Alumni spotlight: Dianne Wakonyo on ‘Creative Cities are Safer Cities’

More than half of the world population lives in cities. With booming urbanization, we have not only achieved unprecedented progress, but also high levels of crime, violence and conflict. To tackle such complex challenges, the world needs innovative solutions and bold ideas which can complement urban management and governance efforts. Design and creativity are powerful tools that can play a role in our shared desire to improve safety in cities worldwide.

This is why the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa (CFIA), the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS) and What Design Can Do (WDCD) partnered for the ‘Creative Cities are Safer Cities’ initiative, in an attempt to determine where and how creativity can contribute to safer cities around the world. 

Dianne's life after IHS

To find out more about what the work entails, we asked IHS alumna Dianne Wakonyo, who is now a research fellow at the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa. In a few days, she will be present at the World Urban Forum for a collaborative networking event stemming from the ‘Creative Cities are Safer Cities’ initiative.

Dianne is now living in Kenya and is fully adjusted to life back home after her time at IHS. She does recall the transition period after her study and the challenge to reassess her professional path after her graduation in 2018.

“It was time to reorient myself and see how I can apply my degree to my career. I went to UN Habitat after my graduation and I did an internship. It was a really good experience! All the exposure one gets at IHS - especially in the ’Strategic Urban Planning and Policy’ specialisation which I did - is very useful. It prepared me for a lot of different tasks, a lot of conversations and opportunities. This was invaluable for me.”

On creativity and urban safety

During this internship and through the IHS network, Dianne found out about an opportunity to work with the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa and she took it. The ‘Creative Cities are Safer Cities’ initiative is something Dianne is very keen on, especially since her thesis was about spatial justice and marginalised communities who don’t have equal access to resources.

“In this initiative we’re trying to look into how communities use their limited resources, particularly in areas where there is scarcity and maybe even the municipal government doesn’t provide access to a lot of resources to ensure safety in the neighbourhoods. We want to see how these communities are coming up with solutions that positively impact their safety outcomes.

For example, in one of the cases I researched in South Africa, the legacy of the apartheid has shaped how the modern-day neighbourhood looks like because that community has been historically isolated and marginalized, so it doesn’t have the same level of resources. Safe public space is not something they have an abundance of, so sometimes the community has to come up with ideas to solve the problem themselves. Having safe public spaces is one of those things we often take for granted. You don’t realise how important it is until you don’t have it anymore.”

snapshot from Dianne's field research in Nairobi

snapshot from Dianne's field research in Durban

snapshot from Dianne's field research in Durban

Putting safety in cities on the table

The networking event at WUF is geared towards supporting the overall goal of the project and enriching the inputs and perspectives of those involved. Following a radical collaboration lab on Safer Cities, in December, this event aims to further explore the idea of harnessing the power of creativity and frugal innovation to solve urban problems and particularly the problem of urban safety.

As Dianne says, “to break it down, we’re looking at creativity. Creativity is innate in human beings, it’s formalized in trained designers and people who do it for a living, but this is a universal human thing. The idea is to identify what is happening in the community and to apply the lens of frugal innovation to safety. We’re looking at cases where resources are limited, and we analyse how appropriate and sustainable the solutions that emerged are for those resource-constrained environments. That’s where the frugality element comes in. We try to see what the community is doing without the formal skills and then we investigate what we can contribute with.”

The research is only the first stage. After identifying what the community is doing, the next level is assessing possibilities of scaling up to either maximize what is already happening or to recreate it in a different context.

“It’s important to have different voices and experiences in the room” - according to Dianne. “These two cases which will be presented at WUF are very much set in their context, but the problems that they’re facing are global and the ways in which they’re improving are globally applicable. Therefore, the goal of this session is to learn from everyone, see what their experience has been and feed that back into the project.”

Fighting for spatial justice

When asked what she wants to do further, Dianne reflects back on her time in Rotterdam as a trigger: “it may sound cheesy, but while I was at IHS, the idea of spatial justice resonated with me and really had a very big impact in terms of how I see the world and how I see the city now. I would like to do more work in spatial justice and empower communities to advocate for themselves and to gain more power. Marginalised communities often feel like they don’t have any power, and yet they do, so I want to help them realise that they have power, even if they may be poor materially. They may be poor in the conventional way of looking at wealth, but they have a world of other different things. They have talent, they have heart, they have networks and community. They can tap into that and make things a bit better for themselves. Besides this, I also want to advocate for these groups at a higher level, so that such communities have more spatial equity and a more just chance.”

Check out our networking event at the World Urban Forum!

Creative Cities are Safer Cities

IHS at WUF - Creative cities are safer cities

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About the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa

The Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa (CFIA) is an academic research centre focused on frugal innovation. CFIA investigates how frugal innovations and technologies contributes to poverty reduction, inclusive development and sustainable outcomes. With their research and activities, they focus on addressing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s).

About the Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies

The IHS or Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies is an education, advisory and research institute of Erasmus University Rotterdam. The development of human and institutional capacities, reducing of poverty and the improvement of urban life has been at the core of its mission for over 60 years. Their approach is a cross-fertilization of three activities: education, advisory services and applied research.

About What Design Can Do

What Design Can Do is an international platform on the impact of design. WDCD aims to empower creative communities around the globe to improve and transform society, while researching and developing international design impact programmes with events, challenges and communications.