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Cities Post-Covid-19

The NextGenCities 2020 Programme


Lessons from the Harare Innovation Days for post-Covid African cities

In the following blog we frame, and launch, our response to exploring African cities’ unique pathways out of the Covid-19 crisis. The blog is split up into three sections: (1) provides a framing for a multi-phased organic response that hacks the opportunities presented; (2) summarises some of the key lessons that came out of Harare Innovation Days that inform this response; (3) introduces the NextGenCities 2020 programme for African cities.


(1) African cities post-covid

A multi-phased response that builds on what’s there



Covid-19 impacts cities most dramatically, and Africa is no exception. The pandemic has exposed the inadequacy of the current institutional infrastructures to deal with the emergence, escalation, and nature of such outbreaks. Cities with weak local governance capacity, limited service coverage and patchy health care systems suffer the most devastating impacts.

Covid-19 has also pointed towards a new scale, and velocity, of innovations in policy and programmatic responses. Since the arrival of Covid-19 in Africa there have been impressive efforts at containment and rapid response across the Continent; a fact that has often been overlooked in mainstream media representations.


Phasing of a crisis

But it is not just innovation in immediate responses which Covid-19 is necessitating. Covid-19 is laying bare the fragility of our urban systems at large: extensive economic linkages and dependencies coupled with just-in-time logistics focused on efficiency, which lead to fragility, high levels of food insecurity and livelihood precarity; inability of governance-as-usual institutions to make sense of the crisis; and inadequacy of many of our innovation ecosystems to respond at speed.

In the face of these compounding challenges we cannot see the emergence out of the Covid-19 crisis as a return to the status quo. In an upcoming publication A Way Forward we explore a framing to the Covid-19 response which describes three phases:

  • Horizon 1: Emergency relief (responding to known risks)
  • Horizon 2: Mid- to long-term recovery (responding to knowable risks)
  • Horizon 3: Repositioning our governance systems (to deal with both known and unknown risks)

Horizon 1 is designed to be short-term. It is focused on large-scale actions led by the state to ensure universal access to water, food, cash and healthcare during the containment of the pandemic and its immediate aftermath. Containment efforts have exposed pre-existing service deficits (especially with regard to water and sanitation), heavily dependent supply chains, social inequalities, and institutional challenges.

Amongst other things this has brought to the forefront a series of longstanding progressive claims for social safety nets and adequate free access to basic services. The situation demands a fundamental redefinition of the social contract in contexts of large-scale poverty, vulnerability and economic exclusion. Tellingly, ideas and policies (from eviction moratoriums to direct cash transfers) that seemed inconceivable by mainstream development actors just a few months ago have now become taken-for-granted common sense across the world.

Horizon 2 calls for an overhaul of public investment and management to deal with a series of the known and knowable cascading crises: the crises of work, trust, collective psychological trauma, food security and supply. Covid-19 is exposing the multi-dimensional vulnerabilities of economies with predominantly informal labour markets in which jobs are marked by low, irregular and precarious income. The incomes of 150 million Africans, or ⅓ of the total labour force, are at risk - with an estimated 60 million jobs already lost. On top of this the World Bank projects a decline of $110 billion in remittances this year, roughly ⅕ of the 2019 figure.

We have already seen governments across the continent provide loans to various categories of business to help them survive the collapse of operations and demand. We have also seen cash transfers, potentially paving the way towards a more permanent rethinking of welfare through measures such as universal basic income grants. Countries have also looked at levelling existing inequalities such as Togo’s decision to provide more funds to women than men to recognize the reality of gender inequality. Or Freetown’s new property taxation system which targets the most expensive properties. With massive debt, and a shrinking public purse, these strategies show ways to fundamentally redirect investment towards tackling future liabilities (whether financial, human or environmental).

Horizon 3 seeks to effect a paradigm change in urban governance. The Covid-19 emergency has created much needed political space to confront a number of urgent governance issues.

It has opened up the possibility to reconfigure governance to deal with pure uncertainty, enabling us to withstand unexpected change. Repositioning requires tackling brittle systems by prioritizing resilience over efficiency. For instance, in the Freetown example above, the system is supported through both contactless payments (through WhatsApp or phone) and decentralised banks. Such innovations open up a space to rethink our institutional infrastructure towards more empowered and effective municipal government, greater participatory planning and decision-making, and appropriate fiscal instruments.


Building on what we have — informal, make-shift, indigenous processes.

In all three horizons, an essential step is to recognise what already exists. In a context of massive infrastructure and service deficits, ordinary Africans have created their own informal or hybrid systems of service delivery. It is crucial to thoroughly understand these make-shift systems and how they interface with formal governmental and private systems.

By starting with what ‘already is’ we shift the infrastructural attention away from an exclusive focus on new and large-scale infrastructures, and towards the many diverse ways we can radically improve existing systems through a range of context-aware interventions, such as regulation, incremental extension, digitization, etc. We firmly believe that Africa’s unique pathways to emerging from Covid-19 will come from organic solutions that hack the opportunities presented.


(2) What we learnt at Harare Innovation Days

Africa’s unique pathways will be discovered through intentional experimentation in innovative infrastructure and the basic building blocks of urban governance.



Less than eight months from the time of writing, but firmly in the Pre-Covid era, the 2019 Harare Innovation Days (HID) brought together UNDP country office staff, ‘strategic urban risk holders’ and edge experimenters from 23 countries across Africa under the banner of #NextGenCities. It was focused on how intentional experimentation is being used already, across African cities, as a crucial tool to gain new insights and enable more agile and collaborative ways of working together in the face of these risks — you can read more about the context of HID in a blog we published before the event.

The programme for the Innovation Days aimed to build an appreciation of systemic risk and strategic innovation for cities across the continent. Over the two days, we gained a shared understanding of the interdependencies and complexities facing Africa’s diverse urban realities, with clear clusters of shared challenges — such as urban economies and informality, water management, the jobs deficit and waste services. We also discussed the embedded strategic risks, from the squandering of the youth dividend to the threat of climate break-down, which underpin these challenges.

We heard from government counterparts on the need for support in dealing with these challenges and embedded risks; and we explored tangible opportunities, from building new capabilities and tools of governance to targeted programmes or portfolios of strategic experimentation around clear strategic risks. We were humbled and inspired to see the level of engagement from these senior risk holders (city mayors, regional leaders, senior civil servants, and delegate from national ministties with responsibilities for cities) who outnumbered UNDP staff by more than two to one at the Innovation Days. Even pre-Covid, there was an evident readiness amongst these senior risk-holders for taking new leadership in addressing strategic risks; the challenge is clearly not one of demand but rather a supply of collaborative, fit-for-purpose, experimental — yet strategic — paths forward.

While HID was before Covid, many of the discussions we had are relevant for developing responses across Horizon 2 and Horizon 3 — and with Covid-19 the world now definitely shares a renewed understanding of ‘strategic risk’. These prescient deliberations, built on the contributions of many of the innovators who presented, provide an initial indication of what some of the pathways may be.


Infrastructure to support the recovery we want

As argued by Edgar Pietersie of the African Center for Cities in Cape Town, African cities desperately need “a more coordinated, sequenced and integrated approach to infrastructure planning, investment, delivery, maintenance and repair” — for Edgar’s presentation at HID see here.

This has never been more evident as now, with health crises being infrastructural crises at root. The physical fabric of the city, as well as digital infrastructures and other complex systems at play, can either exacerbate or help to flatten the spread of disease. In exploring the recovery we want, we must therefore look at the different infrastructure sectors — energy, food systems, housing, land markets, retail markets, sanitation, transportation, waste, and water — that support our cities. And we must build our strategies on what is already there. The below provides two examples:


Built Infrastructure: Seeding a Circular Maintenance economy

The Harare Innovation Days recognised the need for a new approach to infrastructure provision. Clearly, the vibrancy and viability of city systems is heavily dependent on the quality of the infrastructures which support it. Infrastructure investment holds the key to stimulating the economy — especially relevant in the post-Covid landscape — and to achieving a more equitable and sustainable society. There is however a disproportionate focus of innovation on the capital investment side of urbanisation. The scale of the infrastructure deficit $68–$108 billion often blinkers us to the fact that infrastructure “sets up irreversible [positive and negative] pathways of development” for cities. In a time of cascading risk, what exactly we choose to invest in is of the essence.

We need infrastructure which achieves universal coverage whilst restoring essential ecosystem services, spreading value, and developing a much more efficient urban form. Circular economy principles, in which products are recycled, repaired or reused rather than discarded provides a mechanism to connect labour intensivity with green industrialisation imperatives. It has huge potential in the context of infrastructure investment and service delivery in Africa.

In practice we heard how technology is bringing transparency, and real-time data, into the infrastructure construction (and repair) space: from Mobilized Construction — which gathers data from sensors located on private cars and analyses road conditions to identify which roads are in need of repair, creating autonomous micro-contracts and incentivising individuals, to iBuild which is developing a new platform for self-build that is enabling the Kenyan government to change their approach to construction certification.


Digital infrastructure: Seeding a civic tech sector

The Harare Innovation Days already recognised the need to support data economies and digital infrastructure — and universal digital access has emerged as a critical enabling infrastructure during Covid-19.

We’ve seen how African governments adapted digital finance systems to disseminate relief measures. Digital access also assists with effective communication across society at large via mobile phones, the enabling of online schooling and learning, and addressing the massive logistics implications of efficient large-scale distribution systems required for effective emergency relief and circulating essential goods and services, e.g. electronic food vouchers in a number of African countries. In addition we are already seeing how governments are innovating in response to Covid-19, for example with the Central Bank of Kenya urging the country’s largest telecom provider, Safaricom, to implement fee-waivers on M-Pesa, to reduce the physical exchange of currency.

While responding to the crisis requires us to use data and technology, to draw insights and create an evidence base, we face the risk of crisis-driven transitioning towards data-enabled futures in a governance vacuum. There is still remarkably little debate on this; current scholarship about ‘tech in Africa’ tends to be framed in overly simplistic developmentalist terms. However, African cities are storing up digital technology risks in spades, with weak states, vulnerable currencies and little-scrutinised out-sourcing practices. And through a global lens, ignoring such risks means we are potentially growing the space for future malpractices, with evidence showing that Cambridge Analytica used the 2013 Kenyan elections as a testbed for the methods they later deployed elsewhere.

At the same time, African cities are home to a young, dynamic (and in many cases digitally native) population with some African countries (Nigeria, Kenya, Morocco and Tunisia in particular) being the fastest growing GitHub contributors. At Harare Innovation Days we heard from several tech-emabled civic entrepreneurs — from Fresh in a Box, hacking existing platforms such as WhatsApp Live location to coordinate local food deliveries across urban and peri-urban areas in Zimbabwe, to GrassrootsEconomics, who have developed an open source blockchain technology for their Community Inclusion Currencies (CICs). Since the outbreak of Covid-19, there has been a huge increase in the use of CICs. For example, in one community there were $95,600 USD worth of transactions in the CIC tokens within a month after April 6th 2020, with the numbers of users increasing by 500% since the arrival of Covid-19; the smart combination of digital technology and a mission driven intermediary platform created a remarkable multiplier effect (the transactions represent a 34-fold increase on the amount of the initial donor aid capital injected by the Red Cross).

But, as detailed by Sheilah Birgen, the Entrepreneurship Director from iHub, (see Sheilah’s presentation here) we need to develop the enabling conditions for these civically engaged entrepreneurial communities, who can in turn be critical in the delivery of digital technology needed for governance technology — as we are already seeing in places like Taiwan.


Horizon 3: Rethinking urban governance

During HID we also heard about cross-cutting enabling themes in the dark matter of urban systems: urban governance, finance, urban planning and urban data management.


The case for integration

The Harare Innovation Days recognised that no city is defined by its administrative boundary: rather cities are entangled flows and transformation engines of material flows, organic matter, energy, information, and humans.

We heard how cities are often cut off from their hinterlands in governance terms, whether due to lines of political division in African countries — with impacts on urban service delivery and in turn on potential for investment — or for bureaucratic reasons. Rural areas (which are often strongholds for ruling parties) are often front and centre on the governance agenda — for example in 2012, already 80% of African countries had policies in place to prevent rural-urban migration whereas of the 18 National Urban Policies, 60% were established after 2011. The strategic risk being created through this lack of integration has not only proved problematic within the Context of Covid-19, but stands in the way of dealing with chronic transboundary crises such as flooding or water scarcity: water respects watersheds, rather than administrative boundaries.

Ensuring that the value generated by cities is not only spread equitably within cities but also supports wider rural and regional economies, is pivotal to repositioning Africa’s role within global value chains and ensuring that those living in African cities and countries benefit from the continent’s potential.

To root this in something that is tangible, we heard during the Food as a Lense for Local Circular Economic Development session how African cities are integrated with their hinterlands from a citizen’s point of view. As they are home to many first generation urban dwellers, residents have strong and empathetic links to their rural hinterlands on an individual level — what has been called circulatory urbanism. And the extensiveness and diversity of the rural-urban interface in African cities makes them fertile ground to develop locally-rooted circular food systems, rather than seeing Western-syle geographically distanced supply chains and investments (with all their latent harmful effects in terms of health and livelihoods) as only option.

This has never been more needed than now, with Covid-19 disrupting global food production and distribution. Restrictions on the export of grains, price spikes, and shortages mean that the number of people facing a severe food crisis is doubling. Most of these people are in Africa, and are dependent on the food they grow for both nourishment and income. They now find themselves exposed to broken supply chains and disrupted cross-border trade.

In practice this could be about developing multiple levers of policy change (as in the multi-stakeholder Lusaka Food Change Lab) or developing integrated outcomes-focused partnership financing approaches which cut across economic, social and ecological silos (Upper Tana Nairobi Water Fund). Driving this proposition forward requires new horizontal governance innovation; contracting across public bodies and silos, and the creation of teams which focus on driving this trans-government innovation. It also requires new forms of networks; some examples include cooperative structures that underpin the Water Fund or multi-stakeholder partnerships involved in the Food Change Lab, or Afrialliance’s Capnet, a SADC wide network which promotes integrated approaches for a food-water-energy nexus, or ARUP’s city to city learning and Day Zero in Cape Town.


The case for decentralization

The Harare Innovation Days recognised the need for a distribution of sense-making and agency to react to crises.

Devolution is not a political project but an institutional means to find solutions in the context of complexity. This reality is increasingly understood by city leaders and civil servants, however the gap between this recognition and the capacity to devolve is large — whether due to the limited national trust for political transfer of power or the financial resource gaps. Building the systemic capacity for this transition is vital if we are genuinely to address the complex challenges faced in a rapidly urbanising Africa.

Responding to Covid-19, governments have been forced to act with speed and focus, drawing on advice from UN agencies (especially the WHO) and some support from international development agencies, not least Pan-African ones such as the African Union and the African Development Bank. When African governments established emergency measures to address the immediate effects of lockdown and to gear-up a public health response, it revealed the effects of long-term neglect in making democratic decentralization work. Local governments — the parts of the state closest to the frontline of the pandemic — simply did not have the resources, authority or personnel to provide the necessary support to populations, especially those most vulnerable to the ravages of the pandemic.

However at HID we heard multiple practical ways of bringing legitimacy and distributed decision-making to governance systems. In practice, finding ways to distribute problem-solving capacity to lower tiers of governance could be through deliberative polling experiments such as those led by RANLAB, e.g.in Ghana to tackle wastewater issues. Another innovation which led to local empowerment was through blockchain-enabled community currencies as being piloted in communities with Grassroots Economics Kenya. During HID, we heard how being able to track spending across the community helped to provide tangible evidence to unlock local investment into better water supply.


The case for rethinking planning

The Harare Innovation Days concluded that the classical urban and environmental planning thesis, and its practices and regulatory frameworks, are not fit for purpose.

Covid-19 is revealing the importance of planning — with the links between density and disease being known since the 1920s — and the current conditions in many African cities could lead to potentially massive casualties (with limited access to basic services making the pandemic control measures of quarantine and hand-washing almost impossible). However, due to the rate of growth, urban planning has been incoherent in the face of the reality on the ground in African cities, marked as it is by accelerated change, widespread policy-implementation gaps, growing future uncertainty, and the risks and opportunities inherent in their unique dynamism. The traditional ‘plan-led’ urban development, infrastructure development and masterplanning is failing to deliver on its aspirations to improve urban futures.

Covid-19 is also revealing the importance of agility, and the centrality of real-time data to effective and agile decision-making. African cities have in many ways already leapfrogged Western cities with accelerating ‘decentered’ urban behaviours (e.g. WhatsApp-based addressless retail deliveries) opening up ways to imagine radical new pathways for urban planning which are essential to address the speed of change across Africa. The relevance of civically developed technologies in coping with the Covid pandemic has been seen in rapid global uptake of the platform Ushahidi, a Kenyan start-up which was set up for election monitoring, in the fight against Covid-19.

Updating planning requires developing evidence-based processes for developing our cities, built on principles of mass participation and real-time data. In practice, at HID we heard from MASS Design about rethinking housing policy by taking an integrated approach that is environmentally, culturally and socially responsive. This included addressing high construction costs by contracting local and national small and medium enterprises (thereby also creating local employment and more sustainable supply chains) and designing neighborhoods that are climate adapted and provide a healthy and safe environment. We also heard from UN-Habitat about using technology to open up new avenues for communication between citizens and governments.


(3) What’s next?

The NextGenCities Programme for mission-based strategic experimentation.



The range of experiments showcased during the Harare Innovation Days, and those brought to the fore since the pandemic outbreak, shows the growing extent of good practice. There is a also wide range of innovative approaches across Africa’s UNDP Country Offices to connect to, learn from and accelerate such locally rooted innovation, including a growing emphasis on urban experimentation (and inherent acceptance of potential failure). However, such emerging attitudes to innovation are unevenly spread.

In response to this, we are launching a programme for building mission-based strategic portfolios of experiments for African cities. The intent is to build and follow up on the conversations started during Harare Innovation Days as well as enable innovative responses to the multi-horizon crisis of Covid-19.

The NextGenCities 2020 programme focuses on missions because they can support the formulation of ambitious, yet measurable and time-bound objectives to advance progress in a particular field, and crucially rally stakeholders and resources around this. The missions are built on what’s already there, aiming to amplify existing grassroots, business and public sector efforts through supportive frameworks. Such missions transcend one sector and require a full stack of interrelated interventions to be successfully achieved. They therefore involve a portfolio of experiments across multiple phases and entry points.

In order to develop the relevant portfolios of mission-based strategic experimentation, we will work with Country Offices and ambitious mayors and municipalities, through a tailored support programme of webinars and remote design workshops. In the first cohort we are looking to work with three Country Offices and the cities they choose to nominate.

We recognize the emergent nature of the situation, and based on a series of discussions with UNDP offices in the region and feedback from their partners, the iterative process of understanding system dynamics and design of portfolios of interventions will be accompanied by a joint sensemaking process. The intention is to engage with mayors, bottom up organizations and other Country Office partners to identify emerging responses and weak signals of Horizon 3-capabilities in action; and to generate intelligence that will feed the portfolios of experiments that underpin the post-Harare NextGenCities program. In providing this service to the Country Offices, which will amplify their local networks of partners and tacit knowledge, we are thrilled to be joined by Prof. Edgar Pieterse and Dr. Liza Cirolia at the African Center for Cities at the University of Cape Town, and a broader continental network of urban research institutions and planning schools enabling us to get to the ground truth of critical responses.

If you or your country office has participated in the Harare Innovation Days, and you are interested in working with us Apply here.

If you have any questions on the application please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Co-authored by: Chloe Treger, Indy Johar, Konstantina Koulouri, Joost Beunderman (Dark Matter Labs); Edgar Pieterse, Liza Cirolia (African Centre for Cities); Aylin Schulz van Endert, Millica Begovic (United Nations Development Programme)


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