A conversation about ‘Akon City’ and speculative urbanization

Christopher Marcinkoski of the Weitzman School of Design unpacks—through the lens of speculative urbanization—the self-described ‘futuristic’ city to be built in Senegal, led by musician and philanthropist Akon.

A virtual cityscape of the future.
A virtual cityscape of the future (Not an actual rendering of Akon City)

In early September, Akon, the popular R&B singer and, more recently, philanthropist in Africa, unveiled renderings for Akon City that depicted what project planners dub a “futuristic” city.

The project’s details envision 2,000 acres along the Atlantic coast in a region 62 miles south of Dakar in Senegal. Featured: condominiums, office parks, a university, an ocean resort, and a hospital. City planners aim to hire workers from West Africa and source materials locally, though architecture is being led by Bakri & Associates Development Consultants in Dubai. The project is reported to have established $4 billion toward its target of $6 billion of funding, though backers have largely not been disclosed. The city will operate on Akon’s proprietary cryptocurrency, Akoin.

The project is supported by Senegalese President Macky Sall.

In a Q&A with Penn Today, Christopher Marcinkoski, associate professor of landscape architecture and urban design in the Weitzman School of Design, discusses whether Akon City will actually see the light of day, its place in the phenomenon of “speculative urbanization,” and what an actual smart city should look like. 

How have you perceived the dialogue around this project? You called it a ‘cryptocurrency city.’

Part of the marketing pitch for Akon City is the funding mechanism for it. The construction funding and transactions that would take place in it once built are said to utilize Akoin [Akon’s proprietary cryptocurrency]. So, that’s been a distinguishing feature picked up by the media. 

The other thing I’ve seen highlighted most often [in news reports] is the particular architectural form. That is, the biomorphic or parametric aesthetic of the project’s promotional images.

So, is this bogus or actually feasible? Will there be a follow-through with this?

My relationship with this project is simply as an observer. My ongoing scholarship related to the phenomenon of speculative urbanization essentially looks at the promotion of large-scale real estate development initiatives by public and private actors that are physically ambitious in their scale and highly speculative from an economic or market point of view. Specifically, I have been looking at a series of similar initiatives throughout the African continent over the past few years. So while this one seems rather delirious when you first see it, there are actually many other recent examples that are quite comparable. 

I suspect this project, like the others I have looked at, is very much a real estate play. Something will ultimately be built, but the nature of what is constructed will likely bear little relationship to what is being shown in the press. There’s a disconnect between the propaganda for the project and the reality of execution.

What’s a notable example of speculative urbanization?

An interesting example Akon City reminds me of is a project in Kinshasa that has been promoted for over a decade. My French is horrible, but it is called La Cité du Fleuve and it’s a very similar initiative. Here, a series of press releases and marketing adverts that companioned the project’s unveiling show a glossy vision of a kind of idealized global cityscape. The press materials highlight how the project would create jobs and provide accommodations for the [Democratic Republic of the] Congo’s growing middle class. They note how the project would provide amenities and facilities not currently present in Kinshasa, essentially highlighting all the good things that the project would achieve socially and economically. But what has actually been built is very different from that. What exists is just a handful of low-rise masonry housing blocks that look nothing like what was portrayed in the promotional materials. 

I think that project, probably like Akon City, is doing a couple things. The first is a kind of stagecraft. These kinds of urbanization initiatives help politicians and business leaders say they’re doing something positive for their country—they are a kind of propaganda. Secondly, as I said earlier, it’s also a bit of a real estate ploy. In the case of Akon City, the land was given away to the project’s promoters by the president. There was no cost of acquisition. Two thousand acres were simply handed over. When a glossy plan or vision is then put forth, the value of that piece of land, and lands adjacent to it, are suddenly escalated. Value is created without anything actually being built. Money will be made, and political capital gained from the project, but at the end of the day, it is purely a speculation with little intention of actually being built.

Akon speaking at a podium.
Akon speaking at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in 2016. 

Would people really buy into it in those surrounding areas?

I think there are different ways you can profit from a project like this. If you invest in it and the project is able to be turned over or sold, that’s one way. Then, I believe there are also people who have studied the initiative and believe it will actually come to fruition. So, adjacent property owners may try to sell their land. Oftentimes, those adjacent lands are owned by the state or by other well-connected actors. What I have become interested in in regard to these projects is the way they are promoted as being of benefit for the general population, but how little they actually provide or accomplish for that population, as opposed to what they produce for those in power.

That seems true. It’s framed as being philanthropic but what is being built looks more like a tourist destination. And in statements, Akon is careful to not have it compared to cities in the Middle East; but it implies the opposite, if you bring that into the conversation, no?

[Laughs] I think that’s right. If you look at the proposed first phase, they talk about luxury condos, a resort, an office park, all these elements that are much more about an external audience rather than local populations. When I saw the project for the first time, it looked like a mix of speculative endeavors that have been frequently promoted over the past two decades in places like the Middle East and China. And I think it’s interesting that Akon went out of his way to mention this is emphatically not those kinds of initiatives. In reality, few, if any, of the involved parties are from Senegal or West Africa or the continent at all. Rather, they are all being brought in from outside.

Is it surprising he’s secured most of the funding that he needs?

That’s the part I take with a grain of salt. The fact they’re unwilling to disclose who the principal investors are is a red flag for me. And then there is the association with his nascent cryptocurrency. I have not actually seen any meaningful description of the financing. One source mentions a third of the funding was in hand; another [claimed] two-thirds. Then, what portion of the project they are actually funding is to me yet another question. 

On paper, would this work? It sounds like a mix of ingredients you throw into a cauldron to make a city.

It depends on what you mean by, ‘Would it work.’ If you’re trying to build a tourist resort about experience and iconography, it might. The beaches of Senegal are supposed to be quite beautiful. From a tourist view, that might be attractive, but it’s not a city. And I guess that’s the other thing I’d say: A lot of these projects bill themselves as a kind of idealized city—a smart city, a green city, an ecological city—but in reality, they’re not cities at all. They’re not large enough or heterogenous enough to merit that description. Rather, they tend to be enclaves. Phase One is 55-hectares or so. To me, something at that scale is more a luxury resort than the kind of urbanistic proposition that would benefit large swaths of the population of the country or region. 

And to extend that further, I think when you look closely at the renderings, what’s been put out as the press images don’t indicate a fully formed project. They indicate the imagery of a city but not necessarily the technical resolution of what this place actually will become.

It does ignore nuts and bolts that make a city work, like transit.

Yes. Usually a project of this scale would have a global engineering or design or construction practice involved with it. The architect named from Dubai is not someone who has a significant reputation for this scale of work. The engineering company they identified is based here in the U.S. and, again, is not an entity that has a long track record of delivering the scale of project they’re talking about. There’s an incongruity between the rhetoric of the project, the visualized ambition of the project, and those actually involved in it. 

For the sake of thought experiment, what does a city of the future actually look like?

I think this is the hard thing. There’s no question that cities across the African continent are in need of urgent upgrades to housing and infrastructure. If you look at population projections, something like one-quarter of the Earth’s population will reside on the continent by the middle of this century. There’s an unquestionable demand to upgrade settlement, but how does this settlement get produced? 

Unfortunately, what I think you’re seeing in response are numerous proposals for new towns and settlements that are located outside existing urban structures. These are projects proposed for exurban or greenfield sites as opposed to proposals to transform existing fabric. And the reason for this is simply that it is easier, and cheaper, to build new than retrofit and modify. Unfortunately, such an approach is far more environmentally destructive and less likely to serve populations in need.  

The production of new settlement demands some basic things—equitable and accessible housing; functioning utilities like water, electricity, and sewer; having access to quality health care and education. But while we can say every healthy and successful city has these things, we need to be very careful to not define a universal or standardized approach to urbanization. There shouldn’t be a singular idea of the future city, but myriad differentiated formats of future urban settlement. It is the pursuit of a standard or ideal model of urban form that is underpinning these speculative proposals. There is a disconnect between the marketability of spectacular urban form and what everyday future settlements need to be. 

Any place around the globe checking all those boxes?

Addis Ababa [the capital of Ethiopia] is making an interesting go of it. The city is growing quite rapidly and there’s a huge amount of housing being produced by the state. This settlement seems to be accessible, it seems to be providing the basic level of human services one would expect. And it doesn’t look like a global city, or the ideal we have been told is what a 21st-century city should look like. But it is providing and accommodating for those populations actually in need. 

For me, this is the present conflict in thinking about and planning for future settlement. There is the glossy image of the city that politicians and business leaders are told to aspire to by entities like The Economist or others that trade in the business of city rankings. And then there is the reality of making cities, which is far less glossy. As you pointed out, this project looks like it could be from anywhere. The disconnect between the realities of a place versus the image that is portrayed is one that is increasingly problematic.

Anything to add?

This project very much calls attention to the urgent need for housing and settlement and infrastructure on the African continent. However, it also brings up the question of what is the appropriate response to that need? I don’t know what Senegal has committed to this particular project, but I would worry what has been committed to a speculative initiative like this is unfortunately taking away from more actionable initiatives elsewhere within the country.