Click here to read The Promise of Futurism Part 1

Or maybe not. Futurism means different things to different people. It all depends on which side of the fence you occupy. Regardless, it’s one of the most interesting narratives currently in circulation. So, where are the boundaries of Africa’s possible future?

Promises and projections : Konza City and Modderfontein

Two of the continent’s soon to be Technopoli, namely Konza City (south of Nairobi) and Modderfontein (east of Johannesburg) , are earmarked to be beacons of a thriving future. Both have succumbed to questionable appropriation by being given terms such as ‘New York of Africa’ , ‘World Class African City’, ‘future capital’, “Manhattan of Africa”. Why an African locale has to be glossed with western similarities is anybody’s guess. Konza City promises to have futuristic amenities : roadway sensors will be able to monitor pedestrian and automobile traffic, and adjust traffic light timing accordingly to optimize traffic flows. On the other hand Modderfontein is poised to house an ambitious 30 000 families and various industries.

Artist's rendering of how the Konza City  complex will appear. Graphic:
Artist’s rendering of how the Konza City complex will appear. Graphic:

Questions raised

A staggering $14bn will be invested to build Konza Tech City, whereas Modderfontein’s budget stands at an unflinching R84 billion. The tech start up industry in Kenya has shown a steady incline in recent years and many sentiments are that this industry can further grow with greater investment in emerging talent instead of injecting capital into a project that is far from seeing the light of day.

In Modderfontein’s case, alarms are ringing in the light of this being a purely Chinese-backed campaign, thanks to an organisation known as Shangai Zendai. Chinese companies based in South Africa have come under fire for bringing in foreign nationals to complete contracts, instead of transferring skills to local workers. This concern is expressed by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), who insist that local labour should be used in such vast development projects. According to Joburg-based architect, Mxolisi Makhubo, “there is a grave need to ensure that these projects up-skill our labour markets so that we don’t have the same excuse about how ‘our labour is not skilled enough’ in 50 years time. Our government needs to have the guts to demand more from development ‘partners’, because these partnerships have not benefitted us as they should.”

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What’s in data, really?

One of the key ideas of a smart city is endless loops of connectivity – public usage of data will supposedly catapult residents into a competitive place within the new digital world. According to Konza City’s website, “the availability of data will enable Konza’s population to participate directly in the operations of the city, practice more sustainable living patterns, and enhance overall inclusiveness.” But what really lies at the heart of data? Hardly neutrality. Data, we are increasingly realising, can be currency working in the vested interests of corporations. Its collection can result not only in corporate profits, but also surveillance of every move made ordinary citizens. In Modderfontein’s case there is also the unaffordability of bandwidth, which is only abundant to those with means. “A large majority of South Africans still do not have access to the internet,” says Makhubo . “ A great portion of those that do go online do it during their working hours on computers that are largely restricted by ‘operational policy’, so how much can we conclusively draw from people’s behaviour online? This is largely a middle to upper class problem in the South African context. This data is not hard to find outside the digital landscape, So reading too much into the data that results from mining in the South African context is only one side of the picture. It is a side that, however, needs close scrutiny”, he adds.

People make cities

It is unquestionable that city living is all about relationships and, ultimately, contact. The city of Johannesburg heavily relies on an undocumented ‘3rd economy’, where transactions happen through informal means in the food, gadget, mechanical and adult service businesses. How does the conception of a smart city reconcile such abstract washes of capital flow? Smart cities can easily be seen to only serve planners with bigger bank balance – not the Nigerian barber or Ethiopian restaurateur feeding the masses. Makhubo’s take on the ‘smart city’ being an instrument of elitism is that “it is about standardisation of society to make the behaviour of the market more predictable. The one thing that has still remained largely unpredictable is ‘the market’, which is susceptible to external conditions. What better way to ensure predictability than to create predictable(ordered and controlled) urban environments? I think it’s really about what it’s always been –money”.

Photo: Tracy Lee Stark
Smart cities can easily be seen to only serve planners with bigger bank balance – not the Nigerian barber or Ethiopian restaurateur feeding the masses. Photo: Tracy Lee Stark

The city in writ

‘Civic utopias’ are things of an industrious imagination, for they focus on hardware, often to the exclusion of human behaviour . Binyavanga Wainaina describes Konza Technology City as “a place without bricks, stones or nails, where there is no smell of human labour, also no stammering,” an idea which alludes ultimately to a nothingness – a world of only algorithms, and perhaps a few robots, who take their cues from mathematical masters. In Andrew Miller’s sci-fi novel, Dub Steps, virtual reality, hyper-augmentations, algorithms and holograms are the spur of a future age []. As their hype snowballs via white papers and power point promises, the most important things are neglected: You. And Me. Could the African Futurism promise end up in a similarly strange and disconnected context? Well, let’s see whether the planners are at least thinking about this very real risk.