How do we interrogate perspectives around Afro-Smart cities and the narratives that have been created around socio-spatial spaces and new forms of data-driven urbanism?
This week’s “Smarter Cities” session titled “Imagination”, featured Thiresh Govender, an architect at UrbanWorks Architecture and Urbanism and Russel Hlongwane, a cultural producer and creative industries consultant. shared their insights on how we can transform our cities and settlements towards more sustainable and fulfilling possibilities through engaging our (African) imaginations. They implored the webinar participants to interrogate their perspectives around Afro-Smart cities and the narratives that have been created around socio-spatial spaces and new forms of data-driven urbanism.
Afro-Smart cities are increasingly dominating narratives about the future of urbanisation on the continent. Public policy and public discourse portray a somewhat optimistic vision around how smart technologies, connectivity and new urban tech can transform spaces that are riddled with poverty and contribute to the “rise of Africa”.
Govender, an observer of urban spaces, spoke about the intersectionality of economics, politics and social consequences. He identified the often obscured language of spaces, and how the lives of communities are affected. In his discussion, while encouraging citizens to use their imagination to push toward a more radical urban future, he asked questions such as: where do we imagine from and how do we imagine our smart cities?.
Govender referred to some of the case study projects, depicted by drawings. These case studies included a project titled, ‘The Blind Power of Representation’. Govender spoke about the struggles over the symbolic aspects of representation of people in cities of modern democracies, rather than the descriptive aspects. Furthermore, he talked about how the way democratic public spaces are presented is directly influenced by how public representations are constructed. He further argued that such representations matter in democracies because they denote who belongs to the demos and who does not, which impacts on the public value calculations of individual citizens.
Another case study Govender talked about, titled ‘Drawing Fact & Fiction: Shebeen’, a Shebeen study by UrbanWorks and Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation that looks at Tracing Relations, Objectification and Pattern Recognition of neighbourhood Shebeens.
“The neighbourhood shebeen acts as a public space for residents of the area to congregate, relax, and recreate. Pool tables, music, conversation, and dancing exist within a welcoming environment, which in turn enables a feeling of community. A shebeen of this kind is a popular social place for all ages throughout the day. The shebeen owner generally acts as a facilitator of community interaction and support. A small hatch between the shebeen and the shebeeners’ private home (most often the kitchen) becomes the primary mode for exchange of cash and drink”, Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation.
“The shebeens are positioned in terms of their relationship to urban settlement, their role in providing publicly accessible venues within an over-crowded slum and influence on drinking outcomes. Their analysis of space “focuses on the context of the informal settlement as a (un)regulated space which permits emergent spatial expressions and arrangements.” According to Govender, typically, these types of studies “reveal the social processes that facilitate inclusivity, from surveillance to the acceptance of ‘outsiders’ and the sociability afforded by the publicness of interactions within the street space. Taken together, these aspects demonstrate the importance of reimagining current approaches to managing neighbourhood economies in ways that are sensitive to the complex systems that spatial informalities can generate.”
Russel Hlongwane started an intimate exploratory conversation by introducing his provocation, a performative recital titled “Ifu Elimnyama, The Dark Cloud”. Ifu Elimnyama is a six-minute experimental video exploring the dual meaning of the cloud, the dark cloud. The film is set in the year 1220 in the pre-colonial Great Ruins of Mapungubwe, places Zulu cosmology, mysticism and sacred rituals within a digital framework as a reflection on — and critique of — the internet and its future, drawing parallels and criticisms about these areas of existence. With the pervasive nature of cloud, culture comes a potential clouded culture, a troubled culture. “In isiZulu, we would say: ‘Wehlelwe ifu elimnyama’ — you have been beset by a dark cloud, said Hlongwane. He used a vocabulary of coded practices, both traditional and contemporary.
“The internet, with all its good intentions, is a place of promise and (latent) destruction. Humanity, for better or for worse, has been understood through algorithms, networks, and interfaces. But, could we propose an understanding of the digital beyond algorithms and binary systems? Can we converge the algorithmic and the scared, the scientific and the mythical, as a means to propose an inclusive lexicon of the internet, and its future? The internet as a system and form of technology is attributed to the West, however, here we see that the so-called global South are active agents of technology in much more transcendental ways. The work, therefore, invites the viewer to think about mythology, cosmology, technology and transcendence all within the same frame.”
To this extent, Hlogwane asks some of these pivotal questions
- Who (or what) do we entrust with codes to our digital existence?
- What do we expect from those whom we entrust with this power?
- What is implied and what is at stake when the trust is broken?
“To accept the broken promise of the internet is to accept the insidiousness of capitalism. Institutions of higher learning commodify knowledge systems, essentially monetising epistemology. The internet presents “free information’’, but this comes with the commodification of clicks; user history and surfing habits go to the highest bidder.”
The film can be watched here