Written by Lauren Rosenberg (see below for her bio)
Securing urban economic growth in new economy is less dependent on access to physical resources and increasingly dependent on attracting talent who can create economically useful new ideas. Urban theorist Richard Florida calls this type of talent the ‘Creative Class’ – knowledge workers who derive a living from innovation at various scales and in various disciplinary fields.
One of the key attributes to understanding why Creative Class workers choose to live and work in certain cities over others is the notion of quality of place – a fuzzy concept which tries to describe the built up character traits of a particular place. Quality of place is difficult to measure (because it is intangible and experiential in nature) but undeniably exists – it is, for example, what makes ‘New York’, ‘New York’.
That said, Richard Florida and other Creative Class thinkers do essentially have a standard bearer of what constitutes quality of place. The prescriptive measures used to describe quality of place attributes are always constituted by the functions and aesthetics of the post-industrial Western city. North American and European cities urbanised as a result of economic development through industrialisation, resulting in concomitant investments into urban infrastructure to support industries and human settlements. In comparison, African cities exist today because of vastly different mechanisms of urbanisation. The continent’s colonial past has resulted in city settlements where investment in infrastructure occurred only to support an imperial economy of extraction and export [For a brief but comprehensive overview of these forces and their outcomes read Adu Boahen’s ‘African Perspectives on Colonialism’]. The point here is not to draw modernist comparisons of development – the idea that Africa is lagging behind Western cities – but rather to emphasise that notions of quality of place are incomplete given the rise of technological innovation as a result of Creative Class enterprise in urban Africa.
Academic literature has been slow in tracking ICT use as it relates to economic development in urban contexts in Africa, focusing rather on rural ICT for Development (ICT4D) projects, despite the fact that the majority of investments made into ICT are located in urban areas. The same lack of research focus applies to the case of Nairobi. While online news media and blogs have eagerly documented the growth of the technology scene, academic literature seems to have barely taken notice beyond recognising the mobile money revolution started by MPESA some five years ago.
Unlike the high turnover of United Nations and other aid workers that the city has previously been known for, American and European venture capitalists and entrepreneurs are moving to Nairobi to start long-term businesses. The net result has been a clustering of Creative Class workers in Nairobi, both Kenyans (many of whom have studied abroad for several years) and foreigners who believe they can ‘make it’ in the city. The research sought to improve the understanding of why this group of Creative Class workers chose to live in Nairobi and to describe Nairobi’s quality of place, with a particular focus on urban infrastructure disruption.
In Nairobi infrastructure disruption necessarily must be considered as an authentic quality of place attribute. Electricity and water supply, mobility, access to affordable housing and information communication technologies, were considered as examples of urban infrastructure susceptible to disruption. While all who were interviewed identified with disruption in the first three categories of infrastructure (electricity, water and mobility), it was not clear whether affordable housing was an issue as housing options seemed to be based on their relative proximity to place of work, level of security and quality of water supply. ICTs were occasionally disrupted, but never to the point of diminishing quality of place because of relatively cheap access via mobile networks.
In brief, the study showed that Nairobi’s quality of place for the Creative Class sampled in this study is thus simultaneously attractive and frustrating. Nairobi is simultaneously a city of opportunity (supplemented by highly-supportive professional networks) and a city where infrastructure interruption restricts the very same business opportunities offered by the city’s growing new economy.
A discussion around infrastructure disruption and ICT Creative Class workers in Nairobi would be incomplete if it did not mention Konza Technology City, the prestigious ICT park megaproject planned by the Kenya ICT Board. The responses of those sampled in the study should be of interest to policy makers and planners. Further to that, researchers interested in investigating the rise of the Creative Class in Africa should seek to explore quality of place in new ways, drawing on a wide range of materials and methodologies. Those interested in the ICT sector are particularly encouraged to engage with actors in this industry. From the researcher’s observations, the emerging continental community is highly supportive of inquiry into their area of work and appear to be equally curious about research around issues of technological and urban change.
Lauren Rosenberg is a PhD candidate at the Sustainability Institute (Stellenbosch University). Presently, her research focuses on coffee value chains in Burundi. This research report on the Creative Class in Nairobi is the result of her MPhil degree. Lauren is based in Cape Town but will relocate to rural Burundi in 2014 to work with coffee farmers associated with the Long Miles Coffee Project as part of her Phd fieldwork. Prior to researching interesting things in East Africa, she worked in her home town at the Durban International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @laurenlrosen