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February 23, 2019

Young innovators key to prosperity

Innovator Gabriel Nderitu who has innovated wind turbines for primary school’s power.
Innovator Gabriel Nderitu who has innovated wind turbines for primary school’s power.

East Africa has two seemingly immutable challenges. The challenges of rapid urbanisation and the unprecedented expansion of a youthful population cannot be wished away. Neither can some alien agent resolve these challenges.

Youth unemployment, and the associated despondency as well as the overall risk of social and political turmoil, will not automatically or miraculously get resolved.

Similarly, the squalor, poverty and the apartheid or unequal access to services is not how to lay the foundation for a prosperous urban future.

The unprecedented fortune we face here in East Africa is the convergence of rapid urbanisation with a youth bulge. What this has produced is young or youthful cities.

Like everything young, Bujumbura, Dar es Salaam, Kampala, Kigali and Nairobi are bursting with new energy, boiling with frustration and impatience with convention and tradition. The currency is vitality and novelty.

The convergence of rapid urbanisation and the youth bulge is both perilous and auspicious. But I would like us to focus on the sweet spot. Our cities are crying out for local, contextually relevant social and technical innovation to grapple with dysfunctional governance and planning, squalid housing and lack of basic services such as water.

On the other hand, millions of urban youth are unemployed. The youth say they are excluded from decision-making. The youth have the potential to create and innovate, and could lead the search for and development of solutions to the challenges of urbanisation. All our major cities have technology hubs, where hundreds of youth grapple to create novel innovations.

Moreover, while our cities are home to some of the region’s well established universities, these institutions have not been the fountain of the innovation our cities sorely need. While the universities are broke and struggle with finding service and community learning placement for students, our cities are shovelling millions of dollars to foreign consultants to develop urban master plans.

We have an unprecedented opportunity to harness the creative energy of our youth to build vibrant, prosperous and inclusive cities. Imagine a collaborative platform for urban innovation that brings together urban leaders, academia, the technology hubs, business leaders, young entrepreneurs and civil society. Such a platform would identify a set of priority urban challenges and design solutions.

With the right incentives, our youth can provide a burst of novel enterprise, institutional, social and technical innovation to provide business solutions for sustainable and inclusive urbanisation while providing youth with good jobs.

What is also exciting is that these platforms for urban innovation will provide a veritable vehicle for advancing uniquely African urban science and scholarship. The character and form of African urbanism is nothing like we have seen in Europe or North America.

Hence western models of urban development are irrelevant as a reference framework for understanding and responding to the modern African urban form.

The urban innovation platforms, as youth-led initiatives, can provide a collaborative space for learning and co-creation responsive solutions for Africa’s urban age.

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