Friday, September 14, 2012

Future Cities Africa - "The Story"

In a month, we will be officially launching WSP Future Cities Africa, our integrated engineering and environmental design service for designing new cities and renewing existing ones. The story behind Future Cities Africa is primarily one of opportunity, complexity and design.

Before the story though, let's unpack why future cities are so important to us...

There is an emerging global meme relating to new urbanism driven in part by the broadly dawning realization that we, humanity, are a largely urban species and that the faces of our greatest global challenges as well as our greatest human achievements, are our cities. In short, if we are to get this whole living thing right (and in evolutionary terms that broadly means survival), we are going to have to get cities right.

So we see future cities as one of the principal leverage points for addressing climate change, human development, education and resilience - something summed up beautifully in the TEDPrize2012 winner video (here):

I am the crucible of the future.
I am where humanity will either flourish or fade.
I am being built and rebuilt every day.
I am inevitable. But I am not yet determined.
I am the City 2.0. Dream me. Build me. Make me real.

- TEDPrize 2012: The City 2.0

At WSP, we have the capacity to impact and shape the guts of cities - urban infrastructure - from transport, energy, water and waste to environmental regulation, green buildings and smart city control systems. We have a global network of designers, technical specialists and collaborative partners and expertise on every continent...

So, in rising to the challenge of urban humanity and realising the vision of The City 2.0, if not us, then who?

And if not in Africa, then where?

The Opportunity

There are a few key projections that it would do well to put on the table at this stage:

- By 2030, it is expected that 85% of the worlds population will be in developing countries, with 15% in LDCs. 
 - The population in urban areas in less developed countries will grow from 1.9 billion in 2000 to 3.9 billion in 2030.
 - Though Africa is predominantly rural, with only 37.3 % living in urban areas in 1999, with a growth rate of 4.87%, Africa is the continent with the fastest rate of urbanisation.
 - By 2030, Asia and Africa will both have higher numbers of urban dwellers than any other major area of the world. 
- UN Habitat

What this means is that in Asia, Latin America and Africa, there is likely to be an explosion of new cities and urban precincts whose form is still to be given. These new cities are perhaps our biggest opportunity - environmentally, socially and economically - to leapfrog the extractive legacy of the 20th century and link urban form, urban infrastructure and urban ecology in a way that addresses our urgent environmental and social challenges.

And we're seeing it - new urban models are the language of some our most innovative design minds. New Songdo City in Korea, at $35 billion the biggest private real estate investment ever, is building the concept of the aerotropolis (check out the book by Greg Lindsay and John Kasarda here) with airports being the hubs of a new urban form. Paul Romer is describing 'Charter Cities' where new cities are built from scratch with new rules and innovative governance structures (see his TED talk here). Fund managers are looking specifically to Kenya's new cities - Thika Rd and Tatu City near Nairobi as the first wave of Africa's new urbanism.

The very scale of the opportunity is something in itself; however it is the degree to which these new cities are able to address humanity's big challenges that may ultimately determine their staying power...

The Challenge

Cities are a wicked problem - complex systems of continually changing variables where any attempt to address one specific element ultimately has un-intended consequences on all the other elements. Wicked problems cannot be solved, they can only be managed, with relative success... Increasingly, design thinking is being proposed as a particularly useful tool in the management of wicked problems broadly, and cities in particular.

And cities are a wicked problem within the context of a whole suite of wicked problems: climate change, biodiversity loss and food security - each linked intricately to the other, and each posing its own set of conundrums.

Briefly, among a myriad of others:

- our changing climate is impacting global grain supplies as I write, and the resultant spikes in the food price index have previously been linked to the severe social unrest that ignited the Arab Spring (see the graph here) - all developing countries will be tested on the climate impacts on food security
- the planetary boundaries research on resilience indicate that we have overshot key biophysical boundaries on climate change, biodiversity loss and phosphorus - each of these have a severe impacts on the socio-ecological systems on which humanity relies;
- the carbon bubble: keeping the climate to an average 2 deg C rise will require $20 trillion of proven fossil fuel reserves, factored into the words stock market, to be written off (the Carbon Tracker report can be found here).

In Africa we are faced with a human development challenge - education, healthcare, gender equity, governance and peace. Our current urbanisation models result in slums, and tackling the informal sector poses a huge challenge to our built environment professionals.

The intensity of our resource consumption and growth-based economic model leave us limited options within the status quo to address these challenges in a meaningful way.

The Status Quo

In previous posts (e.g. here), I have bemoaned the nature of the infrastructure status quo for cities: linear, siloed and extractive. Our systems are founded on the myth of economies of scale and lack resilience at every level. They often have single points of failure - centralised systems with little capacity for scenario-planning and adaptive response to changing conditions.

Our financial models are inflexible; unable to take account of true costs, real balance sheets (natural, social and financial capital) and the benefits of a higher quality of life - livability. Our urban rivers are squeezed into concrete culverts and our urban ecology forced to the margins. Our governance structures mirror our 20th century infrastructure - inflexible and centralised.

And yet the opportunities to do better are so huge, perhaps because we're building off such a low base...

Future Cities - The Business

Given these three contextual considerations: wide opportunity, huge challenges and a status quo unable to address either, our business is to manage all three.

Through a combination of integrated design, trans-disciplinary processes (see posts on design here) and a core delivery capacity, WSP provides our clients with the tools to leverage the opportunities, while addressing the challenges by offering engineered alternatives to the status quo.

Our Future Cities Africa business is founded on three principles: integrated design, trans-disciplinarity and delivery.

Design: integrated design provides us with the opportunity to manage critical resource intensity of urban design across the historical professional boundaries. It provides an opportunity to address real systems, rather than the constructs of one set of professional skills.

Trans-disciplinary input: WSP is at heart and engineering business. On the one hand, we have the core design capacity to break down the traditional silos of professional disciplines, leading to a breadth of experience on urban issues through design. We are able to address the spatial elements of the city capably through our integrated design process. On the other hand, we are not specialists when it comes to the social, ecological and economic systems of cities, which have a critical role to play in Future Cities. As such, we have formed strategic partnerships with governance, economic and research specialists to provide our clients with a service that can truly transcend the status quo.

Delivery: for all the best intentions, any business aiming to have an impact on cities in a real sense must have delivery capacity. And that is where a long-standing track record of projects on the ground across the continent comes to the fore. We have the technical design and documentation skills, the relationships with suppliers and tech developers and the site management experience to bring the dreams of our clients to reality.

Design, for its own sake, is self-absorbed.

Delivery without design is blind.

Each core principle alone has no hope of changing the face of our continent, or our planet, for the better. But in combination, they have the chance to realise the City 2.0 - dream it, build it, make it real...

1 comment:

  1. Re: Wicked Problems, you might like to know about this recent publication:

    “Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

    You can see a description at:


    Tom Ritchey