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African City Futures: The importance of foresight for forward engagement



The the “urban age” for Africa came with challenges and opportunities, bringing irreversible forces like urbanisation which is expected to continue during the 21st century and projected to peak by the year 2050 at 6.3 billion people (roughly 70 % of the world’s population) living in urban areas. For Africa, it is projected that 50% of the population will be urban by 2050. What does this mean for our African cities in the future?.

Africa’s urbanisation cannot be viewed in isolation, simply because its current urban challenges and opportunities are similar to other global cities in the world. The rapid urbanisation in Africa is creating efficiency gains and luring investors to capital cities that have begun to thrive, where increasing population densities raise the potential of cutting transport times, and creates expanded opportunity for small-scale industrialization.

Corporations from the north – and increasingly also from the south – are flocking to countries in sub-Saharan Africa looking for opportunities and recruiting more managers willing to relocate to Africa. Companies from abroad view Africa as a less risky investment continent than they did a few years ago – e.g. multi-national J.P Morgan Chase added Nigeria to its government – bond index for emerging markets. Morgan predicts this will bring an extra $1.5 billion to Nigeria. (Chiles, 2012).

In spite of many political leaders and officials remaining in denial about the centrality and urgency of Africa’s urbanisation (or possibly being in fear of appearing to be biased against rural constituencies), prominent academics like Prof Edgar Pieterse and his team at the African Centre for Cities state unequivocally that urbanization in Africa is real.

Parnell (2010: 30) further elaborates that “for now, Africa is still usually depicted either as a rural continent or as a continent of migrants, but already it has a number of differentiated urban systems, with cities far larger than most European capitals occurring across the continent.” However, the National Planning Commission of South Africa in their 2030 Development plan stated that unrestricted movement of labour across the region and the continent can contribute significantly to more inclusive economic growth, migrants have played an important role in South Africa’s economic development and regional integration, and it is likely that this trend will continue.

But this is not just about arguing for the recognition of urbanisation. We are also warned about our responsibility to engage forward proactively – “Urbanization in Africa represents the most complex and intractable policy questions and as long as Africans do not take responsibility to shift the contemporary situation of policy failure, we are in for a crisis” (Pieterse et al, 2010: 1).



The bad news is that this crisis we were warned off stands to affect generations of people living in the city and the future opportunities that could have been presented (by the city itself). Policy plays an important role in governing business, people and the city’s function to meet a diverse range of needs and demands. Therefore understanding and knowing the real need and dynamics of cities is important – after all, urbanisation is a result of the movement of people towards the city with hopes to find better standards of living and greater livelihoods opportunities. Poorly governed and commissioned urban policies will adversely affect the escalating inhabitants of these cities, and the diverse aspirations and expectations of city-dwellers. At significant scale (urban population size); these are evolving demands that cannot and should not be ignored. And increasingly, this begins to emphasise that planning and urban foresight must be about people, and creating liveable cities that are inclusive.



The good news is that foresight creates the space to think proactively, reflecting the belief that the future may be beneficially engaged, and also influenced by today’s decisions and actions – i.e. the possibility of “shaping” the future. If we can begin to engage forward, seeking to understand e.g. by bringing our lens closer to the realities, challenges and opportunities of the city within the actual city streets and neighbourhoods, then the picture becomes clearer, and future implications, strategies and options can be examined. This is what a few pioneering South African urban development partners are beginning to explore through the South African City Futures Project in Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.

The foresight “toolbox” offers a range of methods and techniques for engaging with the future (see Futures Research Methods v3 for some examples). Whether it is using scenario building to conceptualise visionary or adaptive scenario-based future strategies, future-wheeling and roadmapping to systematically track through sequences of concepts and developments, expert-based and participatory studies, or more traditional quantitative modelling and forecasting – the smorgasbord of methods is available to planners and decision-makers for application in new and adapted ways to engage proactively with Africa’s futures.

From the important perspective of governance, The Project on Forward Engagement’s latest report on Anticipatory Governance in practice is worth a read, proposing three vital elements for governance:

a) Disciplined foresight as an integral part of policymaking and execution;
b) Flexible networks to achieve whole-of-governance performance; and
c) Feedback as a means to gather and apply information about how policies are faring the real world.

Now, more than ever, these broad principles about how governance functions organise and equip themselves to deal with accelerating, complex forms of change apply as much to local level governance and the challenges of urban management as they do to national-level planning.

Testing new patterns or ways of thinking and conducting city planning governance in Africa using helpful foresight tools to capture and seek insight from diverse local realities, experiences, strategies and ideas could lead to endless possibilities for future African cities, and towards African successes that go beyond what we had ever imagined!


Khathu Muruba
Guest Editor

Project(s) coordinator/support: South African Cities Network
Read more about the author and his view on being a futurist.




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