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Monday, April 13, 2015

Universities can help build innovative, thriving cities

That our kind has entered the Urban Age is unequivocal. In 2008 we become, Homo urbanus. About 54 percent of our kind – circa 3.95 billion people now lives in cities of various sizes. By 2030, about 5 billion people will live in cities. This is perhaps the most consequential social transformation in the history of our civilization.

The Urban Age presents the most important development challenge in the 21st century. This is especially true in the developing world, where the rate of urbanization is most rapid. In Africa especially, rapid urbanization seems to be inextricably bound with massive expansion of squalor, poverty and isolated pockets of odious wealth.

Today, with very few exceptions, African cities are characterized by poor physical planning, lack of basic services such as water, sanitation, housing, transportation, health and education. Here in East Africa, the major cities of Dar es Salaam, Kampala and Nairobi are bursting at the seams. These cities are sprawling uncontrollably, strangulated by traffic gridlock, choking in poisonous air and plagued by slums. This apparent dystopia is largely due to failure in planning and governance.

Despite crippling governance failure, East Africa’s premier cities are resilient concentrations of ingenuity and innovation. They like hundreds of smaller cities and towns across Africa represent Africa’s potential and promise. For instance, In February Nairobi was crowned the city with the greatest capacity to prosper in the broadband economy hence, the most intelligent city in Africa.  Dar es Salaam, according to a 2013 report by Oxford Economics, will lift more citizens into the middle class (earning $5,000 to $20,000 per annum) than any other African city. Home of East Africa’s oldest university, Kampala has been transformed a looted shell during the long civil war to a thriving modern city.

Cities, more than rural spaces will shape the future of East Africa. Cities present our best chance at building a more energy efficient, prosperous and equitable society.  The future of our cities is especially bright in a knowledge-based economy. The competitive advantage of our cities is contingent on effective utilization of a super high concentration of intangible assets such as knowledge and skills.  

Coincidentally, in this knowledge economy, we are witnessing an unprecedented urbanization of higher education. For example every university in Kenya, and there are more than 50, has a campus in Nairobi. This means that now, more than ever before, universities can make a significant contribution to the unprecedented surge of urbanism. Universities can contribute to the socio-economic advancement of the city, as well help improve the quality of decision-making and governance in our cities.

The bricks of the ivory tower must be brought down to build bridges into the communities of our cities; from the city hall to the slums and to the suburbs, working with residence associations and leaders of business. This new relationship could provide an opportunity for students, faculty, cityzens, city government and local businesses to come together to find appropriate solutions to the pressing challenges of the Urban Age and create new jobs.  

One of the most pressing challenges of Kenya’s Urban Age is traffic gridlock. It is a wicked problem with causal factors including land use planning and urban design, inadequate urban infrastructure capacity, lack of public transit, an exponential rise in the use of private cars, and lack of discipline, vested interest of the police and courtesy among Kenyan drivers. As always wicked problems abhor simplistic solutions and a proclivity top down executive fiat. Wicked problems are susceptible to interdisciplinary and consultative approaches, where plausible solutions are exhaustively interrogated.

Can you imagine a partnership between Nairobi county government and a consortium of city universities to find solutions to Nairobi’s traffic gridlock? The solutions would be holistic and, appropriate, while providing a great opportunity for professors, students, city residents, local entrepreneurs and government functionaries to learn and work together. There would be limited room for a consultant or task force who prescribe nightmares like colored drums and moronic U-turns at the roundabout.

We must begin the process of re-making our cities. Our universities must be in the driving seat, from where they address the urgent challenges of urbanization while creating solutions that catalyze socio-economic transformation at the urban and regional scales.

Leaders of city universities must rethink their institutions’ relationship with the city, being more deliberate in the deployment of their research assets and service learning programs.

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