Foresight Africa viewpoint: Digital jobs and smart urbanization

Editor's note:

Below is a viewpoint from Chapter 3 of the Foresight Africa 2017 report, which explores six overarching themes that provide opportunities for Africa to overcome its obstacles and spur inclusive growth. Read the full chapter on boosting transformational technology here.

foresightafrica_brandingbadgeGiven Africa’s demographic boom and Africa’s drive to play a more competitive role in the global economy, the question is not if digital jobs will play a role in Africa’s future job market, but whether or not these jobs can be successfully used to catalyze growth, support innovation, and foster sustainable and resilient communities. The worldwide model of digital jobs has been configured largely to utilize low-cost, but tech-savvy, labor in developing countries to augment the staff of international ICT businesses rather than to supply a steady stream of jobs for its burgeoning population. While this trend can help foster the emergence and growth of a middle class in these countries, it also creates an inherent instability as other developing nations vie for (and can ultimately take away) those commodity-based digital jobs.

Figure 1: Probabilistic population projections based on the world population prospects

Global_20170124_Population Prospects

With all indications that urbanization trends will continue for decades in Africa, national governments should strive to create policy frameworks that help ensure endogenous and sustainable growth of digital jobs that are not solely outsourced to Africa from without. Further, policymakers should include digital jobs in an economic system that promotes productivity across the analog-digital spectrum. For example, technological innovations in agriculture can increase farming outputs, which affects jobs along the entire supply chain. Similarly, technological innovations in medicine can help ensure a healthy and therefore productive population. The overall effect is one where the preponderant application of technology at both the local and national economic levels significantly impacts the number of digital jobs generated from within the African economy.

One way to support digital jobs, especially in the wake of Habitat III resolutions in Quito, is through urban centers: In Africa, a higher proportion of the youth population will reside in urban centers by the year 2040. When these centers serve as hubs for technology and innovation, all sectors of the economy, as well as all segments of the community, can benefit in a more meaningful way. Urban centers in Africa should strive to attract international technology businesses, which will contribute to an overall system that promotes science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, entrepreneurship, inclusion and accessibility, and ultimately more jobs for all sectors of the economy.

Given its position as the youngest and fastest-growing population in the world, Africa no doubt needs more digital jobs to support its population. But that those digital jobs should shore up an African-based technology economy is much more significant. Africa is in a unique position, and significantly so, to prepare its youth for more STEM-based jobs (including digital jobs) while building both urban and rural communities that promote productivity and innovation.

This will not happen by wishful thinking. It will happen through the deliberate and systematic strategies of progressive African governments with a long-term vision and the wherewithal to implement appropriate policies in technology and to provide and facilitate the necessary funding to create resilient, sustainable, innovative, and productive (let’s just call it “smart”) urban communities as well as efficient agricultural systems. As the concept of smart cities emerges in the world, Africa has a unique opportunity to take a new look at what the word “smart city” really means in the context of African urbanization in the digital age. Africa needs successful urbanization models that incorporate technology into the community fabric in a way that provides greater access to and benefits from technology across the socio-economic spectrum. Kenya is looking to do just that with its new smart city.

Figure 2: Percentage of country’s population under 20 years old in 2015

Global_20170124_Country Population

Konza Technology City and other smart cities in the developing world

Konza Technology City (KTC) of Kenya[1] is a new smart city being planned, designed, and built from the ground up. It is striving to be a model for combining urban master planning, technology, policy, and the rule of law to create a place that takes the word “smart” in its truest sense. While KTC is currently going through the steps of building a city—and all of the concrete, steel, and human resources that this entails—it is also asking, and endeavoring to answer, hard questions about how to make smart choices about the nexus of technology, job creation, and urban planning.

Smart cities like Konza, and those in other parts of the world such as the Smart Cities Mission in India, must strive to play a major role in ensuring that technology and digital jobs help to bring people out of poverty and increase their physical and digital mobility. This is especially important in Africa where urbanization trends have not been contributing to the goal of transitioning people out of poverty to the degree that can and should be expected. When cities like KTC serve as innovation hubs— where people live, work, and play—the community extends well beyond the physical borders of the city. When smart cities create digital jobs by way of innovative technology, especially in life sciences and agriculture, it creates jobs across all sectors of the economy, which ensures that digital jobs are part of the solution—not the solution itself.

[1] Konza Technology City (KTC) of Kenya, available at: