Trade with emerging African countries requires expertise, joint planning and action.
KEETMANSHOOP, NAMIBIA. The sand is stirred by a wind blowing from the Kalahari. Despite being 150 kilometres away, the desert affects everything here. The conditions are hot and dry.
VTT Senior Scientist Veikko Ikonen sits and swings his legs from the foundations of an unbuilt house. His work involves pondering the full range of human issues; right now, this means Finnish exports to Africa.
– We used to think that people here would jump at the chance to buy Finland's wonderful technology, Ikonen says.
– That approach didn't work then, and it certainly doesn't now. Trade with African countries is changing. We now need to innovate and – alongside African partners – build packages that meet the needs of local people and systems.
The application of new technologies requires social innovations, including the creation of new business ecosystems. Finnish actors must be able to engage in development work with each other and alongside local partners.
Such expertise is quite thin in Finland. A joint project in Namibia by VTT and the University of Tampere represents one way in which the government is trying to support the closure of the expertise gap.
VTT has particular expertise in combining social and technological innovations, and in the required approaches.
The two-year Smart Community project, which began in June 2016, is part of the BEAM programme involving Tekes and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. The programme is using innovations to help solve the world's development challenges and convert solutions into successful, sustainable businesses.
Community-based urban planning
The research project is supporting a Finnish consortium which, together with Namibian business partners, is seeking to sell a new kind of urban planning concept on the southern African markets.
The consortium's Finnish members are A-Insinöörit, Aihio Arkkitehdit, the building technology company Earth House Systems, and the care-sector firm Sopimusvuori. The slogan of the quartet is more than just houses.
The idea is to break with traditional thinking, based on which a municipality plans new residential areas without consulting the residents. With the exception of gated communities for the elite, new suburbs tend to consist of bleak rows of housing without services, recreational facilities, or suitable communal areas.
The consortium's model envisages area and house design together with potential residents' groups, officials and other service providers. The idea is to build a community-based and therefore safe and sustainable development.
– Research on the basic requirements of the concept will help Finnish companies in general, as well as those involved with the consortium, Ikonen says.
– We are developing a completely new approach to urban planning for southern Africa, together with the University of Tampere, local universities and the consortium. At the same time, we are exploring how, in general, to build partnership-based ecosystems in this context, he continues.
The research team will explore what to take into account when Finnish firms want to sell a new residential area – with the best potential for blossoming into a community – to a Namibian municipality and residents buying municipal houses.
For example, the team is seeking information on how urban planning is affected by Namibian laws, regulations that bind municipalities and the policy-making culture: which actors should be brought on board, and when and how, in order to create a fertile breeding ground for local innovations.
– VTT researchers specialise in reflecting on just these kinds of issues: on what basis can innovations be developed and what changes are needed in the business environment to enable their introduction, says Mika Nieminen, the Project Manager.
The nature of partnerships between Finnish and local companies is also important.
Namibia demands that all foreign companies entering the market enter an official partnership with a local company. Namibian companies belong to the consortium formed for this project.
Finnish companies would stand little chance alone in the southern African housing construction markets, since they are controlled by local firms deeply familiar with the Namibian scene, and big players like China.
That is why Finland needs more expertise on how to provide comprehensive solutions – something which no one else is doing yet – together with locals.
The need for research is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that it is not clear whether the city of Keetmanshoop will permit the consortium to build an entire pilot residential area in the place where Ikonen is now sitting.
Rural housing has traditionally been communal, but urban residence and planning have not. Namibia has a huge housing shortage: middle class people, who have long dreamed of a house of their own, may prefer to pay for the building only.
– The added value of community may not be understood just like that, says Disney Andreas of the University of Namibia, who is assisting the project.
– So, we are trying to begin a local innovation process of the kind that will bring out the need for community in the people who live here. It would also reveal the most relevant and important local means of building a sense of community, states Ikonen.
If the idea fails to catch on locally and interests of consortium and city do not match after the consortium has built two model houses this spring, the City of Keetmanshoop will possibly hand the area over to another builder.
In that case, the same fate may await that befell the foundations on which Ikonen is sitting – something was supposed to be built, but the work was barely begun and no one was housed.
Images: Tiiu Kaitalo
Strong expertise in co-creation
VTT has years of experience in participatory urban planning in Finland. This people-driven design team is now adapting co-creation methods, which proved successful in Finland, to the Namibian Smart Community project.
What does people-driven planning mean, Senior Scientist Virpi Oksman?
The starting points of planning are the values, needs and natural practices of people; people are given a say in the planning of the living environments in which they spend their time.
It has long been customary to consult the customer or target group in planning of all kinds. In co-creation, the starting point is equal participation by the actors.
Isn't co-creation familiar in Namibia?
Yes, individual actors may use co-creation methods, but they are not a focus in municipal planning. For example, the municipalities may be know that such participatory methods exist, but using such methods or, say, online questionnaires, virtual modelling or workshops to involve residents is not common.
What kinds of co-creation methods have been used in the project?
In Keetmanshoop, we have arranged workshops, for which we have selected participants from key urban planning stakeholders, particularly local residents. In the workshops, we have discussed issues such as the services, safety, house designs and building materials of the planned residential area. We may also use new technologies, such as A-Insinööri's virtual models of residential areas, and virtual modelling.
What kinds of results have been achieved?
Very encouraging. On the one hand, they have encouraged possible resident groups to express their hopes and concerns. On the other, this has opened the eyes of municipal actors to how crucial co-creation, community and communication are in urban planning.