Reimagining the African norm for smart cities

27 October 2023 | Story Lyndon Julius. Photos Brenton Geach. Read time 5 min.
Prof Nancy Odendaal delivered her inaugural lecture on 24 October.
Prof Nancy Odendaal delivered her inaugural lecture on 24 October.

The unique challenges inherent in African cities demand a reframing of the “norm” of smart urbanism to ensure true transformation through technology, Professor Nancy Odendaal cautioned during her inaugural lecture to mark her promotion to full professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Negotiating the space between the formal and informal spheres was a central challenge to achieving authentic technological transformation on the continent, but crucial to ensure the benefits extended to disadvantaged populations, she stressed during the lecture, titled “Reframing African Smart Urbanism”, delivered on Tuesday, 24 October.

“Addressing the contradictions in African smart cities is a vital step in our journey. We must differentiate African cities from the broader smart city narrative, as the context and challenges are unique,” Professor Odendaal said.

Disrupted urbanism

Her research journey began with her PhD in 2005, culminating in the publication of her book, Disrupted Urbanism: Situated Smart Initiatives in African Cities, in January 2023. It has been hailed as a “much-needed alternative view”, leveraging examples of initiatives in a range of urban African settings to illustrate how meaningful change can be achieved.

Addressing the contradictions that encapsulate the development of African smart cities during her lecture, Odendaal argued that true transformation through technology lies in empowering individuals in their daily lives. She underscored the role of technology in everyday decision-making for disadvantaged communities, and the influence of networks that connect individuals at the margins with the more affluent.

Prof Nancy Odendaal’s lecture was titled “Reframing African Smart Urbanism”.

Alignment between smart city policies and governance discourses was another crucial aspect, and she illustrated her exploration of these concepts within specific African cities, including Cape Town,  Buffalo City and Ekurhuleni.

Odendaal highlighted several specific themes, including the power of disruptive platforms such as ride-hailing and food delivery apps to boost informal economies in Africa. Activism was another, specifically the value of amplifying storytelling on social media platforms to open up policy discussions, and ultimately drive change.

Building a southern perspective

She also discussed post-colonial science and technology research, emphasising the importance of building a southern perspective, including non-Western ontologies, and the interplay between technology and socio-technical practices.

“Smart African urbanism does not always lead to neat and orderly places,” she acknowledged, suggesting that future initiatives needed to take account of the historic lessons from African cities to ensure more authenticity. “Slow AI [artificial intelligence]”, she added, represented a more considered approach to AI.


“Smart African urbanism does not always lead to neat and orderly places.”

When she opened the evening’s proceedings, UCT’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation Professor Sue Harrison emphasised the significance of inaugural lectures in sharing academic research with broader audiences, and celebrating academic achievements.

“They also, importantly, provide an opportunity for the inaugural lecturer to share his or her insights … and to [share their work] in a way that is understandable to a broad audience,” Professor Harrison said.

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