CSCLeaders Part Two in Nairobi is just two short weeks behind us, but already the picture – too close up to see clearly while we were in the midst of it all - begins to settle, begins to find a shape, begins to reveal its lessons.
For me, Nairobi is a city of extremely sharp contrasts. There is the juxtaposition of the old guard and the new guard; most starkly represented in our conversations with Jo Aketch, the former Mayor of Nairobi, and then within 24 hours, Deputy Governor Jonathan Mueke. It was even more deeply felt when we met activist Boniface Mwangi, and experienced the energy of the iHubs and the iLabs, seething with young people who are carving out the new techie Kenya. If the old guard is about big man-power, the new guard is anti-corruption, using tech to move boundaries and help change the mindset of ordinary Kenyans to shed the yoke of corruption.
Then there is the contrast between green and ungreen. Nairobi boasts beautiful trees - even a genuine forest - and a game park within the city limits. Yes, that’s lions, roaming just a few kilometres away from downtown Nairobi. But it also boasts fearsome and unruly traffic and long hot waits in traffic jams at traffic circles that that don’t work. Green, ungreen.
And then it shares that strange distinction of many cities in developing countries - the slums and the wealthy high-rise homes are only a stonesthrow apart. Kibera shortly becomes Upper Hill. Dirt roads and ramshackle dwellings shortly become Safaricom and Equity Bank.
The bigger the contrasts, the more challenging it is to move beyond our boundaries and make connections. Can Jo Aketch hear Boniface Mwangi? Is there a useful partnership to be forged here? It’s almost impossible to conceive. But what is the alternative? More images of tear gassed children in playgrounds as we saw earlier this year? And can a city with run-away population and not enough infrastructure sustain its forests? What happens when there isn’t a Wangari Maathai? And can Kibera rub off on Equity and Safaricom and vice versa? At least in this case they have started to get it right. Banking for the people - the most banked developing country in the world. Big business finds a way to offer services to women selling tomatoes in the street market.
So Nairobi has found some “smart” in its quest to become a smart city. But there’s a long way to go. And for them – like for the rest of us – having the raw courage to step over boundaries and find the opportunities that emerge is a big part of it.
Do you live in a city of sharp contrasts? I’d love to hear your story in comments below.