As an engineering physics graduate, I can’t help but think about COVID-19 as an external force that has come to act on the uniform motion of our daily lives.
As an urban professional and resident of what might someday be the largest megacity in the world, I’ve had to ask myself what this means for ours and other emerging cities across Africa.
Regardless of how you define livability, across the region, it is clear that there is significant room for growth. As with everything else in nature, we have a tendency to revert to status-quo when external forces are removed, and my biggest concern is that we might miss the opportunity to make significant changes that will make our cities liveable and all of our lives better in the long run.
There is no doubt that the impact of COVID-19 has altered our daily lives in very significant ways. I, however, believe this presents us with a very rare opportunity to make bold decisions for the future of our cities. So, as Lagos and other African cities consider a full re-opening of their economies, I’m writing this article to share a few thoughts on really important questions we should ask for the sake of the future of our cities.
- Transportation: If we really want to fix traffic and improve productivity, can we have a conversation about our obsession with in-person meetings and daily office attendance. What would it take for us to fully embrace remote work? What infrastructure will be required to support that? How can we leverage these lockdowns to make significant upgrades to our transport infrastructure? How can we better leverage technology for planning, scheduling, passenger experience, monitoring of traffic flows etc.?
- Civic Tech: What would it take to truly digitise government services and get the civil service to embrace digital tools? Over the past several weeks, several government offices were closed like other businesses but a lot of their services were inaccessible because most of their work is still completely paper based. How can governments better engage with citizens? How can we enable better land rights documentation and better tax collection? How can we increase transparency and accountability within our public institutions? How can we better educate citizens on their rights and responsibilities? How can we ensure that citizens are actively contributing to governance?
- Slums: The lockdowns have made it very glaring that social distancing and self isolation is almost impossible for people living in slums and informal communities. How do we start to redesign the fabric of our society in such a way that everyone in our cities have access to the same basic infrastructure - safe and affordable housing, water, healthcare etc.?
- Healthcare: Speaking of healthcare, how can we strengthen our healthcare systems in such a way that even during the worst of crises we have reasonable capacity to respond and deal with them? How do we ensure that healthcare becomes a priority, that healthcare workers are adequately recognized and compensated for the critical work they do, and that everyone, regardless of class or societal standing can get access to affordable and decent medicare?
- Education: How do we rethink our curriculums and education systems? As I write, university lecturers are on strike forcing students to stay at home and senior secondary school leaving certificate exams have been postponed indefinitely. How do we fix that? How do we actually prepare graduates with job-ready skills and how do we update our curriculums for the jobs of the future? How can we leverage technology for better learning and how can we open access to millions of young people who can't access our higher institutions of learning? As a new school term resumes, even middle class parents are grappling with the realities and challenges of homeschooling. How about schools and families that are unable to make the adjustments? What does all this mean for access to economic opportunities for learners in an increasingly competitive world and how can we change that?
- Energy: How do we double down on off-grid clean energy solutions and how do we ensure that everyone within our cities have access to uninterrupted power supply? How do we enable smart metering, pay as you go and other innovative approaches to ensure that people only pay for what they consume and that our behaviours change towards energy wastage?
- Agriculture: How do we ensure food security for everyone in our cities? How do we promote urban agriculture? How do we store, preserve and process our agricultural outputs? How do we enable last mile delivery and farm to market solutions? What do our supply chains need to look like to support our growing urban population? How do we ensure farmers are able to access credit and benefit from economies of scale?
- Safety and Security: How do we increase the safety of security of lives and properties within our cities? How do we better equip our security agencies using technology? How do we improve our intelligence gathering and emergency response?
- Environment: How do we improve our air and water quality? How do we keep noise pollution to the minimum? How do we create more green spaces, parks and recreational facilities?
- Culture: How do we promote arts and culture? How do we better preserve our landmarks, document our history and protect our cultural heritage?
There are several more questions we can ask but the important point is that none of these can be left completely for governments to figure out. The private sector, especially tech entrepreneurs have a significant role to play in partnering with governments and other stakeholders. There are tremendous opportunities to fill these gaps so that by the time the dust settles, which it will eventually, some of the accelerated changes we're experiencing especially with the use of technology can lead to permanent behavioural and lifestyle changes for the benefit of us all.
I believe this is the season for African innovators to thrive and I’m keen to see what interesting innovative solutions entrepreneurs build during these times. This is why we designed the Lagos Urban Innovation Challenge (open till May 31st) to support innovators who are working to shape the Lagos of tomorrow. Winners get access to Africa's first ever virtual urban accelerator and over $10K worth of resources and support to help them scale.
Emmanuel Adegboye is the Managing Partner of Utopia Lagos and is leading Utopia’s emerging efforts across Africa.
Utopia is the world’s first urban innovation group focused solely on emerging cities and their slums. We’re investing into the future of African cities through the Megacity Fund and we’re building out the platform and infrastructure for urban entrepreneurs to transform their emerging cities through a network of CITYLABS (urban venture studios) across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
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