Smart city initiatives in Africa

This year’s theme for World Cities Day, “Innovative Governance, Open Cities,” emphasizes the implementation of the global New Urban Agenda and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development through the creation of livable, sustainable cities conducive to inclusive growth and development. Smart cities in particular can be key tools toward achieving these global goals. The International Telecommunication Union defines a smart city as “an innovative city that uses ICTs [information and communication technologies] and other means to improve quality of life, efficiency of urban operation and services and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social and environmental aspects.” Indeed, the importance of these cities is growing: The United Nations has even put together a taskforce to create a key set of performance indicators for a global smart sustainable cities index. In commemoration of World Cities Day, we take stock of smart city initiatives in Africa.

African countries are presently in the early stages of their urbanization process. Though Africa was the least urbanized region in the world in 2015—only 40 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s population lived in cities—it is now the second-fastest urbanizing region in the world (behind Asia). Population experts predict that by 2020, Africa will be on top. Given this rapid growth, now is the time for African policymakers to incorporate smart cities into their urbanization strategies.

Indeed, a 2016 report by consulting firm Deloitte noted a set of factors that make African cities ideal candidates for the adoption of smart cities technology. For example, as some African countries presently lack steady telecommunication cable installations, African cities can install the newest available ICT technology, removing the costs associated with removing or upgrading existing ICT infrastructure. Importantly, the continent’s booming young population is also an advantage as young people are more likely to adopt technology and, as the Deloitte report suggests, more likely to adopt smart city technology. In addition, Africa’s large young population can be a source of innovation, as has been witnessed in the emergence of Kenya’s Silicon Savannah and Lagos’ Yabacon Valley.

A continental push for smart cities

The May 2017 Transform Africa Summit—which created initiatives to incorporate information and communication technologies as a key determinant of socio-economic development in Africa—convened 300 African mayors in addition to the usual heads-of-state and ministers. At the summit, the government of Rwanda unveiled the Smart Cities Blueprint, a framework aimed to accelerate the adoption of ICT-driven initiatives in cities across Africa. The blueprint urges African countries to think ahead as they face urban expansion. The report presents 10 steps to creating a smart city, the most notable of which are collecting data, identifying city development challenges, implementing pilot projects, and evaluating project efficiency. In addition, the blueprint urges African countries to seek non-traditional sources of financing such as public-private partnerships and smart bonds. Smart bonds guarantee returns once a project is implemented. Another non-traditional source of financing is spread shareholding, a process in which investors buy a share in an infrastructure project instead of a bond.

At the national level, countries such as Rwanda, Nigeria, Ghana, and Ethiopia have launched smart cities efforts. The Nigerian Smart City Initiative, announced last June, aims to increase Nigeria’s ICT innovations and showcase ways through which they can be linked with physical infrastructure to improve service delivery. In Ethiopia, in order to solve its parking spots deficiency issue, Addis Ababa created smart parking, which uses Chinese technology to park cars in a steel structure building using an automated lift. IBM has also deployed a Smarter Cities Challenge team to Ghana to assess ways to use technology to implement economic and social reform in Accra.

The case of Rwanda

Rwanda is one of the pioneers of smart city engineering in Africa. Modernizing Kigali is part of a wider effort by the Rwanda government to increase and simplify access to public services. The Irembo platform launched by the government, seeks to create e-government services to allow citizens to complete public processes online, such as registering for driving exams and requesting birth certificates.

In addition, the country is active in involving the private sector in its goal towards creating smart cities. In mid-May, the Rwandan government launched a partnership with Nokia and SRG in order to deploy smart city technology to “improve the lifestyle and social sustainability of [Rwandan] citizens.” The project involves investment in network connectivity and sensor deployment to improve public safety, waste management, utility management, and health care, among other functions.

Rwanda’s smart city rollout has not been perfect, though, proving that smart city development can hit some snags: For example, in 2016, the city started rolling out buses with free Wi-Fi and cashless payment service, but the buses have had connectivity issues related to the Korea-built technology’s inability to adapt to local conditions.

In addition, there has been criticism around the lack of inclusivity of certain smart cities projects. Kigali’s Smart Neighborhood project, Vision City, creates a tech-enabled neighborhood with solar powered street lamps and free Wi-Fi in the town square. Critics, though, state that the project ignored the socioeconomic realities of a city where 80 percent of its population lives in slums with monthly earnings below $240 (Vision City Homes cost $160,000). (Rwandan planners have responded stating that affordable housing will be built in the later phases of the project.)

Policy recommendations

As seen in the case of Rwanda, smart cities—while creating opportunities for innovation and better livelihoods—face challenges during and after their development. City planners and policymakers must keep the big picture in mind when promoting smart cities, emphasizing well-implemented infrastructure and citizen needs. Technology for technology’s sake will not create solutions to some of Africa’s cities biggest challenges, including high-cost, low-quality, and inaccessible services. Indeed, in a 2015 issue paper, UN-Habitat urges city planners to avoid viewing smart cities as the final product. In particular, UN-Habitat calls for smart cities to minimize transport needs, reduce service delivery costs, and maximize land use. These moves, among others, will ensure that the city reduces congestion, creates spaces dedicated to recreational uses, enhances service delivery, and, thus, improves its citizen’s quality of life.