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The Big Question: The drivers behind smart city development

The Big Question we asked the experts is: What policies, regulation and technologies are needed to drive the realisation of resilient, smart cities in Africa?

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 2, 2019. You can read the magazine’s articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

It is estimated that at present 40% of Africa’s population live in cities and this number is expected to increase to 50% by the mid-2030s. With this in mind, the available city resources such as transportation, water and sanitation, power supply and ICT infrastructure will need to be amplified.

Peta Wolpe and Megan Euston-Brown, Directors, Sustainable Energy Africa, South Africa responds…

While jobless growth and entrenched poverty have characterised the rapid urbanisation of sub-Saharan Africa, there are many opportunities to do things differently. Solutions based on mobile technology and new business models may realise a leapfrog to smarter cities. The smart city will be compact and integrated with resources and systems that are sustainable and where inclusivity and safety are key; where people have work and greater access to services, health and education – all contributing to a better quality of life.

Central to achieving this vision is the governance of cities. Mandates need to be devolved from the national government, with policies and budgets following. Governance must be enabling and not bureaucratic. Even with digital solutions offering alternatives to large utility models, cities will need infrastructure and capacity investment. National finance flows need to be regular and reliable. Cities need to develop effective local rates bases and credit worthiness and the high cost of capital in sub-Saharan Africa must be addressed. The institutions and the support mechanisms that underpin the institutions need to align and change to facilitate the emergence of smart cities.

Spatial planning and policies and transport plans must enhance more compact cities. Investment in public transport is important. Electric vehicles based on e-hailing and powered by solar energy offer a substantial opportunity. This can be catalysed through incentives and city regulation alongside EV charging infrastructure – possibly developed with private sector partners.

Across the continent, small renewable energy systems must replace city reliance on generators. Regulatory frameworks to enable both on- and off-grid systems must be developed. Cities can facilitate new business models that bring together reliable installers, financiers and customers.

Driving building control regulations to ensure efficiency and promoting energy efficient appliances will shift the status quo. We are already seeing an increase in solar cooking, which is replacing traditional biomass cooking.

The very lack of infrastructure opens up the opportunity for change – there is less resistance to new technologies and people have been forced to create ‘outside the box’ solutions. Hjörtur Smárason, convenor of the 2016 future city of Africa conference, notes that “… Water, electricity, transportation, banking, taxation and even democracy … the magic lies in the new business models and I think African cities have the best chance of developing and applying these.”

Smart African cities must draw on local approaches that are key to global sustainability. This includes the culture of sharing where individual ownership is not privileged; the integration of work and life, enabling an organic urban form that promotes a culture of walking and fresh produce that moves from field to table with limited transport and packaging. Imported cars for private use, still the vast minority, should be heavily taxed and local markets should be protected through policy from the onslaught of big malls and supermarkets. Architecture that is responsive to the environment and in line with local norms relating to comfort must prevail.

Critical to the success of the smart city is funding. Fiscal arrangements, tariffs and how cities generate revenue must support a new paradigm shift otherwise the African smart city will just be a dream.

Songo Didiza, Founding Director, Green Building Design Group, South Africa responds…

Africa has the advantage of not having many of the legacy structures created by the linear policies of the previous industrial revolutions. Leapfrogging is possible but it needs to start with a change of mind-sets and exponential thinking. African countries such as Rwanda and Kenya are already taking centre stage in the smart city revolution with the cities of Kigali and Nairobi, respectively, through decisive leadership and with some help of forward-thinking policies.

Over the past five years, the Rwandan city of Kigali has made significant progress in undertaking integrated smart infrastructure projects in fundamental areas such as smart city infrastructure, vocational training, and strategic foreign investment. A key pillar to the success of these projects has been major investments in ICT infrastructure and forward-looking skills to create a knowledge-based economy, and ultimately smart cities in Africa.

Similarly, Kenya has been leapfrogging its way to a smart city status. Here, in 2016, the Konza Technopolis Development Authority (aka Konza Techno City) entered an agreement with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme to standardise the development of what many consider would lead to the creation of the first African smart city. Konza Techno City is anticipated to become the African version of the US’s Silicon Valley with infrastructure investments also being made into research and development in partnership with the Kenya Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). KAIST will serve as a foundation for engineering research and education in Kenya.

These integrated projects are opportunities to support the country’s sustainability challenges.Though other countries such as South Africa have been slow to implement integrated smart infrastructure in its cities, the country has been actively addressing climate and sustainability challenges of energy access. The caveat of opportunity in most African cities is the increased access to global information through mobile internet connectivity. In this respect, African cities sit on a gold mine of potential by having one of the youngest populations.

Collectively, these have created a massive opportunity for governments to explore digital solutions as a tool for addressing poverty and lack of access to education.

A critical success factor for the success of smart cities in Africa will be strong political will. Rwanda’s president has been exemplary in this regard. Likewise, in South Africa, in his 2019 State of the Nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa committed to developing a comprehensive action plan in response to Industry 4.0. One way the South African government looks to achieve it is through investment in ICT infrastructure especially in schools. Large cities such as Cape Town, eThekweni, Johannesburg and Tshwane have started introducing policies to promote net-zero buildings in an attempt to promote energy efficiency practices and renewable energy, with the latter being through localised distributed energy networks. There is nothing stopping progressive city leaders from leapfrogging linear policies and claiming smart city status in the process.

Rose Osinde Alabaster, Director and Co-Founder, Water Environment and Human Development Initiative, Switzerland responds…

African cities will gain a billion new residents by 2050. However, most local authorities across the continent don’t have the resources, powers or skills set to meet the growing demand for providing their constituents effective and sufficient services. Where these exist, policies may be inadequate or poorly implemented, plagued by weak enforcement and regulatory frameworks.

While national governments have a key role to play in establishing enabling legislation and building the capacity of municipal authorities, at a local level, smart and resilient cities in Africa will have to revolutionise through a combination of more responsive policies, active regulation and smart technologies, so as to sustain the dynamism of urban life.

Africa must embrace sustainability policies and programmes that promote city systems that are more efficient, less costly, and more environmentally friendly. For instance, smart building technologies, renewable power generation and energy storage technologies would contribute to improvements in energy efficiency within cities.

With the vast transformational potential in Africa, given the natural and human resources available, new ways of forging partnerships have to be enhanced – including private and public stakeholders’ partnerships. What must change with respect to these partnerships is the need to have better-clarified roles and responsibilities to ensure human, developmental and environmental human rights are respected and possible negative impacts are minimised or avoided.

This calls for policy and regulatory principles which include:

  • inclusion and open participation;
  • industry innovation;
  • investment in both infrastructure and institutional strengthening;
  • communication advancement with clear laws and regulatory practices;
  • open standards that enable interoperability internally and externally within global standards;
  • adoption of proven and widely practised privacy and secure development solutions; and
  • taking future sustainability and growth into account.

Policies that support public access to government data for use in building new services and solutions to the benefit of all citizens are required. These include development or refinement of policies and regulation of the generation, processing, access, and use of big data. This will further enhance monitoring of events such as weather more quickly and more efficiently.

Big data can enable sustainable and resilient cities in which monitoring of city essential and non-essential services – such as directing the flow of traffic – are optimally managed, shifting power use to high demand areas, and signalling a reduction in non-essential energy consumption.

Smart cities in Africa will be realised through policies and enforcement of more accountable and transparent systems in which the use of smart technologies can help measure and monitor government progress through clear measurable performance indicators available to the public.

While technology and investments in infrastructure are essential, the engagement of citizens in all processes of planning, development and monitoring is just as much a key ingredient for realising sustainable efficient and responsive smart cities.

At a more practical level, it is important to map the barriers and drivers in the existing city policies, governance and regulation at all levels. This includes assessing the political economy that would guide development of new and innovative analytical perspectives, relevant for both long-term policymaking and for the design of demand-driven technical cooperation projects for smart cities. ESI

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 2, 2019. You can read the magazine’s articles here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl
As the Editor of ESI Africa, my passion is on sustainability and placing African countries on the international stage. I take a keen interest in the trends shaping the power & water utility market along with the projects and local innovations making headline news. Watch my short weekly video on our YouTube channel ESIAfricaTV and speak with me on what has your attention.