Petropolis now: Are cities getting too big?

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

New Statesman
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

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: turnaroundchallenge.org