The architect and anthropologist designing the african smart city

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Six! That’s the number of years that have gone by between my first meeting with Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou and this interview.  It was back in 2013, in a special “Afrique 3.0” edition of leading magazine Courrier International, that I discovered this Togolese architect and anthropologist. It was one of the first times Africans were given an opportunity to tell their stories and share the continent’s new impetus. I was just 22, and these tales enhanced this continent’s calling to me. They also fuelled my imagination and helped me plan my return.

By Diane audrey ngako

But let’s get back to today’s guest! After spending two years studying advanced maths at the University of Lomé, Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou moved to France to continue his education. It was during his studies in Paris that he became interested in design, history of art and architecture. That’s also when he discovered digital fabrication laboratories (or fablabs). In 2012, he founded Hub Cité. The aim of this project was to rethink the African town model, for and by their inhabitants. Deployed in Lomé, this Smart City initiative uses digital technologies to help local populations reclaim their urban environment. The long-term objective is to enable an African vision of tomorrow’s towns – closer to nature and communities – to emerge. Since then, he has set up two Techlabs: Woèlab, new generation neighbourhood homes. The aim is to enable local inhabitants to improve the way their neighbourhood operates thanks to new technologies.

The notion of smart cities is increasingly mentioned in my conversations with friends. Our towns and cities are getting bigger and, with all the traffic jams, waste management and safety issues, more and more of us want to see our towns better designed and thought through in order to provide a better quality of life.

The idea of a smart city is to connect the town to simplify the way it operates via sensors, steering platforms and new energy solutions: there are a growing number of examples of this technology being used. Singapore is possibly the most striking one – it gathers data on its inhabitants in order to better organise the urban landscape. In Shenzhen, e-money has reached a cornerstone, with credit cards and cash having disappeared: purchases and travel & leisure bookings are carried out via the WeChat platform, which is very popular in the People’s Republic of China. So you’ll have understood that most of these smart cities are emerging in the West (United States, Canada, Western Europe), Southeast Asia and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand).

How is the African continent positioned in this respect?

Apart from a few initiatives in Morocco or South Africa, Africa appears to be excluded from this revolution. Well, if we want to copy the Western model. “Our African towns and cities need to become smart not by becoming capitalists (sales of technologies); we use technology to benefit a group of isolated individuals, not for a community aware of itself. So social ties need to be created between people. I believe that’s how their living environment will be impacted. An African smart city can exist without debt for our countries and without relying on Silicon Valley models. The risk for our countries is to want to embrace a model that doesn’t correspond to the country’s social structure. It might be less sexy than purchasing a turnkey town from Google, but it avoids us having years of debt”, Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou explains.

For him, a fervent supporter of what he calls vernacular architecture, it’s important to work with locally available resources. “We have to recognise that this continent’s cities don’t emanate from ancient and traditional African installations. They owe their existence to their encounter with the West. Indeed, it perpetuates this relationship of domination and subordination. I’m not saying they have no identity, on the contrary, but I regret that they don’t look ahead more. At the moment, African cities are places where there’s a desire to consume in a western way.” He adds.

The city of Douala, where I live, was designed for about a million and a half people, but it currently has some 6 million inhabitants. A student in Paris with friends from the Cameroonian diaspora, we set up an association where we attempted to see what our economic capital would look like. A number of points were discussed: innovative urban transport, access to water, waste disposal services, etc. We also looked at the implementation of participatory mapping.

So naturally his discourse reverberated with me.  I wanted to know how he saw Lomé, his city, in twenty years’ time. It should be noted that in January 2020 he will present an exhibition on this issue called “LOMÉ” + at the palace of the Governors in Lomé.

“Tomorrow’s big cities will be in Africa; this continent’s population will double and one in every four people on the planet will be African. These are the first factors to take into account.  Whatever my ideal may be, processes are underway. In Western Africa, one major city is expected to spread all the way from Lagos to Abidjan. Lomé will no doubt become one of the world’s five largest cities. If its inhabitants are smart citizens who, over a 1 km radius, use new technologies to manage waste and energy management issues and build vegetable gardens instead of rubbish tips, then I think we can move calmly forward” says Sénamé Koffi Agbodjinou.

What a wonderful way to end this interview! The big news is that Sénamé is on the verge of finishing his book, of which he doesn’t want to say much yet. What I do know and can say is that it will come out in early 2020, and will be about digital capitalism and how imperative it is for Africa to resist it.

What about you? How do you see your town or city in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time?