Since 2012, HubCity in Lomé, Togo, has sought to be a “neovernacular” example of a sustainable technological future for African cities: peer learning, indigenous innovation, democratic self-organisation, etc.
This article provides a summary of the experiment in the form of three primary proposals made in response to the discussions held at the final ASToN programme workshop:
1. Urban acupuncture and a network of Labs to spread urban innovation capacity.
One reason for the astonishing resilience shown by the African continent in the face of the COVID-19 crisis is the persistence of village systems within major cities. “Smart cities” could become part of this fabric by considering local presence through Technological Democracy Spaces and other community-based innovation laboratories.
2. Building local power through platform development.
At present, regional authorities are frequently confined to an observational role in relation to the ongoing digital revolution. How could they move beyond this, through shared platforms, to become directly involved in innovation? This new arrangement would also help develop the idea that these platforms constitute a public good.
3. Opportunities created by Web3, blockchain, NFTs, and more — ways to revolutionise and democratise innovation funding:
New DAO (Digital Autonomous Organisation) technology, developed as part of the third iteration of the internet (Web3), could become the new staging ground for stakeholders involved in the sustainable digital transformation of African cities. This could, for example, provide a solution for democratic funding and digital governance that local communities would be able to harness.
Since 2007, according to UN figures, societies have shifted increasingly towards urban areas, with over 51% of the world’s population living in cities. Moreover, while the future of humankind seems irreversibly urban, Africa is witnessing a demographic transition that is set to make it the most densely populated continent by 2050, inevitably becoming home to some of the world’s largest cities. The urban question would therefore become an African one.
Digital technology experts also see cities as their future, and are experimenting more and more directly with solutions to accommodate the coming generation of urban infrastructure. It is therefore inevitable that the African continent will have to embrace the concept of Smart Cities and develop its own version of them.
Africa in the age of the Smart City
According to OECD data, African cities are predicted to have almost one billion new inhabitants by 2050. This means that one sixth of the world’s urban population would live on the African continent, implying a need to immediately rethink the urban fabric. In recent years, Smart City projects, including some of the most famous in the world, have begun to proliferate on the continent. However, not so much as an effort to stem the tide of this unprecedented urbanisation, but rather as part of an apparent trend.
Smart Cities represent a convergence of interests: those of digital technologies and urban development. In the age of digital capitalism, and with the dangers of the surveillance society, the level of enthusiasm surrounding African projects suggests a lack of recognition of the issues at stake. It is primarily decision-makers and elected officials who are responsible for this lack of recognition. Overall, the promise of Smart Cities is to make cities more attractive, optimise urban management, create jobs, foster digital innovation, improve healthcare conditions, stimulate exports, and so on. In the future and highly urbanised conditions in Africa, they would renew its capacity to significantly drive socioeconomic development.
Africans are faced with the challenge of improving awareness and developing alternative, local Smart Cities that are more inclusive and environmentally friendly.
With issues like climate conditions, culture, history, and lifestyles in mind, it appears necessary for African innovators to develop local Smart City concepts. It is also crucial for Africans that urban and technological developments have positive social effects and contribute to the creation of jobs as well as education and healthcare systems. No city could be considered Smart if it impoverished its local population by creating debt and directing money to foreign companies that import inappropriate solutions.
1. Urban acupuncture for a grassroots Smart City
A local and integrated Smart City
Innovation spaces (like hackerspaces, maker culture-initiated FabLabs, incubators for innovative companies, coworking spaces, or tech-hubs) are becoming increasingly popular venues for working and peer learning, often with a digital nomad perspective. All of these are tried and tested examples of what could support local economic development, while simultaneously empowering its stakeholders in an innovative democratic context.
Standing at the intersection of all these different types of innovation space, the “WoeLab” concept is presented as a “Technological Democracy Space” that is entirely dedicated to having a positive impact on its neighbourhood. This entirely self-financed, practical utopia intends to roll out a network of grassroots incubators in Lomé, the capital of Togo. These incubators will be dedicated to launching a series of urban innovation startup groups whose collaboration could lead to the emergence of “Smart Neighbourhoods” around WoeLabs.
The WoeLab network and urban public goods
HubCity transforms the city around open innovation spaces (WoeLabs) by creating mutually beneficial partnerships between incubated startups and the local community. With a primarily educational vocation, HubCity provides an alternative to top-down governance. It enables citizens to take the lead in urban transformation, using a common network and pool of resources available in open laboratories. It serves as a central location for educational content on the quality of public spaces, allowing people to take ownership of food production — from recycling food waste from surrounding homes, to spreading compost on a network of vegetable gardens. The education of participants in sustainability, state-of-the-art technology, and free software is the secret ingredient that makes for a virtuous entrepreneurial process.
At some point, and given an adequate level of maturity and openness, the philosophy of digital cooperativism resulting from such an experiment should intersect with the positive momentum generated by local communities, allowing the former to reach its full potential. In return, the latter would gain the resources required to develop and implement their own digital urban management system.
#2. Non-proprietary techno-political infrastructure and shared platforms
To tackle the top-down approach to platforms inherited from Smart Cities, HubCity advocates supporting local communities in the development of public platforms. Platforms under the control of local authorities would therefore serve as techno-political initiatives aimed at a social and ecological education of citizens that would take into account stakeholders in local innovation.
Keeping digital privatisation to a minimum
Whether in the service sector, social media, retail, or peer-to-peer networking, so-called platform businesses pool tremendous amounts of data from many different stakeholders and become powerful architects of our reality. The platform model is currently extending its reach into services of general interest, meaning areas like healthcare, education, local sourcing, housing, and transportation, where predominantly state-owned companies traditionally operated under the authority of local government. In some sectors, like retail and mobility, digital privatisation of essential services or services of general interest is already well underway. This makes local elected officials and municipal companies directly liable, as they are becoming increasingly ignorant of the use of public services. Yet it is clear that platform-based infrastructure is fundamentally a public concern and should therefore be organised in a transparent and democratic manner.
Furthermore, local authorities and public stakeholders should go beyond mere enforcement efforts. Attempts by legislators, at national or even international level, to oblige platforms to comply with fundamental competition, labour, tax, and data protection standards have so far proven highly ineffective. Local communities are therefore urged to become proactive in organising and managing their own platform systems that are either entirely independent or developed in partnership with major stakeholders.
This could open up fresh opportunities for innovation. Indeed, more effective coordination mechanisms using decentralised spaces would promote a number of small alternative suppliers which, compared to the price mechanism of conventional markets, could transmit higher volumes of better quality information without bias. Their effectiveness would drive large tech groups out of public space or at the very least civilise their activities.
#3. Web3 and other prospects for democratic funding and governance.
What Web3 changes for cities: an African perspective
Bitcoin, Blockchain, NFT, DAO, Metaverse, and more. Our discussions have started to include a whole new internet vocabulary. “We are on the cusp of a revolution!” say the enthusiasts; “What’s it for?” respond the more pragmatic.
Technological maturity means that a third iteration of the internet is currently being anticipated: Web3. Here, each user will own their data and be free to exchange it with their peers without depending on an intermediary. This new, secure, decentralised, and fair internet will be owned by its users, who will share management powers based on votes proportional to their assets.
This self-organising utopia inspires the most ambitious among us to dream of building new cities from the ground up; cities where members of an online community that share dematerialised assets can come together in the material world. Africa’s young, growing population, and the recent mass adoption of mobile phones make it a very promising emerging market for information and communications technology. Business incubators are proliferating across the continent, and a new generation of entrepreneurs is determined to help improve their living standards by solving local problems.
For HubCity, this opportunity is reflected in HubCity-DAO (Decentralised Autonomous Organisation), a Web3 version of the initial project. By attracting the support of new members who are drawn to this African technological adventure, we believe that we have the opportunity to move a step further towards self-management by transferring the leadership of the HubCity project to a community of socially minded backers. This shift could inspire a civic revolution in the funding of the technological future of cities. As a reward for their involvement, contributors receive WOEs (a currency with no economic value), which allow them to become involved in the future of HubCity and to belong to a community of like-minded individuals who share an idea of what Smart Cities can be.
These are just three of the many possibilities explored within the HubCity framework with a view to developing and proposing new ways for African local authorities to approach investing in fully local technological cities.
Written by Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou,