The Afrikan landscape is wonderfully rich and dynamic, a complex and colourful mesh of diverse humanity, where history and modernity in all its brokenness and brilliance, collide. Its people, resources and realities are highly unique, and require an authentic language and lens through which to co-craft its solutions.
With quantum leaps in technology catapulting global markets into uncharted waters, Afrika stands to flourish from this surge in innovation and economic development. But the road to achieving this prosperity is critical. Unlike former linear, analytical approaches to problem solving, more and more people are becoming convinced that this road going forward must be paved by human centred design.
Enter Afrikan Design
With unprecedented scales of urbanisation facing our cities, traditional planning and engineering solutions just won’t adequately address the complexities of the problem. Rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach which pulls from past experience and ‘outside in’ perspectives, design thinking goes deep to the source of the problem and invites multiple stakeholders to co-design solutions from an ‘inside out’ approach. Together with community members and people from private, public and academic sectors, systems thinking and design thinking allows us to ask more systemic questions and find more authentic, robust solutions that work for that particular time and place.
This process of design thinking that I call Afrikan Design Innovation, ADI, lays down the platform for the storyteller and the politician, the chief and the professor, the architect and the elder, to have equal input into the design process. History, culture and context all weave into the design process, intersecting and shaping its contours. Afrika (a term adopted from the field of Afrikology, which honours the unanimous use of ‘k’ throughout the continent) has its own requirements and rhythms. Our commitment through ADI is to pioneer a new approach that picks up the Afrikan heartbeat, so that our solutions offer sustainable responses to the continent’s unique challenges and aspirations.
It’s a process that aligns to South Africa’s National Development Plan, the continent’s AU2063 plan, as well as the broader United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. And it’s also a methodology that is of late ringing out from our president’s pulpit.
Co-owning the future as Afrikans
In his address at the BRICS summit on 26 July 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa appealed to fellow world leaders on the potential perils and opportunities facing BRICS nations in the 4th industrial revolution. “This surge in innovation has the potential to dramatically improve productivity and to place entire countries on a new trajectory of prosperity,” said Ramaphosa.
“However, unless it is approached in a collaborative manner, underpinned by a developmental agenda, rapid technological change could merely serve to entrench existing disparities within and between countries. It could also create new fault lines in our societies.”
President Ramaphosa urged for a more collaborative approach that ensures Afrikans remain in the driver’s seat and steer solutions that custom fit the Afrikan context and reality.
“As BRICS countries, we should not become mere adopters of new technologies. Rather, we need to combine our resources and expertise to become innovators. We should not allow technology to shape our societies. We must instead ensure that the needs of our societies shape the technologies that we develop. We must ensure that mastery of the 4th Industrial Revolution does not become the exclusive preserve of just a handful of countries. We must promote inclusivity, diversity and cooperation.”
In response to the presidents Thuma Mina call we should envisage a collaborative initiative between government, civil society and private sectors to dialogue and envision the future of our Afrikan cities. With as many as 440 new cities to be added to our Afrikan landscape by 2050, there is a tremendous sense of urgency to the question, how best will we manage urbanisation down the line?
Using a human centric approach we can develop a framework in which these questions can be explored by Afrikans, for Afrikans. In the spirit of “inclusivity, diversity and cooperation,” we need to elevate the discussion beyond Smart Cities to one that draws together multiple professions, cultures and worldviews to co-imagine our cities that weave these diverse perspectives, traditions and ideals into the fabric of their preferred future.
What it will take by 2020?
Afrika and much of the developing world are in some ways poised for disproportionate gain in the 4th Industrial Age. Lacking the legacies of antiquated technologies, we are able to leapfrog previous paradigms and catalyse unprecedented development based on these new technologies. Look as far as the field of telecommunications as a case in point.
But if we are going to succeed, our education, economy and social systems have to gear up for the change now. President Ramaphosa rightfully noted only a few emerging economies will possess these skills in sufficient numbers, while others will see their prospects stifled by automation. “There is a need to develop more agile and applied education models,” he urged.
According to the World Economic Forum, the three most important skills for an employee by 2020 will be “complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity.” Being able to approach issues with fresh eyes and agile analytical skills – seeing problems as opportunities under construction – is critical to the digital world we navigate today. Technical acumen alone will not unlock innovation – it needs to fuse with creativity in order to formulate meaningful and long-lasting change. Viewing creativity through an Afrikan lens creates a unique opportunity to unlock innovation on the continent that is relevant and appropriate. This is a huge opportunity for Afrikan entrepreneurs and agile corporates to be at the forefront of driving innovation on our continent.
This approach is further supported by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) who recently named Cape Town as Africa’s first City of Design. Through this program Cape Town has joined a total of 31 other design cities in UNESCO’s global Creative Cities Network. The purpose of the network is to align efforts and foster cooperation between cities in the shared commitment to see creativity as a bedrock investment into building sustainable and vibrant urban communities.
Thuma mina, send me
And so we echo the sentiment of our President and international partners. So long as we plow at the forefront of innovation, we stay committed to cultivating critical thinking and supporting creativity. President Ramaphosa couldn’t be more apt in saying there is a “great responsibility placed on all of us.”
We’ve never been this way before. But uncertainty presents a platform that can either sink or springboard growth and opportunity in the 4th Industrial Afrika. Its direction will hinge on the success of community-centred design, where a culturally genuine, socially equitable and economically sustainable future for Afrika can arise.