Smart cities in Africa: hype or hope?

City leaderships are being confronted by growing complexity within IT and operations
Mark Walker: "The process of urbanization should not be viewed in isolation.'
Mark Walker: "The process of urbanization should not be viewed in isolation.'


By Mark Walker, associate vice president, Sub-Saharan Africa; insights & vertical industry practice Middle East, Africa, IDC

The Smart City concept is increasingly becoming central to the prevailing public discourse around Africa's urban future. However, as with many technological buzzwords, one has to wonder whether this trend is relevant to African realities. Certainly, if a Smart City is seen as the implementation of high-tech urban innovation exclusively modelled on examples from developed countries, the relevance is extremely low. However, Smart Cities are not just about implementing technology for technology's sake, but rather follow an informed agenda to combat the relevant urban challenges, such as growing populations and issues relating to basic service delivery, education, healthcare, citizen safety, and social inclusion.

IDC sees a Smart City as a city-state, county, city, town, or other non-national government organization built on an ICT foundation layer that allows for efficient city management, economic development, sustainability, innovation, and citizen engagement. When addressing functional, economic, and social challenges (whether in brownfield or greenfield (existing or new) developments), Smart Cities can contribute to the often-cited 'Rise of Africa'.

The 'Africa Rising' narrative from influential publications such as The Economist (December 3, 2011) and Time Magazine (December 3, 2012) focused on sub-Saharan Africa realizing its potential for economic growth. Meanwhile, the IMF's Africa Economic Outlook of October 2015 acknowledges the impact that global macroeconomic factors have had on the decade-long growth outlook, but also rightly emphasizes the fact that there is considerable country and regional variation across the continent. Apart from the vagaries of global economic trends, there are a variety of internal African trends that will undeniably shape the outlook of the continent and its denizens. For the purposes of a discussion on Smart Cities, population trends certainly stand out, as does the profound impact of urbanization.

The United Nations projects that Africa will see a 16% rise in its urban population by 2050. The number of people living in African cities will increase to 56%, making it the most rapidly urbanizing region on the planet. In 2014, only Cairo, Kinshasa, and Lagos were considered to be megacities. However, three more are expected to emerge by 2030 as they are projected to surpass the 10 million mark; Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), Johannesburg (South Africa), and Luanda (Angola). But it is not just the megacities that are important; the number of large cities in Africa with populations between 5 and 10 million is also expected to increase, from 3 in 2014 to 12 in 2030. And the fastest-growing urban clusters are medium-sized cities and those with less than 1 million inhabitants.

By their very nature, cities concentrate national economic activity, government, commerce, and transportation. They are hubs that intersect the urban/rural, city/city, and city/country perimeters. The process of urbanization should not be viewed in isolation, but should also be considered alongside other significant economic and social changes such as greater geographic mobility, lower fertility, longer life expectancy, and other demographic shifts. The UN associates urban living with higher levels of literacy and education, better health, greater access to social services, and increased opportunities for cultural and political participation. Cities offer opportunities to expand access to services such as healthcare, education, public transportation, housing, electricity, water, and sanitation in an economically efficient manner. Urban dwellers also have access to larger and more diversified labor markets, and enjoy healthier lives overall. At the same time, carelessly considered, hasty, and unplanned urban growth threatens sustainable development, and in effect ensures that the potential benefits of city living is distributed unevenly, thereby fueling – rather than eradicating – inequality.

The high rate of African urbanization puts pressure on major cities in the country to improve service delivery to residents, to provide economic diversification, and to ensure greater operational efficiency. Given that nearly 70% of Africa's population are millennials, the continent's demographic makeup also indicates the inevitable rise of Smart Cities in Africa as this generation is filled with savvy users of advanced technologies, including mobility, cloud, social, and Big Data analytics. These pressures are in effect forcing government entities (whether national or local) to consider more efficient ways to deal with the rapidly rising demands. City leaders have two options in the face of Africa's urbanization reality – Do nothing and suffer the consequences or embrace existing and cutting-edge technology solutions to create smarter opportunities for all city dwellers.

Since 2013 there has been a change in the level of understanding and awareness around the issue of Smart Cities and, in particular, around the opportunities that the emergence of the Internet of Things and the 3rd Platform technologies (big data/analytics, social, mobile, and cloud) offer. African countries, businesses, and consumers are increasingly embracing the future of technology, anticipating that the wave of innovation will lead to increased African prosperity. As a result, many African municipalities are engaged in Smart City transformation activities in order to improve the quality of life of their citizens, enhance the experience of businesses, and provide an environment that is conducive to economic development.

However, city leaderships are also being confronted by growing complexity within IT and operational systems, by the (dis)connection between digital and physical environments, and by the lack of supporting regulations and policies. Cities in Africa need to determine the critical capabilities required to enable a Smart City and undertake the nontechnical and technical investments and actions required to effectively advance toward data- and event-driven decision making. Change – which is inherent to Smart City transformation – is a long-term and complex process, and cities needed to be able to assess their current situation and, from there, develop a strategic roadmap. The key challenge is effecting behavioral change from both city management and the population at large in order to meet the anticipated goals.

As more and more African cities embrace the Smart City concept, city leaders will look towards technology vendors for guidance on how to embrace this future vision. Vendors need to be able to support a holistic approach to Smart City development and clearly articulate a vision that ensures the successful execution of a Smart City in relation to strategy, finance, processes, and technology. Assuming this all happens, the development of Smart City success stories will become essential to ensuring Africa's urban future delivers on the requirements of its citizens.

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