City Must Be Flexible Enough to Let Ideas Turn into Action

Article excerpt

The big question in running a city is knowing what people really want. The government needs to listen, but not necessarily by interpreting loud voices literally.

They may be screaming for toilets in informal settlements, but is there a better way to meet the need for sanitation than planting a field of toilets in the hope that dignity will grow? Do we really know why people in Makhaza clamoured for them? If anyone does, they are not telling.

We've used the computer industry before as an analogy for city planning, but here are some new thoughts on anticipating what people want.

Think of the city as the computer hardware on which everything runs. The rules, regulations, by-laws and standards are the operating system that determine how to use the city. And the things we do - setting up organisations, activities, events and so on - are the software that run on the operating system.

When Apple launched iPad, analysts wondered how it would fit in with the IT universe. Was it an oversized iPod? A competitor to the Kindle? A small computer? But its success - by the end of this year, there could be 40 million iPads out there, and 100 000 applications to run on them - lay in changing the landscape entirely.

The iPad accelerated the "app" phenomenon that began with cellphones, and spawned an industry of app-building tools that now allow just about anyone to create their own.

The beauty is that Apple does not have to know in advance what people want to do with their iPads, they just provide a platform that unleashes peoples' imaginations for creating new ways of doing things. The more people insert their own ideas into the Apple ecosystem, the more useful and successful the products will be.

That's the sort of thinking that Cape Town needs to adopt.

Residents already create their own real-world apps: things we are able to do on the operating system and hardware provided by government.

Some things are done by residents because the city has failed to provide; others should not be the city's responsibility at all. Either way, they need to be done.

Part of encouraging entrepreneurs is making these things possible, and the more we do this the more jobs will be created. …