SMART CITIES IN AFRICA: A POSSIBLE FUTURE OR A MYRIAD OF DREAMS?
The world is rapidly urbanizing, with it comes, an enormous demographic imbalance. Africa hasn’t been left behind, according to UN-Habitat, by 2009, about 400 million people in Africa lived in urban areas- that’s 40% of the continent’s population. It is estimated by 2050; the number is set to skyrocket to 60% about 1.2 billion individuals. But there’s a problem, how will Africa cope with its already bulging urban population? Simple, Smart Cities!
An idea that is gaining a lot of traction is newly developed satellite “smart cities.” The whole concept of a smart city is iconized by ambitious multi-million-dollar investments, hyper-livable tech cities bustling with private condos, supercars, and beautified boulevards. Perfect examples include Eko Atlantic in Lagos Nigeria, Konza City in Kenya, Vision City in Rwanda, and Hope City in Ghana.
Cities are the gateway to successfully meet the massive transition challenge achieving a kind of growth that is both inclusive and sustainable. A critical enabler is technology. Once visionary, today, technology is as essential as water, gas, and electricity. It doesn’t matter if you are looking to develop a green city or revitalize an old one, without technology, or an ICT master plan, your city will be irrelevant. However, when developing a smart city in a rapidly urbanizing continent such as Africa, one challenge stands out, smart cities? Or smart people?
What is a Smart City?
A smart city isn’t just a Municipal or Government’s concept or a dream of the future. It is a framework, predominantly composed of ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) to help promote, develop, and deploy sustainable development practices that will effectively address growing urbanization challenges.
Smart cities have a three-layer framework.
The first one is the technology base that includes smartphones and sensors paired to high-speed communication networks. The next layer encompasses critical applications. These applications are crucial since they help decode raw data into insights, alerts, and actions. This is where app developers and technology providers come in. The third and last layer is usage by the public, companies, and the city as a whole.
The success of these applications is dependent on their adoption, and if they manage to change behavior. They work to encourage inhabitants to use transport during off-peak hours, change routes, reduce strain on healthcare systems through preventive self-care, use less energy and water, and at different times of the day.
Smart Cities or Smart People?
Most, if not all, smart cities in Africa from Konza Tech Hub in Kenya to Waterfall City in South Africa are designed with the idea of upscaling existing urban centers. They are often developed on the peripheries of overpopulated cities. These mega-developments get their funding from a mix of public and private organizations, ultimately meaning a split in urban governance between the public and private sectors.
The stakeholders are critical when it comes to the development and realization of these future cities. However, the initiatives need to be centered on empowering the potential city dwellers and on small and medium-sized urban areas, that are likely to be the future of Africa’s urban growth, and not the conspicuous urban mega-cities. Governments and municipals need to focus on smart citizens and not intelligent cities.
Are Smart Cities Equitable?
All over the world, governments are trying to improve their cities by making them smarter. They are doing this by using data and digital technology to build more livable and efficient urban environments. Think about it, there’s already a lot of strain on infrastructure in Africa, from the rapid growth of urban population, and this is most visible looking at housing and transportation in Sub-Saharan African cities such as Nairobi, and Kampala. At this point, smart cities are better positioned to manage rapid change.
However, as digital systems begin to be more pervasive, there’s the fear that inequality will deepen unless, of course, local governments step in and recognize that tech-driven solutions are as important to the less fortunate as they are to the affluent.
It is also important to note that while the offline population can benefit from applications that run in the background, such as intelligent traffic lights, it is still not enough to access the full range of smart city programs— In comes the smartphones.
Smartphones serve as a primary interface in modern cities; with this device, the population has access to dozens of solutions, closing the digital divide.
The whole idea of a smart city is to view technology as part of a holistic, service-oriented approach to bringing a glow into towns. Currently, in most cities in Sub-Saharan Africa, when you first move into a new apartment, one of the first things you need to do is get connected to a wireless network, which involves purchasing a couple of devices. But think about how efficient it would be to move into a house where technology is simply built-in, just like water and electricity.
When you finally get to a critical mass, the data on the benefits are impressive; you’ll have about 50 percent reduction over a decade in consumption of energy, 80 percent improvement in water, 20 percent decrease in traffic congestion, 20 percent reduction in crime. The whole idea of a smart city sells itself.
Possible Snags: A Case Study of Rwanda
Rwanda is a pioneer in Africa when it comes to developing smart cities. It’s on-going efforts to modernize Kigali is part of a broader effort by the current government to simplify as well as increase the usage of public services.
Just like Kenya’s eCitizen platform, Rwanda rolled out the Irembo Platform, a successful initiative to create e-government services to help citizens carry out public processes such as requesting for birth certificates or paying and registration of driver’s licenses. Apart from the public process, the Rwandan government also included the private sector in its initiative to developing smart cities by partnering with Nokia and SRG. A partnership that involved network connectivity and sensor deployment in helping improve city waste management, public safety, health care, utility management, among other functions.
Like any pioneering project, the rollout was not perfect. For instance, when the city first implemented free Wi-Fi services on buses with cashless payment services, the systems encountered connectivity issues since the technology was unable to adapt to local conditions.
Furthermore, there’s been criticism from analysts about inclusivity around the Smart city projects. Critics pointed out that facilitators ignored socio-economic realities since most of the population earned below $240. The average cost of a home in Vision City is estimated at $160,000. Vision City planners insist affordable housing is part of the later phases of the project.
Africa’s Smart city vision is achievable; Rwanda’s progress can be used as a benchmark. Policymakers in Africa need to step-up and steer urbanization from its unsustainable state to healthier, greener cities that promote decent work and income, food and nutrition security, and a clean environment for citizens. To achieve this dream, planners and policymakers need to keep the big picture in mind when promoting their vision of smart cities. They need to emphasize on well-implemented infrastructure and the welfare of their citizens.
The UN-Habitat advises Africa city planners to work on minimizing transport needs, reduction of service delivery costs, and maximize the use of land. Ultimately, these moves will help reduce congestions, create dedicated recreational spaces, enhance service delivery improving their citizen’s quality of life.