Tackling Infrastructure and Skills Vital for Urban Growth and Technology
Rudolf du Plessis (RdP), an Economic Policy Analyst Urban Development Consultant from Johannesburg, South Africa, believes tackling infrastructure and skills is vital to make the most of urban growth and technology. He shared his views with The HardHat Professional.
THHP: Why is Africa’s urbanisation not met with the economic gains experienced elsewhere in the world?
RdP: The history of Sub-Saharan Africa’s urbanisation is very different from that elsewhere in the world. In most cases, the legacy of colonial urban planning premised on cities as hubs for extraction or colonial administration.
This fact has, in many cases, led to a lack of decentralised political power at the local level; and, significantly, inadequate urban planning. It has meant that cities are often under-capacitated and ill-equipped to make decisions and develop the prerequisite infrastructure and skills to take advantage of emerging sectors of the economy.
THHP: Why is tackling today’s infrastructure not enough to gear Africa’s cities for the future?
RdP: Many African cities are facing increasing infrastructure deficits as rapid urbanisation, climate change and slow global economic growth are increasing the need for cities to meet existing infrastructure backlogs.
Policymakers and urban planners have tried to retroactively address Africa’s spatial legacies by, for example, attempting to create better infrastructure linkages within and between cities to facilitate the movement of goods and people, and improve internal trade. The City of Cape Town’s MyCiti Bus networks is one such initiative.
Some have also tried to improve telecommunications networks to allow for better linkages between cities and their external environments – seen in Nigeria and Kenya’s successful ICT sectors – and improve housing and sanitation networks, evidenced by success stories such as Morocco’s successful slum reduction policies.
However, merely planning to meet existing backlogs isn’t enough. There is an increasing demand for new infrastructure that can integrate Africa’s cities into a digitising global economy.
THHP: You have suggested that innovations in the digital economy and e-commerce could lead to greater inclusion of the informal sector?
RdP: Yes, possibly – but capacity building and skill development, particularly at the primary schooling level, is key.
Pundits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will bring many opportunities for Africa’s cities, while simultaneously increasing demand for infrastructure and skills. It can change how we view manufacturing as 3D printing and robotics will bring greater efficiency to supply chains, leading to an abundance of cheap, quality consumer goods.
Innovations brought by the Fourth Industrial Revolution can create areas of inclusion by creating market access for small and medium enterprises and entrepreneurs that otherwise struggle to enter markets due to high-cost barriers, their geographical location, a lack of suppliers and other factors.
e-Commerce has the potential to bridge this gap by allowing smaller business to access bigger markets with fewer cost barriers. For consumers, this may also mean greater competition between firms and as a result, lower prices.
However, without the development of digital skills, these innovations could also deepen existing inequalities by crowding out smaller players by established tech-giants such as Amazon and Alibaba, for example.
THHP: How do the African cities avoid being left behind as the “digital divide” widens?
RdP: African policymakers, urban planners and the private sector must ensure that the prerequisite infrastructure and skills are in place to gear Africa’s cities for the disruption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It means that skills development, especially for youth and women, must be prioritised.
Education is also key, and governments need to make an active effort to facilitate educational exchanges between cities, so experts can share best practices in meeting digital challenges. Importantly, rural communities should also be included in these initiatives, as greater connectivity in cities should also mean more opportunities for rural communities to access urban markets.
THHP: How can African cities find solutions tailored to their unique socioeconomic and spatial contexts?
RdP: It is vital that African cities find solutions tailored to their unique socio-economic and spatial contexts by, for example, combining solutions from the global North with those from emerging actors such as China, Brazil, India and South Africa. These countries have cut their teeth in emerging economies and recognise the limitations of western models of urban development.
Moreover, they have experience in crafting low-cost solutions to urban challenges due to limited financial resources both among citizens and public authorities. South Africa’s G20 and BRICS links make it well-suited to leverage these partnerships.
Similarly, it is also important that issues that relate to the fourth industrial revolution be taken up in regional forums such as SADC. The recent SADC Action Plan for the SADC Industrialization Strategy and Roadmap recognises that to develop skills and capabilities, ‘Centres of Specialisation’ need to be created to provide the skills, education, infrastructure and institutions required to build knowledge economies in SADC countries. It is therefore essential to create in the region Centres of Specialisation, which cultivate skills related to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
THHP: You also said that “Africa’s cities will be at the forefront of the 4th Industrial revolution’s impact?”
RdP: African markets are often less regulated when it comes to digital technologies. Investors may view this as an opportunity and attempt to ‘pioneer’ new technologies in Africa. However, this may also lead to African markets being considered too high a risk.
Africa has the potential to benefit greatly from better integration between cities, regions and the continent as a whole as these technologies may allow for increasing trade and investment opportunities.
However, these technologies may also lead to disruptions in the global labour force as both skilled and unskilled workers will be replaced by machines. It may have negative effects on labour markets in Africa.
National governments should allow for cities to have greater control of their budgets by allowing for decentralisation, while equally allowing more funding to go towards digital literacy and skills.
What we allow cities to do next will either put us on the path towards inclusive economic development or lock us into a low development trap.