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In conversation with A4AI’s Smart Inclusive Cities Fellow Olufemi Johnson

Olufemi Johnson is an experienced strategy and management consultant particularly keen about national and regional scale development programmes around the world, current working with A4AI as the Smart Inclusive Cities Fellow.

What do you feel your background will bring to A4AI? 

Developing countries have gone through many different phases that I’ve been able to see firsthand, which has led me on a path of wanting to work in international development. This is also where I started my passion for development work, seeing the potential of otherwise strong countries being under utilised made me passionate about unlocking that potential. I want to be part of the progress to move these countries forward. Moving on from that, I think my university degrees – studying social and political science in my undergrad and politics, philosophy, and economics, specialising in international development from my masters – really influenced me. It gave me the academic background and the information I needed to take me into the professional sphere. After my degrees, I moved back to Nigeria and worked as a management and strategic consultant– mainly working with commercial and private sector companies. I then went on to do my MBA course, which I am just finishing now. Prior to starting the course, I worked with the Nigerian Economic Summit Group, which is a public policy advocacy group for economic development across 12 sectors in the Nigerian economy – I was predominantly working in financial inclusion, renewable energy, and transparent governance. I’ve had a very Sub-Saharan African focus in my career, so I’m excited to get a more international perspective from other regions, especially Latin America and Southeast Asia. And I hope I can contribute to A4AI with some of the knowledge I’ve gained so far. 

What do you hope to achieve in your time with A4AI? 

I think the first thing I would hope to achieve is just creating connections with people across different fields in the development sector. Secondly, it’s giving myself the opportunity to challenge myself with the opportunity actually to develop a piece that I feel would be relevant not just to A4AI but to the broader discourse on smart cities in developing countries on how they can contribute to developments – especially for economic empowerment and social mobility by giving attention to the marginalised– so just seeing how I can be part of the change. 

What do you feel is the connection between meaningful connectivity/affordability and smart cities?

Smart cities, first of all, are built on connectivity, so that’s something that just needs to be there for a smart city to function. However, it’s not just about connectivity for the few but connectivity for the masses. It has to be, as A4AI says, meaningful. And so, joining these two together, you can’t have a smart city if you don’t have people that are connected. Being able to draw that connection and say that if you want to actually help the development of a nation, you need to have people connected so they can actually utilise the infrastructure that has been put in place. It would help if you also got people to understand how they can benefit from being connected, it also comes with educating people on how they can use this to their advantage. You must create that understanding across the board to fully see the effect a smart city can have.

How will you use your research to get people to understand the importance of sustainable smart cities? 

The research is going to be a comparative look at some of the development of smart cities across three regions – Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia – looking at what can be learned from each of these regions and if there are any pitfalls to avoid. I’ll be looking specifically at aspects that affect economic empowerment, such as access to finance, to credit and looking at how smart cities are facilitating that and then how they are pushing that forward. I believe that once people have access to certain things, it will help increase their chances of prosperity, so rather than just providing the infrastructure, you need to actually provide meaningful access to these people as well for them to be able to utilise it properly.

So with that, I’ll look at public sector institutions that are gearing the development of smart cities, MSMEs on the private side who are either benefiting or contributing to smart cities and marginalised people at the bottom of the pyramid to see how the effects of digitalisation and smart cities have had on their lives. The overarching outcome of the report would be to understand where there are gaps between government policies and the needs of private companies and also individuals who are supposed to be benefiting from these developments. 

Essentially, this project aims to take the narrative away from large mega projects and think about how these projects can be sustainable, meaningful, and have a long-term impact rather than just something that looks nice. 

What do you hope A4AI will do with this research once completed? 

I would really like A4AI to be able to reach out to policymakers and create a narrative around not needing to rush the development of smart cities. If A4AI moves the work forward, that pushes for sustainable smart cities.