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Prof. Mugendi K. M’Rithaa –President Emeritus: World Design Organization
Engr. Abbas Jamie – Community Liaison Africa: World Design Organization

“Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter” – Chinua Achebe


Afrika; Co-Design; Design Thinking; Ethnography; Future-readiness; Innovation; Narratives; Storytelling; Sustainable Development Goals; Sustainability. 


Africa is the second largest continent with over a billion people living in some 55 countries1. It is a continent renowned for its rich anthropocentric traditions (such as Ubuntu) and is home to at least half of the world’s dozen fastest growing economies are also from this continent that is characterised by a predominantly youthful demographic. The demonstrable rapid pace of change, coupled with the continent’s leapfrogging potential has led many to re-interrogate their perceptions of Africa. Subsequently, many commentators have advanced the notion of the “21st century as the African century”. In so doing, these commentators adopt a number of lenses ranging from macro- economic, developmental, geopolitical, policy and governance ones amongst others.

Notwithstanding the positive scenarios of an arguably more prosperous Africa within the foreseeable future, very few of the commentators have adopted a human-centred approach that taps into the realities and aspirations of the vast numbers of denizens of our continent.

Consequently, the emerging narratives inadvertently reflect an epistemological bias that fails to take cognisance of the complexity of the African condition. We need a narrative that is rooted in the Afrikan reality and one that is emphatic towards the creative expressions being co-constructed by its own people, in partnership with emphatic actors and stakeholders from the global community. Part of the reason for inherent bias in the prevailing externally constructed narrative lies in the question of context, authorship and ownership.

To emphasise the importance of theoretical propositions such as those of situated development and the genii loci, why should the continent not start adopting the noun “Afrika?” (That is, Africa as seen  from the ‘inside out’ – from its own realities and aspirations); to distinguish it from the more popular notion of “Africa” (as viewed from the ‘outside in’)… This ontological insight advanced by scholars such as Ronald E. Wanda (2013) is articulated within the field of Afrikology (which advances the credible notion that all languages on our continent spell Africa with a ‘k’). Additionally, Afrikology aids in ameliorating the inherent epistemological bias occasioned by a narrow (and predominantly foreign) view of the continent and its dynamic peoples and cultures…

Beyond a philosophical discourse on the Afrikan perspective, how do we encourage Afrikan corporates to explore the dialogic and transformative potential of design thinking and allied ethnographic tools in facilitating a more nuanced, inclusive and targeted community- centric vision in shaping an inclusive and progressive future for all in Afrika.

By adopting such context-responsive tools corporates will contribute towards fostering a developmental agenda that references an authentic Afrikan narrative.

This mindset will make significant contribution towards realizing national development plans and However when talking innovation we need to think beyond information systems and technological artefacts. In today’s rapidly changing world you are either a proactive disruptor or you are being disrupted. Innovation protects you against being disrupted. It is not a nice to have. It will ensure that you are still relevant and more importantly that you still exist in the future.

Many research papers have acknowledged the positive link that innovation has on the competitiveness, productivity, overall GDP, economic growth and employment of countries. (European Commision, 1996). There is also a strong case to be made for visions of a number of countries on the continent, as well as the United Nations-promulgated 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) [and their related 169 targets] by the year 2030.

An Afrikan narrative and agenda encourages planners, funders, engineers, architects, lawyers, designers, policy makers and governments to embrace transdisciplinary and participatory ethnographic tools in their quest for more creative and innovative solutions as they aspire to contribute towards the development projects on the continent.

In order to achieve the said SDGs by 2030, the continent will need to embrace innovation at a pace not yet seen demonstrating how innovation as a strategic factor in a business entity’s long-term prosperity and survival. (Tidd, 1997). The challenge for businesses, who are process-driven, is that innovation is not a linear process but is part of a complex system of reciprocal relationships and feedback loops between science, technology, learning, systems, policy, organisations and market readiness which may be referred to “systems of innovation” (Sundbo, 1998). Systems thinking therefore provides such businesses with a methodology to better understand the behavioural characteristics of a multi-node innovation system.

When looking across the continent we identify a number of successful corporates with long track records of delivering infrastructure and supplying goods to the people of Afrika. Operating in Afrika requires a different mindset (and indeed a paradigm shift) to operating in the North. To thrive in Afrika, one needs to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset and think more systemically about problems that corporates in the North will most probably never encounter. This agile culture is a good breeding ground for innovation and creativity.

The question then that one needs to address is: “how can Afrikan corporates and governments successfully use design thinking methodology to blend their strong analytical expertise with the creative world to discover innovative Afrikan solutions?” Firstly there needs to be better appreciation and support for design thinking methodology from the very top of the organisation. It cannot be a pilot implemented by an “innovation team”. In order to experience the success of design thinking it needs to be embedded into the DNA of the organisation. It needs to become business as usual.

This implies viewing innovation for the continent through an Afrikan lens – innovation that is imagined and conceptualised within an Afrikan This is Afrikan Design Innovation.

The Our Afrikan City narrative

 When trying to envision a future Afrikan City we need to think beyond

“Smart Cities”. The technology of Smart Cities should enable us to achieve a future vision. We should guard against the technology leading us down a prescriptive and pre- determined path. Instead, “what we should be having is a dialogue that is initiated, developed and owned by Afri[k]a with the intention of fostering a shared understanding across government and society about how best to manage urbanisation.

Through this dialogue we can make a significant contribution to achieving the goals of economic development, job creation and improved living conditions for all of our people and transforming our cities” (OAC, 2016).

Post-colonial Africa inherited cities characterised by segregation and based on Western models of single-function land-uses with

decentralised neighbourhoods linked through personal car-based transport. The result is cities characterised by urban sprawl, spatial exclusion and growing congestion. Our current spatial models are based on the concept of compact cities, applying conceptual frameworks of nodes and development corridors with the aim of creating densification and development infill. These are located on assumptions about how people and goods will move, how employment will be generated and locate, and what people need to improve livelihoods.

Lack of enforcement of spatial plans and inconsistent linkages to infrastructure planning combined with a deep understanding of economic potential and drivers, left most African cities with unchanged development patterns, more dictated by large developments and road infrastructure than future planning.

How do we as Afrikans contribute in a more inclusive and systemic manner to this wicked problem of urbanisation? We need a robust dialogue around “Our Afrikan City”(OAC).

OAC must be about bringing together leading expertise across the financial, political, technical and social spheres to collaborate in developing new thinking and solutions that address inclusive urban transformation. It is about opening the debate on and crafting a vision of what an Afrikan city should look like and how to innovatively address the challenges we face to leapfrog the development process.

The dialogue should be buttressed by three principles of close collaboration between government and private sector, breaking down silos between and in the spheres identified and using a human centric innovative approach to guide the process.

The philosophy of Our African City should be to view urban transformation through an African lens by positing the question: “how do we use environmentally sustainable economic growth as a means of achieving particular social goals?” This means that marginalised communities are included in urban development planning for social spaces, economic development and in environmental management and protection.

OAC should not be launched in a vacuum. It should seek to augment and support other initiatives across the continent. The OAC dialogue should therefore guided by broad policy documents including the African Union (AU) Agenda 2063 – a bold vision that anticipates the state of the AU’s centenary (African Union Commission, 2015). In the South African context, the OAC dialogue should take direction from the Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) recently released by the South African government.

The IUDF policy framework aims to “guide the development of inclusive, resilient and liveable urban settlements, while squarely addressing the unique conditions and challenges facing South Africa’s cities and towns” (Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, 2014).

The vision of the IUDF is: ‘Liveable, safe, resource-efficient cities and towns that are socially integrated, economically inclusive and globally competitive, where residents actively participate in urban life’ (Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, 2014).

To this end, the OAC dialogue in South Africa should be structured around the 8 levers of the IUDF. Our African City must bring together stakeholders and experts to build thought leadership and discussion on the 8 levers of expertise required to give life to the IUDF.

The high stream of innovation required to leapfrog the development process requires innovation tools grounded in a deep understanding of underlying needs. By using design thinking we can bring together a multiple range of technical experts to engage with a broad range of stakeholders to better shape innovative solutions for the problem of African urbanisation.

Our Afrikan City must be built on three principles:-

  • Close collaboration between government and private sector;
  • Breaking down of silos between and within stakeholder groups; and
  • Introducing innovative human centric methodologies like design

The design thinking methodology allows stakeholders to participate in a non-threatening environment     where all options are considered and all views are respected. This allows for an environment of exploration  and rich interaction. This approach is not easy for professionals who believe they need to have an answer for the problem before entering the room. The process requires stakeholders to spend more time in the why of things. Before providing a solution we need to ask if we are addressing the right problem.

Engineers and other allied professionals are trained to jump to solution mode based on what they know can work. The OAC dialogue allows them to spend more time in the why of things. Like most wicked problems, rapid urbanisation cannot be solved with a linear analytical approach. Through the OAC dialogue urban development professionals, funders and developers are given the opportunity and platform to ask much deeper systemic questions from a broader range of stakeholders to which they are traditionally accustomed to. This allows them to have a much deeper understanding of the issues affecting people’s lives. It allows them to have better empathy and understanding for the ultimate end user beyond the client’s expectations. This allows for a richer interaction with other professionals and also opens the mind to a more diverse worldview.

Bringing Life to Ideas…

In conclusion, we believe that by adopting a co-constructed narrative for the future of the continent, the collective aspirations of an entire region could move the developmental discourse beyond that of merely proffering a higher standard of living to its people, to a more sustainable one of a better quality of life for all.

The Our Afrikan City narrative demonstrates the efficacy of Design Thinking in advancing an Afrikan Design Innovation agenda whilst simultaneously referencing issues of global importance such as the SDGs.

By piloting various projects that are diverse in scope and complexity under the Our Afrikan City banner, it is hoped that the inherent versatility of different design methodologies can be recorded and presented in an accessible and generalisable manner.

Additionally, the trans-disciplinary epistemological lens of Afrikology further enhances the emerging narrative as one that “that goes beyond Eurocentricism, or other ethnocentrisms. It recognises all sources of knowledge as valid within their historical, cultural or social contexts and seeks to engage them into a dialogue that can lead to better knowledge for all” (Wanda, 2013:2).

It is anticipated that the emerging narrative helps to highlight the generative co-creative aspirations of the denizens of Afrika by giving their hopes and aspirations a strong, content-responsive voice. In so doing, the co-directed storytelling provides the proverbial lion with myriad well informed and highly motivated ‘historians’, all telling their story from their own individual and peculiar vantage points…


  • African Union (2015). Agenda 2063 The Africa we want . African Union Commission.
  • Commission, (1996). Green paper on innovation, Bulletin of the European Union. Brussels, Luxemborg: European Union.
  • Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional (2014).

Integrated Urban Development Framework. COGTA.

  • European (1996). Green Paper on Innovation, Bulletin of the European Union. Brussels, Luxemborg.
  • Hussey, (1997). The Innovation Challenge. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  • (2016). Our African City launch manifesto. Aurecon. Cape Town
  • Tidd, (1997). Managing Innovation. Integrating Technological, Market and Organisational Change. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  • Wanda, E. (2013). Afrikology and Community: restorative cultural practices in East Africa. The Journal of Pan African Studies, 2013 (6):1- 25.


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