In the past decade, smart city plans have emerged from a range of African countries, focusing on polished 3D renderings that depict a specific strain of futurity. Visions of nonexistent African cities are commissioned by developers across the continent. Like similar projects in other regions of the Global South, they call on the legitimacy and resources of international architecture firms to develop the visual language of the city. For their visions of the future, African smart city projects rely on a set of visual tropes stemming from ideas of how “African” indigeneity (usually pan-African) intersects with Western concepts of modernity. Despite these firms, which are primarily based in Western Europe and the Middle East, not having local contexts to generate these depictions of an African future, they create speculative material regardless. This leads to city plans that are culturally unsituated. They are an external view of African futurity, utilizing what I call “corporate Afrofuturism.” This visual style is another outlet for capital attempting to find roots in Africa, a situation that is only possible through the affordances of ubiquitous virtual networks.
While the trend of African smart cities has only hit its stride in the past few decades, this style of urban development has an established history in the Global South. Numerous countries like China, the UAE, and South Korea have created “global cities,” hubs of capital and cultural influence that outshine national boundaries.1Saskia Sassen, “The Global City: Introducing a Concept,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs 11, no. 2 (2005): 27. As the leading success stories of neoliberal globalization, global cities provide opportunities for free market expansion and investment for their home countries, along with attractive landing pads for multinational corporations. Their cultural footprints supersede them and become products in themselves. Constructing global cities has been rather successful for some regions, especially for places like Shanghai, though the process of attracting attention from the global market is difficult without a support net of architecture, marketing, engineering, and construction firms from regions with disproportionate cultural and financial capital. As Kris Olds says about the development of the Pudong district in Shanghai,
While FDI or import/export trade levels are generally used as indicators of how ‘global’ a city is, a narrow focus on this type of data is limited in that it misses the less quantifiable and non-material impacts of globalization processes. Such a focus also skates over the complex processes associated with the building of the global city.2Kris Olds, “Globalizing Shanghai: The ‘Global Intelligence Corps’ and the Building of Pudong,” Cities 14, no. 2 (1997): 109.
To build a global city, you need capital. To attract capital, you need investors that believe in your vision of marketability, a financial legibility on the planetary scale for this pending urban environment. International firms primarily from the Global North can provide legitimacy to nascent architectural projects that want to appeal to signifiers of modernity. By outsourcing the design and aesthetics of these city projects to international architecture firms, investment can be more easily secured. In the case of Africa, these firms are some of the leading generators of corporate Afrofuturist content. Outsourcing the vision of African cities to designers outside of the continent is less of the developers trying to play “catch-up” with the Global North, and more of them reusing symbols of power from the neoliberal order to accrue international influence.3 James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 155–175. An example would be Eko Atlantic, a smart city project based on a stretch of artificial beach off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria. According to Gilbert Chagoury, a co-founder of the parent conglomerate (the Chagoury Group) developing Eko Atlantic, the project “will transform Lagos into Africa’s first mega-city.” Lagos is already one of the largest cities in the world, with a population of over 16 million, yet its scale in terms of area and population does not qualify it for megacity status to the developers of Eko Atlantic. A different set of criteria must be reached — specifically, Eko Atlantic has to become desirable as a location for international corporations to establish business, boosting the region into megacity status. In promotional material for the project, spokespeople in Western formal wear stand before half-finished structures, making parallels between Eko Atlantic and Dubai, London, and other global city exemplars.
Building global cities is attractive to private entities such as the Chagoury Group and local governments alike due to these projects’ ability to generate a concentrated amount of speculation and intrigue for desirable economic partners. They can appeal to the myths of seamless information transfer and integrated virtuality with physical environments, all without needing much in the way of established material development. These projects have emerged across East, West, and North Africa, primarily occurring in the past two decades. African developers have a strong desire for ease of virtual access since this implies they will have a more vital role within international markets as consumers, not as resource pools. Through sleek, hypermodern architecture, saturated with adaptive sensor technology and digital interfaces, the developers of smart cities in Africa hope to prove to the rest of the world that the region is interoperable with existing neoliberal markets. The aim is to build urban spaces codependent on software regimes, a trend which has already saturated the West.4Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge, Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life (Boston: MIT Press, 2011). In the developers’ ideal configuration, online platform logic and information tracking/dissemination are always available to relevant stakeholders.
In many regions of Africa, appealing to neoliberal markets comes with specific obstacles that are not present in other regions of the Global South where smart city projects have been proposed. The continent has undergone centuries of Western resource extractivism, IMF austerity policies, and the aftereffects of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Digital infrastructure has emerged with different form factors than in the Global North,5Nicole Starosielski, Media Hot and Cold (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022), 191–218. though Western entities are turning to the continent in the hope of establishing new markets.6Lee Harris and Tim Sahay, “Don’t Say ‘Scramble for Africa’,” Phenomenal World, January 6, 2023, https://www.phenomenalworld.org/analysis/dont-say-scramble-for-africa/ Eko Atlantic has been under construction for over a decade now, and only around four of the proposed skyscrapers have been completed. Despite this, the apartments in the lone residential towers are on the market for astronomical prices, and celebrities choose the district to host parties and concerts. There is a promise of more to come, an emergent web of urban possibility. Architectural renderings of Eko Atlantic emphasize how this is a city of the future.
Essentially, while the physical side of Eko Atlantic is not much more than a grid of half-paved roads and a handful of buildings scattered across an artificial beach, the digital side is timelessly complete and submerges itself in markers of luxury. Branding and architecture are of utmost importance, the main avenues through which corporate Afrofuturism manifests as an aesthetic. Shots of the virtual city pan through streets devoid of people but packed with logos channeled from around the world (an effect of hiring international firms to design the environment). Before any sort of large-scale construction had begun, Eko Atlantic’s social media platforms were ejecting a steady stream of virtual renderings. Each video pans across 3D models with anti-aliased edges. “Live the experience of EKO Pearl Towers – Lagos, Nigeria” is one of these videos, published on YouTube in 2015. It begins with a set of buildings that sprout from the ground. First comes the bare foundation, then a flurry of glass and metal panes rush up the sides with all the ease of digital manifestation. The materials come from thin air, only to be flaunted by a floating “camera” that swoops across the model. Massive towers gleam in a fake sun, towering over a stretch of nameless space. While the title of the video might imply that it is based in Lagos, there is nothing in the video that reinforces that claim. Behind the towers are airbrushed swaths of blue sky that merge into a formless gray band hugging the horizon. That gray band intimates urban space, with sharp 90-degree color borders and fade-ins that mimic a skyline. But in the compressed resolution of the video no details can be discerned. The background skyline, apparently Lagos, is nothing more than a wallpaper for this digital rendering. Lagos is a skybox, fading away in 480p.
As mentioned earlier, decontextualized smart city projects extend beyond Africa. There have been multiple analyses on the interplay of speculative design with urban development in the Global South, particularly in East Asia and the Middle East. Projects such as NEOM in Saudi Arabia, Songdo in South Korea, and Masdar City in the UAE have all utilized regional imaginaries to legitimize plans for extravagant urban developments, creating similar effects to corporate Afrofuturism. Their city renderings are assets that travel across digital networks, leaning into the myth of frictionless transference, and they create buzz before construction has even started.7For more scholarship about these projects, see Rahel Aima “The Khaleeji Ideology”, eflux Architecture (2022), https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/horizons/498319/the-khaleeji-ideology/; Orit Halpern, Jesse LeCavalier, Nerea Calvillo, and Wolfgang Pietsch, “Test-Bed Urbanism”, Public Culture 25, no. 2 (March 2013): 272–306, https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-2020602; and Gökçe Günel, Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019). Since they are capsules of global city aesthetics, renderings are how projects can express a commitment to futurity. This means that the process of creating these renderings — a preparatory step in the process of building the global city — has to be steeped in worldbuilding methods. Therefore speculative assets and value lead to a corporate practice of speculative design, worldbuilding, and fiction, methods to legitimize projects that want to align with neoliberal aspirations for what comes next. This is where corporate Afrofuturism emerges, as an aesthetic framework to legitimize these cities’ claims to the future. As Matt Ward says, “[in] late capitalism ideas of ‘speculation’ have been commandeered by the logic of the market.”8Matt Ward, “A New Type of Design Education: Models, Materials and Futures,” in Design Studio Vol. 5: Experimental Realism, ed. Gem Barton (London: RIBA Publishing, 2022). Speculation becomes an attractive marketing tool. The process of worldbuilding-as-design-language has now become a facet of African urban development as well. In a 2019 YouTube video titled “When will Eko Atlantic be Ready?”, the project’s Nigerian spokesperson argued that the city is “ready” while standing in an empty concrete lot dusted with sand. According to him, Dubai and New York City are “not complete” in the same way as Eko Atlantic, because cities “are never complete, they are only evolving.” In the case of these new forms of African planned cities, they do not even need evolution or history. They only need to reach for a future restrained by the whims of global markets and follow the light of their own virtual reflections.
Kola Heyward-Rotimi is a PhD student in Stanford University’s Modern Thought and Literature program, where he is researching how communities engage with virtual environments and speculative frameworks.
|↑1||Saskia Sassen, “The Global City: Introducing a Concept,” The Brown Journal of World Affairs 11, no. 2 (2005): 27.|
|↑2||Kris Olds, “Globalizing Shanghai: The ‘Global Intelligence Corps’ and the Building of Pudong,” Cities 14, no. 2 (1997): 109.|
|↑3||James Ferguson, Global Shadows: Africa in the Neoliberal World Order (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 155–175.|
|↑4||Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge, Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life (Boston: MIT Press, 2011).|
|↑5||Nicole Starosielski, Media Hot and Cold (Durham: Duke University Press, 2022), 191–218.|
|↑6||Lee Harris and Tim Sahay, “Don’t Say ‘Scramble for Africa’,” Phenomenal World, January 6, 2023, https://www.phenomenalworld.org/analysis/dont-say-scramble-for-africa/|
|↑7||For more scholarship about these projects, see Rahel Aima “The Khaleeji Ideology”, eflux Architecture (2022), https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/horizons/498319/the-khaleeji-ideology/; Orit Halpern, Jesse LeCavalier, Nerea Calvillo, and Wolfgang Pietsch, “Test-Bed Urbanism”, Public Culture 25, no. 2 (March 2013): 272–306, https://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-2020602; and Gökçe Günel, Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).|
|↑8||Matt Ward, “A New Type of Design Education: Models, Materials and Futures,” in Design Studio Vol. 5: Experimental Realism, ed. Gem Barton (London: RIBA Publishing, 2022).|