On the African continent, cities are magnets for its young and burgeoning populations. The World Economic Forum predicts that the continent’s 1.1-billion citizens will double in the next 30 years and that about 80% of that population growth will happen in cities. It cites the example of Lagos, whose population is expected to grow by 77 people every hour in the next decade. Local and provincial governments in African countries often struggle to meet the needs of their inhabitants and population growth will put greater stress on these systems. That is why many cities are pushing a “smart city” agenda.
“While there is no universally accepted definition for terms such as smart city or digital city, these terms are used to describe the process through which city governments are using Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) to leverage the opportunities and respond to the challenges associated with concentrated urbanisation,” says Omeshnee Naidoo, director of Information Systems and Technology for the City of Cape Town. Currently, the continent has seven mega cities, which are cities with populations of more than 10-million, write researchers in a paper entitled “Urbanisation in Africa: challenges and opportunities for conservation”. These are Cairo, Kinshasa, Lagos, Accra, Johannesburg-Pretoria, Khartoum, and Nairobi, with Luanda and Dar es Salaam likely to join the list in the next 15 years.
Data and ICT are central to both smart cities and digital cities, and so the terms are often used synonymously. With the ubiquity of smartphones and digital currency systems, humans are creating more data than they have in the history of our species to date. Smart cities hinge on the idea of transforming this data into information and leveraging it to improve services, target infrastructure developments, and offer citizens a better quality of life.
“By collecting large amounts of data and then translating these data into insights, cities are able to boost the efficiency and responsiveness of their operations,” according to the World Bank’s 2016 report Digital Dividends. “Data help cities better match the supply of public services with real-time needs and uncover emerging problems before they turn into crises.” This is part of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s vision for South Africa. About 70% of South Africans will live in urban areas by 2030, he said. “Has the time not arrived to build a new smart city founded on the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? I would like to invite South Africans to begin imagining this prospect.”
South Africa has thrown its weight behind the Fourth Industrial Revolution (or 4IR, as it is commonly called), which is considered the next leap in manufacturing. In the first industrial revolution, mechanisation and water and steam power changed the way that humans manufactured products and ultimately reworked the fabric of society. The second revolution hinged on mass production and assembly lines, while the third revolution rode the wave of computers and automation. The 4IR will be “characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between physical, digital, and biological spheres”, wrote Klaus Schwab, founder and executive director of the World Economic Forum and the man who coined the phrase in 2015.
The technologies that are born out of this manufacturing revolution – such as the Internet of Things, through which smart devices are connected to the Internet and generate and receive data – will play out in these smart cities. This innovation can “come in many forms, from smart building technologies that monitor and manage energy usage to connected vehicles that help anticipate and avoid potential collisions”, says the World Economic Forum. “By 2025, the number of Internet-of-Things devices is projected to exceed 40-billion, fuelled by continued technological advances and the plummeting costs of computing, storage, and connectivity.”
According to a consultancy Deloitte’s Smart Cities Technology report, “Smart cities consist of both hard infrastructure like houses and roads and soft infrastructure like governance, leadership and innovation.” The hard infrastructure, like roads and transportation networks, needs to be present, as does “soft infrastructure” like governance and leadership frameworks and innovation fora. In a paper in the South African Journal of Economic and Management Sciences, the researchers investigate what interventions are required for a smart city to assist small business owners. “Small businesses are an important part of the South African economy, yet they have high rates of failure,” they write. An important step that cities could take would be to create e-portals to ease doing business. Numerous small business spent more than 20 days trying to deal with infrastructural issues or regulatory compliance. “[It] becomes clear that these issues represent a significant amount of lost time to the businesses, with regulatory compliance being the biggest offender in this regard,” they write.
In an ongoing effort to minimise costs and time wasted, especially because of the relatively small number of employees, it is understandable that small businesses with to learn and explore on their own, a fact which is further supported by their interest in a small-business support portal and eGovernment and open data policies. This would save small business owners time that they could put to better use in growing their business, rather than spending time trying to pay their utilities bill or other administrative tasks related to the city. “African cities’ advantage for technological adoption far surpasses their Eastern and Western counterparts as many of the cities don’t suffer from crippling costs associated with the maintenance of legacy infrastructure and systems,” the Deloitte authors write.
Data can inform where these infrastructure and systems should be: for example, where do most of a city’s citizens live; where do they travel to work or school; where is the greatest need for healthcare and what form should that care take? “African cities are well positioned to leapfrog into the mid-21st century. Without the successful adoption and appropriate selection of technology, African cities will indeed be left behind as more and more Africans look for brighter futures on other continents,” the Deloitte authors write.
For the City of Cape, one of the goals of a smart city is to have “the ability to improve infrastructure, be it via Internet of Things sensors that monitor infrastructure for preventative maintenance or replacement, usage statistics and feasibility analysis via data analytics or [the general use] of existing infrastructure as a conduit for connectivity mediums”, says Naidoo. For example, this could include allowing fibre providers access to the city’s street lights to allow for fibre installation in homes.
“But the power of technology is a double-edged sword,” she warns. “For as much as ICT can enable economic activity and social development, promote access to services and improve democratic processes by establishing channels of communication between a government and its citizens, it can also contribute to the social, economic and political exclusion of those who do not have access to it.”