Cape Town: the iPhone of African cities

Cape Town is the iPhone of African cities. A slick, beautifully designed place wrapped deftly around a solid core of mountain, sand and sea. We love our city much as acolytes will defend Apple with near fanatical devotion. Joburg can have its business-minded Blackberry; we have the universal appeal of a laid-back piece of urbanity, with just enough zing to remind us that we are indeed part of Africa.

If that is true, we have problem.

As technology commentator Dave Thier wrote on Forbes following last year’s launch of the iPhone 5, Apple has put itself in a difficult position: “On the one hand, it tries to constantly update its gadgets on a tight buying cycle that ensures that even satisfied customers are compelled to shell out hundreds of dollars on a regular basis. On the other, it tries to make devices so perfect and contained that you never need another one.” Most of the iPhone 5’s improvements are, deliberately, under the hood. Apple doesn’t want us to see more, they want us to feel that it ‘just works’.

Unlike the $200 phone, Cape Town doesn’t ‘just work’, but we are walking the same tightrope as we face the constant need to satisfy customers while balancing the financial books. If the City spent its entire budget on infrastructure and services that were difficult to see, and were only incremental improvements, people might not even realize that things were getting better. So it’s tempting to go for the big, flashy features, even if they provide less material benefit.

What the city really needs is changes that feel big by having a distributed benefit rather than by being physically obvious. And to do that, we need to solve a different set of problems from the ones we’ve been working on.

We’ve solved, technically speaking, most of the ‘big’ problems. There are designers out there who can show you how to build a low-cost shelter that is more comfortable than the shacks that fill the unplanned spaces of the city. There are planners who know how to build a highly efficient city. Engineers who can switch us to a low-carbon society. Educators who can educate. Economists who can show the way to full employment.

We can do all these things, but we haven’t done any of them. At least, not on a scale that makes a difference. And that could be because of the less obvious unsolved problems, most of which have to do with creating institutions that can respond to core challenges rather than treating symptoms.

Consider this scenario. The Black River in Cape Town is polluted, which is bad for plants, birds and other wildlife, and people can’t use it for recreation. It’s just a way to carry waste to the sea. There could be several reasons for the pollution, but one of them is spillage of sewage from the treatment works in Athlone, which is overloaded. So we could upgrade the facility, or build a new one. That would be the usual ‘big’ engineering response.

The alternative is to find ways to reduce the flow of sewage from homes and offices, which has been done in many cities by subsidizing the installation of low-flow toilets and other efficient appliances. What these cities spend on subsidies, they save on sewage treatment. But Cape Town is not geared up to manage budgets in this way.

It’s an institutional problem, related not only to how budgets are allocated, but also to how challenges and solutions are identified. If the City were to consider a wider range of benefits, an entirely new set of possibilities would emerge. By changing appliances at the source, residents become aware of the challenge of water scarcity, and spend less on water; jobs are created for plumbing contractors; the need for new sources of drinking water is delayed; and rivers run clean, making it safer to develop recreational areas next to them.

An environmental challenge that initially looks like it might drain municipal finances, with no visible benefit, becomes an opportunity for achieving social and economic improvements across the city. Like iPhone users, the city’s residents will only be satisfied with an upgrade if they feel an improvement in the user experience. Going local is the best way to score some quick wins with lasting benefit.

Rory Williams is a transport planner and commentator on the role of design in creating liveable cities. He has over 20 years’ experience as a consultant, contributing to numerous urban planning projects in Cape Town and other African cities. He is a columnist with the Cape Times, and blogs at He has a civil engineering degree from UCT.

This article was originally published by The Cape Times. Image via wikimedia commons user Lindria Oosthuizen.


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