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Cities II


Proactive approaches to thinking about African Cities of the Future

By Mphathi Nyewe


Growing up in South Africa as a young man it was generally a given that the places where one lived and where one’s parents worked would likely be far apart. What with our parents waking up in the wee hours of the morning coming home late at night, work and home were never ever going to come close to each other. It was very much the same with schooling; the public transport system in the urban areas was an indispensable blessing whether or not it was efficient or economical. Long walks to schools in distant villages from where learners lived were the order of the day. Life somehow seemed possible and we straggled along as a matter of survival. Cities, towns, townships and to some extent villages in close proximity to urban areas were some kind of bestowed gift from the authorities up above and one simply had to fit in and be grateful to have a roof over one’s head. It is a significant sign of progress for South Africa’s majority to even to think of indulging in hypothesizing about the future of our cities, and to have a sense of agency in creating those futures.

So why should we even consider Cities of the Future in a South African context?

If we were to follow the more traditional approaches that we have seen to community development and planning, it would be a discussion confined to city planners, architects, engineers, social scientists and other such experts who would have all the knowledge and expertise to anticipate society’s needs and requirements. On that learned basis, they would draw up rational plans and simply implement what they consider to be good and proper for a growing population. Fortunately, our government policy provides guidelines for integrated development planning with added emphasis on public consultation and active community engagement in all areas of human and community development.

In a country challenged with an ever-growing backlog in housing running into millions, fueled by in-migration and high birth rates, how do we begin to even think about planning for any City of the Future? As a developing society with aspirations of developing modern functional and futurist cities, we have no option but to look ahead and plan for the future. As much as the responsibility for the actual implementation of the our national development plans rests on the shoulders of a few appointed officials, it is our collective duty to determine what kind of society we want to create and live in and what future society we envisage for the generations to come.

The fundamental question then becomes, “what kind of South African society do we envisage in thirty to fifty years’ time and what factors do we envisage will shape the growth and development towards the realization of that imagined and desirable society?” This question is crucial to engaging at all with the very notion of “Cities of the Future”, unless the topic is conceived in reference to utopian visions of hypothetical African “Cities of the Future”, in which case we would simply be engaging in a purposeless day-dreaming exercise.

Let us for the moment accept that the building blocks of the envisaged future society have been identified through the work of National Planning Commission (reflected in the 2030 National Development Plan), and that the obstacles on the way towards the realisation of that society have been identified. We should then acknowledge that no prescriptions in the form of bona fide, future city blueprints exist.

The task of determining the conceptual development of any future city should primarily be the responsibility of those who live in those localities where the city is envisaged to emerge. In the South Africa context, local realities determined on the basis of studying local, regional and global trends influencing social behavior and driving the growth and development trajectories of each province, are a logical and essential starting point. The wishes, hopes and aspirations of the local communities then shape the developmental agenda, facilitated by the experts qualified to interpret these into the spatial planning imperatives, growth and development plans for each province.

As for the task of acutally conceptualising a city of the future, renowned futurist Russel Ackoff (1981) offers insights on the four possible planning approaches available for futuring which are accessible to city planners globally:

i) Reactive : past oriented:

Reactive planning is an active attempt to turn back the clock to the past. The past, no matter how bad, is preferable to the present.

ii) Inactive : present oriented:

Inactive planning is an attempt to preserve the present, which is preferable to both the past and the future. While the present may have problems it is better than the past.

iii) Preactive : predict the future:

Preactive planning is an attempt to predict the future and then to plan for that foreseen future. Technological change is seen as the driving force bringing about the future, which will be better than the present or the past. The planning process will seeks to position the country, city or village to take advantage of the change that is happening around it.

iv) Proactive : create the future:

Proactive planning involves designing a desired future and then inventing ways to create that future state. Planners actively shape the future, rather than just trying to get ahead of events outside of their control. The predicted changes of the preactive planner are seen not as absolute constraints, but as obstacles that can be addressed and overcome.


Reactive and inactive approaches are not the most helpful for conceiving of cities of the future. Predictably therefore, preactive and proactive approaches are more prevalent in the futures literature. This ranges from the writings of H.G Wells (1895) to Alvin Toffler (1970) and Ray Kurzweil (2005) amongst others. Foresight emerges as a long-term planning tool used most effectively to draw upon the creative imagination of diverse, large constituencies constituting social intelligence, drawing on the cognitive surplus of experts and futures research on the predominant trends shaping the futures of society. There are several South African examples.

In recent years, the Gauteng Province developed the Global City Region Strategy first mooted at Gauteng Global City Region Models Conference in April 2007. In this context Johannesburg has a vision of becoming a “World-class Africa city defined by increasing prosperity and quality of life through sustained economic growth for all its citizens”. The concept of a global city region is based on the recognition that two or more historically and politically separate cities with no hierarchical ranking, and in reasonable proximity to one another but with discernible functional spatial, economic and social and infrastructural links that bind them together, can be combined conceptually into a broader City Region system with enhanced economic and social development prospects. The Gauteng Province took an approach based on well-articulated key drivers of change influencing this part of the world.

Future Cape Town is a project of the City of Cape Town billed as “Cape Town 2040 – my thoughts and ideas”. In 2012, the City embarked upon a research process to gather inputs to develop a City Development Strategy (CDS) for Cape Town. This approach placed emphasis on broader community participation where the needs and aspirations of the communities of the Western Cape serve to inform the shape and imaginative discourse on the possible and desirable futures of that City. The output of the research project was meant to form the basis of a 30-year development strategy for Cape Town, possibly culminating in a long-term collective vision, goals and strategic interventions for the realization of that vision.

Another province that has laid foundations for an imagined future city is the Northern Cape. An early signal of the Northern Cape’s Province’s aspirations of engaging with city futures, though not declared explicitly, is the development Northern Cape Information Society Strategy. Completed in May 2008, the project was sponsored by the national government through the Inspire Project. The Northern Cape Province aspires to become a Knowledge Based Information Society which enables the establishment of a “City of the Future”. A major feature of the new and revitalized city is to be the establishment of a new university to be located in Kimberly. These aspirations arise out of a vision of the future of the province as an information society within the next thirty years. The features that will define this city include collective intelligence of citizens, distributed intelligence, crowdsourcing, online collaboration, broadband enabled e-governance, online delivery of educational content, e-health, collaborative learning and innovation, people-driven innovation to name just a few. What is taken is a facilitated proactive approach to the future, involving key mandated stakeholders rather than the general public.

Elsewhere in the continent, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki’s government in 2008 published its Nairobi Metro 2030: A World Class Metropolis. This was articulated in a vision statement as a “World-class African city defined by increasing prosperity and quality of life through sustained economic growth for all its citizens”. Kenya’s city of the future aspiration for Nairobi Metro 2030 seeks to respond to economic growth and social development imperatives. The document states clearly that Nairobi 2030 is part of the overall national development agenda for Kenya, which is encapsulated in Kenya Vision 2030, and the Grand Coalition Policy Agenda.

Looking back at the three South Africa cities of the future initiatives, it is a known fact that these projects pre-date the publication of the National Planning Commission’s work, and may in some respects even contradict some of the development priorities articulated in that document. Another worrying consideration is whether these cities, would be in unhealthy competition with one another. If not, would the synergies between them be taken into consideration?

My own observation is that South Africa and other countries in the continent cannot afford to engage in hypothetical projects on utopian approaches to the development of their cities of the future. Political will and social development imperatives serve as important anchors for ensuring the realisation and sustainability of the actual products of the creative imaginations of scientists, engineers, architects and other creative professionals.

Furthermore, any aspiration towards an idealized model of a future city must of necessity be driven by the expressed aspirations of the communities for whom the developments are intended. In other words, social intelligence is a necessary ingredient if such cities are to be sustainable. As Ollie Hietenan et al (2011) have illustrated in their South Africa foresight case study, foresight methodologies and techniques serve as effective stakeholder mobilisation tools that accommodate multiple approaches and multiple perspectives in the conceptualization and visioning processes of futures that are conceived in collective imaginations of diverse communities like South Africa. The task is upon us then to contextualize ours aspirations of “Cities of the Future” within the development priorities and imperatives articulated in the National Development Plan. Successful accomplishment of this task requires effective visionary leadership and the use of social intelligence, the combination of which provides the solid base galvanizing societal energies forward towards sustainable “Cities of the Future”.




Mphathi Nyewe
Foresight and Research Practitioner

Managing Director:Foresight Strategies (Pty)Ltd
Read more about the author and his view on being a futurist.




Grewan R. Northern Cape Information Society Strategy – Provincial Government of Kenya, Ministry of Nairobi Metropolitan Development- Nairobi 2030, 2008

Kurzweil R. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Penguin Books, 2006

Information Society Programme. 2011 (unpublished document) Price Waterhouse Cooper publication – Cities of the Future, Global Competition, local leadership

Russell A; Creating the Corporate Future: Plan or Be Planned for. John Wiley & Sons, 1981

Mahlangu Q. Speech titled Gauteng Global City Region Models, presented by former Gauteng MEC for Local Government Ms.

Olli Hietanen et al. How to create national foresight culture and capacity: case study South Africa. EKONOMIAZ 76(01): cuatrimeste, 2011

Qedani Dorothy Mahlangu at the Gauteng Global City Region (GCR) Models conference (20/04/2007)

Toffler A. Future Shock. New York: Random House, 1970

Website: http://futurecapetown.com/2013/

Wells H.G., The Time Machine, Dover Publications; Classic Centennial Edition, Minneapolis, 1995 (first published in 1895).


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