Why do we need urban-system integrators?

The African continent is undergoing a series of exciting, and daunting transitions. Changes in technological primacy, climate patterns, work and labour systems, demographic profiles, social and cultural norms, platform proliferation are underway. These transitions, and many more, intersect with urbanization patterns and trends, shaping and being shaped by the growing and changing nature of cities and urbanity on the continent. Urban growth in Africa is daunting and presents both challenges and opportunities. Unlocking the opportunities which these transitions hold requires taking engagement with complex, overlapping and contested systems.

As African cities prepare to face these imminent and complex transitions, they are confronted with the reality of their infrastructural conditions. The history of colonial extraction, post-colonial nation-building, selective multi-lateral development investment, austere structural adjustment, and fractured decentralization reforms have had severe implications for urban infrastructure. Today, cities have partial and fragmented infrastructure system, supplemented by informal and private sector driven initiatives to ‘fill the gaps’ in formal delivery systems. Many remain under serviced, paying exorbitant rates for poor quality services. Interventions to address this deficit will have to be attentive to the ways in which infrastructure systems today reflect hybrid urban service delivery arrangements, some of which are ingenious and others purely exploitative.

Core to intervening in these hybrid infrastructures, improving their delivery and ensuring horizonal and vertical systems integration, is the question of finance. The current financial models for service delivery in Africa have been insufficient in the face of the growing demand and income profiles of urban residents. While there seems to be lots of interest in the international community to invest in African urban infrastructure (both multi-lateral and private capital), the outcomes of these investments have often failed to address the real needs. The drive for bankable and shovel-ready projects has led to investment in low risk infrastructures (to the exclusion of some of the most necessary systems), driven national debt (often structured sub-optimally), and centralized political power (for example in national agencies). There is clearly a need for more innovative approaches to financing infrastructure, attentive to hybridity, material and institutional decentralization, and the various large-scale transitions on the continent.

Undeniably, better management and more nuanced engagement of urbanisation, systems transitions, infrastructural arrangements, and financing logics can produce more sustainable and inclusive outcomes Intervening in complex urban systems requires systems integrators. These integrators have generalist knowledge of cities, with skills and sensibilities which allow for creative and pragmatic manoeuvre. Being an urban systems integrator requires adaptive management skills and the ability being able to move between scales, understanding the big picture, the mezzo dynamics and the everyday. It requires understanding of the political economy of policies to pursue sustainable urban transitions and identifying the leverage points in a complex and conflictual urban system to advance experimentation and innovation.

Edgar Pieterse and Liza Rose Cirolia are core faculty for the new Masters in Sustainable Urban Practice which seeks to cultivate urban systems integrators. Together they teach the four core models of the programme Sustainable Urban Transitions, Sustainable Urban Infrastructure, Urban Infrastructure Finance, Adaptive Urban Management.

Applications for 2022 are open. The deadline for applications is 31 January 2022. For more information go to the programme page.