WRI Ross Center Convenes Urban Experts to Explore Innovation in African Cities
NAIROBI, KENYA (June 28, 2017) — Can we have cities that grow sustainably while providing opportunity for all? At a workshop in Nairobi, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities gathered stakeholders from across sub-Saharan Africa to help answer this question.
Participants came from academia, urban planning, business, the technology sector, community groups and other areas, to discuss methods for innovating and working together to create more sustainable cities. This was the first meeting in a series of WRI Ross Center workshops designed to examine urban innovation and transformative change in the region, particularly Nairobi, Kenya and Kampala, Uganda.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s Urban Transitions
Today, many of the conventional approaches to urban planning are failing too many residents. The growth of sub-Saharan African cities poses both enormous opportunities and challenges. More than half of Africa’s people will live in cities by 2040, including a great number of young people. The public and private sectors recognize the potential associated with this demographic transition, as well as the challenges, including ensuring access to good jobs for everyone and providing services that improve quality of life.
Wanjira Mathai and Joy Mboya exchange ideas for sustainable and equal cities in Nairobi. Photo by Dennis Nyongesa
Collectively Exploring Innovation
“Today, we are here to connect certain dots; through each other we can see something different,” said Akiva Beebe of the Center for Creative Leadership, who helped moderate the workshop. “How do we move faster and better together? How do we think about cities differently?”
Throughout the day, attendees participated in interactive group activities, including writing the “headlines of tomorrow” to highlight major urban challenges and goals. These activities encouraged conversation, creativity, relationship-building and learning from one another.
Kate Owens presents on WRI's work and strategy for regional support. Photo by Dennis Nyongesa
Urban Development Manager Kate Owens presented WRI Ross Center’s strategy for work in the region, which emphasizes acting as a collaborator and convener in this space. “The economic dynamism in cities isn’t a given,” she said. “Our old business models aren’t working in all contexts. We need to innovate. We need to focus not only on the road and the built environment, but also on the space between the two where the city exists.”
Wanjira Mathai, director of Partnership on Women's Entrepreneurship in Renewables (wPOWER) and WRI board member, was among those who attended. Mathai inspired the group by proclaiming, “Urban green spaces in Africa are under attack.”
The workshop continued with a panel discussion on city projects in Nairobi and Kampala, urban transformation and the path forward. The panelists included Joy Mboya, director of the GoDown Arts Centre; Professor Shuaib Lwasa, head of the Kampala Urban Action Innovations Lab at Makerere University; and Musyimi Mbathi, head of the University of Nairobi’s Centre for Urban Research and Innovations.
Joy Mboya, Shuaib Lwasa and Musyimi Mbathi present on a panel during the event. Photo by Talia Rubnitz
Mboya discussed the importance of intersecting art with the city itself. “We must mobilize Nairobians around civic pride and the space we all call home,” she said.
Shuaib spoke to the need for more community involvement and local-level activism. “As a city, we need to move from knowledge for knowledge’s sake to knowledge for action,” he urged. To get to this point, he highlighted the importance of partnerships in the community, strong leadership and the role of students, like those at the Innovations Lab.
Similarly, Musyimi spoke to the importance of student action and engagement: “We are training the next generation of green champions in this country. There is a big resource that remains out there, untapped.”
Attendees participate in interactive, group activities during the workshop. Photo by Dennis Nyongesa
Throughout the workshop, several key themes emerged: creating shared ownership of the city vision, aligning investment projects with community needs, providing equal access to jobs and services and planning more intentionally to create an adaptive urban fabric. These topics represent important directions for future partnerships and projects. “There is a massive opportunity if we collaborate and work together,” said Giles Bristow, director of programs at Ashden Foundation. “We need to be more intentional in our purpose to make this change a reality.”
Determining A Way Forward
“This is the beginning of a journey...the opportunity is exponential,” said Beebe in closing. While the event only lasted a day, participants said they saw the potential for future projects, collaborations and joint-transformation.
Through establishing partnerships with local organizations, convening key stakeholders and improving data collection and transparency, WRI will continue to support transformational change in the region. With an office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (established 2016), we aim to provide on-the-ground technical advice and form coalitions with pre-existing groups. WRI Ross Center and its partners will support African cities' efforts to pursue alternate paths toward thriving, dynamic and resilient urban centers.