (with its 108-metre-high “Eiffel Tower” and replica Champs-Élysées), is to create the throwaway city.

The third problem is what J K Galbraith called “the massive onslaught of circumstance”. Food price rises, which have already resulted in events from the tortilla riots in Mexico to the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia, have been shown to have a direct link to civic unrest. As Henk- Jan Brinkman and Cullen S Hendrix wrote in a report for the World Food Programme: “Food insecurity, especially when caused by higher food prices, heightens the risk of democratic breakdown, civil conflict, protest, rioting and communal conflict.”

If the predictions of climate-change-driven drought and impacts on crop prices across eastern and central Africa hold true, the new smart city is facing a complex external environment, with several specific threats to the boundary wall: more people with more mouths to feed, facing higher food prices, with fewer jobs to help them afford it.

As a point of reference, it was in the Lower Shabelle area of Somalia – where drought struck and brought child mortality of 10 per cent – that the Islamist terrorist group al- Shabaab gained control. Resilience, the capacity to adapt and heal, not the opposite, is what the 21st-century city will need.

Done right, the smart city has the potential to provide affordable housing and construction jobs and help incubate a next generation of start-ups. Done badly, it’s a different story and has the potential to leave us with three problems: a broken countryside, swamped megacities and non-resilient new satellite cities.

In 2011, there were 23 urban agglomerations that qualified as megacities, which means that they had populations exceeding ten million inhabitants. By 2025, there are expected to be as many as 37 megacities. The challenge for Nairobi and all of these cities is a defining challenge for societal well-being in the years to 2050.

Is there another option, beyond the smart city, that might work? In Erik Hersman’s photograph, taken 60 kilometres outside Nairobi in the Savannah at the construction site for Konza, the contours of two potentially dystopian cities of the future can be seen. The first, implied in the deserted fields, is the decreasingly resilient megacity, the swamped “petropolis” of Nairobi. The second city, Konza, advertised on the billboard, is what is currently on track to be its replacement, the new smart city, “cyburbia”, the gleaming citadel, censored and sensored. This is the eco-city as escapist urbanism.

I s there a third city, beyond the dyad of old Nairobi and its glimmering cyburb of Konza? Is there a city where technology helps us not escape but address the looming crisis of rural African poverty? Is there a city where we could thrive?

“The fields,” said the poet Ben Okri, “are sprouting strange new mushrooms.”

The group standing in front of the perimeter gate are members of Nairobi’s iHub, part of a network of self-organising groups that now run 16 innovation spaces across the city. From the iHub to M:Lab, Nailab and 88mph, an alternative approach is forming, deploying technology not to escape the problems of distressed migration but to tackle the root causes.

M-Kopa, the brainchild of Nick Hughes, one of the founders of the mobile money transfer system M-Pesa, is an example. Across the globe, there are as many as 1.5 billion people without access to power, spending 40 to 70 per cent of their income on kerosene and firewood, with two million deaths a year from smoke inhalation and 150 million tonnes of carbon released annually.

M-Kopa set out to address these three problems by making solar home-lighting systems affordable and accessible to low-income consumers. In October 2012, M-Kopa partnered with Safaricom to launch the first ever “pay-as-you-go solar solution” using mobile money. M-Kopa takes the d.Light mobile solar light and puts a mobile chip in it. This has a big impact for users. Instead of having to buy the light outright, at a cost far beyond their range, Kenya’s cash-strapped poor can make an initial deposit of $30, then lease it, just like a mobile phone, for around 50 cents a day: less than they would be spending on kerosene or firewood.

Using M-Pesa, the mobile money transfer system, they pay instalments of 40 Kenyan shillings a day for 12 months, about 30 shillings less than the cost of paraffin and charging. In return, they get the M-Kopa system, comprising a base station with a solar panel, three lamps and a charging kit for phones.

And they don’t just get power. Using the chip, they can get micro-insurance, buy fertiliser and make micro-payments for productive equipment such as the KickStart agricultural hand pump, which, at the cost of $34, gives access to the underground water table, tripling the number of crops that local farmers can plant.

They get the basic needs that make it possible to stay out of the slums and succeed as a rural farmer. The essence of the approach is to use technology not to accelerate consumption but, as Ford did with the Model T, to transform productivity within a new group of the population. In one study, exam pass rates went up from 68 to 82 per cent and incomes per head from $160 a year to $1,600. For Mama Felix, it means more hours in the shop, lights for her family, phone-charging and mobile money transfers. It means the chance to move slowly out of poverty.

Does it make business sense? The poorest of the poor spend $36bn a year on kerosene alone. The market for M-Kopa is believed to be $1bn a year in Kenya. It is a market that is the opposite of the sub-prime. It is big, growing and, when you serve it, by raising user productivity and income, you expand it.

M-Kopa is part of a growing movement to use technology for development. Another Kenyan innovation, iCow, is a voice-based application for small-scale dairy farmers. It helps farmers trace the oestrogen cycles of their cows and also gives technical advice on animal nutrition, milk production and gestation. Users of the application have reported an increase in income of 42 per cent, with milk retention increased by 56 per cent. Meanwhile, MFarm, a Kenyan agribusiness company, has partnered with Samsung to launch a new tool that allows subscribing farmers to obtain real-time price information, buy farm inputs and find buyers for their produce.

The MFarm tool was founded by three Kenyan women who met through the iHub in Nairobi. Their idea, facilitated by a group called Akirachix, a community of over 200 tech women, was developed at the M:Lab incubator at Nairobi’s iHub and launched after they won a 48-hour boot-camp event and €10, 000 of investment.

It is early days but a pattern is emerging. “Technology,” says Kentaro Toyama, “is not the answer. It is the amplifier of intent.” As we confront the challenge of urbanisation, we can deploy technology with two different intentions. One is vertical, isolating ourselves in gated smart cities from the crises affecting the poor. The other is horizontal, harnessing technology to empower smart citizens, with the goal of making both the rural and the urban work.

Leo Johnson is the co-author, with Michael Blowfield, of “Turnaround Challenge: Business and the City of the Future” (Oxford University Press, £20). For more information, visit:

Show Hide image

When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror