The Ideas Festival: Re-imaging Infrastructure

As part of the African Infrastructure Futures Conference, the African Centre for Cities (University of Cape Town) and the Urban Futures Studio (Utrecht University), have mounted an exhibition of 10 case studies showcasing inspiring examples of infrastructure innovation from across the continent.

For Africa’s rapidly growing cities to thrive, we urgently need infrastructure that can catalyse more dignified living conditions, opportunities for work and social vibrancy, and symbiotic relationships with nature.

The modernist norms for infrastructure technology remain trapped in a fossil fuel era, and urgently need to be examined and re-imagined. We must take the intersecting crises of climate change, large-scale under-employment, and deepening inequality as an opportunity to accelerate sustainable and culturally resonant modalities. This approach must find ways to work with the complex mix of state and non-state actors that have stepped in to fill the dramatic infrastructure gap, especially in popular neighbourhoods. There is much to understand and learn.

Infrastructure combines technical, human, and natural elements, and when considered broadly, is critical to supporting urban life and achieving most of the SDGs. Infrastructure systems have important roles to play in provisioning, connecting, and protecting. They range from centralised megaprojects to drive economic growth, to complex networks of informal agreements, micro transactions, and simple technologies that support life and dreams in urban settlements.

Featured here are 10 case studies showcasing inspiring examples of infrastructure innovation from across the continent. From the micro to the macro, these examples demonstrate divergent methods, processes, and lessons from initiatives grappling with contextual complexities to meet local needs in ways that shift the balance of infrastructure impacts from negative to positive. When considered together, they hint at possible futures for more liveable, inclusive, and sustainable African cities inspired by local ingenuity, and raise questions about what kind of infrastructure the continent really needs. What would a future look and feel like if such approaches proliferated, we wonder.

These case studies have been selected based on their demonstrated social and environmental performance relative to ‘business as usual’ approaches. Cases that have scaled up over a number of years and engaged productively with government systems have been prioritised over emergent experiments. Blending traditional and contemporary, old and new, established and incremental, low-tech and high-tech approaches, the initiatives span a diverse range of basic infrastructure services, and touch on important themes linked to placemaking, circularity, and climate adaptation. Indeed, adaptive improvisation seems to be a golden thread.

The exhibition does not aim to cover sustainable infrastructure in its entirety, but rather to capture snippets of what is happening across the continent to stimulate reflection, discussion, further inquiry, and action.

Download the case studies below:

Transportation: E-bikes for low carbon public transit

Sanitation: Waterless sanitation as a service

Public Space: Co-designing productive public spaces

Food & Markets: Solar-powered refrigeration

Energy: Electricity from shared solar PV towers

Health Care: Accessible mental health services

Community: Amplifying voices of the unheard

Education: Multi-platform education

Water: Community co-operatives for cleaner rivers

Buildings: Connecting communities using local stone

This exhibition has been prepared by Anesu Makina, Tinashe Kanosvamhira, and Bella Knemeyer of the African Centre for Cities (University of Cape Town), and Blake Robinson and Josephine Chambers of the Urban Futures Studio (Utrecht University) as part of the African Urban Futures project. Editing by Lee Middleton and design by Michael Tymbios. With support from ICLEI Africa, C40, DBSA and WRI and NRF.