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Even with the current slow pace of industrialisation, Africa is urbanising at rates greater than any other region in the world. Generally, urban growth comes with opportunities but there are also many accompanying challenges. Can cities overcome the challenges with a smart city concept approach?

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 4, 2018. You can read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

It is estimated that currently 40% of Africa’s population lives in cities and this is expected to increase to 50% by the mid-2030s. When planned properly, urbanisation creates jobs, supports livelihoods, and improves wellbeing, which is accompanied by reliable access to public goods and services such as housing, water, energy and transportation.

However, unplanned urbanisation can seriously inhibit structural transformation with huge environmental, economic and social consequences. This is already evident in many cities across Africa.

African cities face an unprecedented combination of developmental challenges, together with rising environmental risks such as unsafe sanitation, climate change and air pollution amongst others. Sound policies are needed to promote sustainable urban planning to ensure that infrastructure development keeps pace with rapid urban growth.

This article examines the rationale for applying a smart cities concept in the context of Africa broadly through digital technology development. The concept is presented as a framework for contemporary urban planning and development, making smart cities function like smartphones for inclusive development and also using the waterenergy nexus as a framework to facilitate integrated planning and coordination between various components (infrastructure) in the urban space.

Big data and big picture

The ability to focus resources using deep understanding of the ‘big picture’ is becoming increasingly important with the emergence of super-sized cities around the world. Apparently, this is the primary driving force for smart cities; i.e. acknowledging the growing importance of innovation in information and communication technology (ICT) to collect vast amounts of data. Translating that ‘big data’ will lead to understanding the big picture to promote a vision for modern urban development that is efficient and cost-effective in delivering services to citizens.

Typically, smart cities require the deployment of innovative technologies including sensors, mobile technology, and big data analytics across various infrastructure sectors including transport, energy, buildings, drinking-water supply and wastewater treatment systems. People who live in smart cities get a lot more information such as daily weather patterns, traffic congestion, and bus arrival times to help plan their daily lives.

The same wealth of data can enable city service providers to use predictive analytics to spot problems and proactively send crews out to solve them. This would include replacing water distribution lines long before small leaks become catastrophic events. Smart cities generally collect big data from digital objects and use it to create new products and services. The development of smart cities in Africa will hinge on the technological readiness to produce and handle ‘big data’.

Big data has already begun to transform business operations in Africa, most significantly in the financial and e-commerce sectors. Many businesses are tapping into customer habits to accurately target advertising. However, the challenges are still very real especially with the reluctance of public institutions over concerns about data security.

Smart city indicators 

Although smart cities are often associated with big data, it can only provide a rich picture of the physical city, but it doesn’t entirely tell us all about the smart city. The needs and experiences of citizens, their impacts and their willingness to pay for services and to finance new developments is also very important. Africa still needs to accomplish this due to very low income levels compared to global figures.

To fully understand the smart city movement, it is important to include other words associated with smart cities. These include phrases such as a clean city, a friendly city, and a city with good transport connections. Although less frequently used, others include technology, connected, internet of things, and modern.

Furthermore, ‘smart citizens’ is used to describe smart cities where citizens have all the information they need to make informed choices about their lifestyle, work and travel options. This is another constraint especially for cities in sub-Saharan Africa. Literacy levels are still very low and the capacity of most city residents to make informed choices from smart devices is largely inadequate.

Smart cities incorporate nexus solutions

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognises the centrality of energy and water to sustainable development. The rapid urbanisation of Africa’s cities is placing stress on the increasing demand for water and energy. Here, smart cities could explore a variety of technological and management innovations to minimise tradeoffs and maximise synergies at the links between water and energy.

Some smart cities are installing smart meters to enable customers to receive real-time information on water and energy consumption through an app on their smartphones. Customers can read and pay their water and energy bills without queuing. This enables them to monitor the actual consumption to better manage their bills and consumption for both water and electricity.

Moreover, water utilities are establishing standby leak detection and repair teams that operate roundthe-clock, with short response times to ensure leaks are detected and fixed rapidly. An integrated approach through the water-energy nexus can increase energy efficiency, decrease water pollution, reduce costs of energy and water delivery, increase access to services, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. ESI

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Edition 4, 2018. You can read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.


About the author

Paul T. Yillia is an award-winning water and development expert working for IIASA. As Programme Manager at Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), he led key international actions on the water-energy-food nexus to support client countries and international partners operationalise the concept.