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
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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:

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood