The problems created by rapid and often unplanned urbanization in Africa’s city centres are well documented. It has served as backdrop for some of the well-known features in popular culture, music, movies and literature. City planners are seeking to move away from that narrative and Africa’s cities of tomorrow are already being built or planned today. They would be smart cities; eco-friendly, sustainable, interconnected hubs of urban settlements that would solve the innumerable challenges that worry today’s cities.
Smart cities, what are they?
A smart city is an urban development that seeks to integrate the best of information and communications technology (ICT) solutions in a secure fashion to manage a city’s assets. The goal of building a smart city is to improve quality of life by using technology to enhance the efficiency of services to meet the needs of residents.
And it gets even better because deploying ICT in a smart city allows planning officials to directly interact and monitor the city’s infrastructure, see how it changes over time and know how best to provide solutions to the city’s challenges. Data is collected from the city dwellers and sensors which are integrated into real time monitoring systems. The net effect is a city that is run on lower costs, reduces consumption and improves a feedback system between the citizens and the authorities.
The Mauritius Experience
Back In 2001 Mauritius commenced its flagship “smart city” project; the ambitious proposal envisaged the development of a hi-tech hub to provide the ideal work place environment for the city’s educated white collar labour force. The project was built from the ground up a good distance from any built-up area on erstwhile sugar cane fields.
The first phase of the project was financed by the Indian government and built by a team of Indian professionals, by the second phase of the project, Mauritians, who had learned a lot, were confident enough to handle things themselves using 100% local force. This was hailed as a beautiful example of knowledge transfer.
15 years after its initiation, the Mauritius cybercity project is ripe for some serious assessment; it has delivered on its vision of providing an ultramodern workspace complete with steady power supply and world class internet interconnectivity that accommodates the African network information centre. All of these are facilities that are as good as can be found anywhere on earth.
However it has to be said that the individual components of the cybercity project still suffer from an inability to integrate and function as a cohesive unit. So far the impressive buildings, several stories high that house various entities of the cybercity are often very far apart, with acres of undeveloped plots between them that serves to convey an overall sense of disconnection of each building from the other, quite unlike a true community. It is quite obvious, that it may take even longer, for the project, which exists in near isolation and caters to a small elite work force, to integrate with the rest of the larger society.
Africa’s New Smart City Projects
After suffering decades of public infrastructure so overstretched they have been known to sometimes grind to a halt (perpetual transportation bottlenecks and waste disposal being two crucial examples), a number of African countries have launched a new set of smart city projects.
In January 2015 South Africa announced its plans to begin the construction of a R24 billion smart city project in Modderfontein, eastern Johannesburg. It is an ambitious plan to develop a 1,600 hectare piece of land into what the Chinese financiers behind the project describe as the New York of Africa. Work has begun on the first set of residential units and the area is expected to develop into a financial hub, alongside are an educational centre, hospital and a sport stadium.
The Nigerian government in 2015 also announced the plans to build a multibillion naira smart city in the Lekki free zone in Lagos. It is expected to be West Africa’s first true smart city. Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, with a population of 15 million, has one of the highest smart phone densities in Africa and IT contributes about 10% to the national GDP.
Not to be left out, Egypt has also promised to build a new capital city (with all the attendant smart features), next to Cairo, city planners hope to deliver within the next 7 years, a city that will be sustainable and eco-friendly. It is designed to be powered by 90 square kilometres of solar panels providing a steady supply of renewable energy.
The Future of Smart Cities
Dubai is perhaps the world’s leader in the development of smart cities. They have hugged the headlines with very innovative and ambitious projects that sometimes border on the eccentric. They have pushed the frontiers of what tomorrow’s cities would look like. Their success story tells it all, but so does the not so successful ones.
Despite this, they have soldiered on and made lessons out of their mistakes. With seemingly bottomless pockets, Dubai can afford to sometimes take the kind of needless risks Africa cannot afford.
As different African nations begin work on their contemporary smart cities, the authorities involved must get it right. They must learn from the Mauritius experience. While it is true that building smart cities from scratch is sometimes the only available option, in which case it can serve as a shining model of what cities of the future should look like, a smart city doesn’t always have to be a new one, set in a cocoon; isolated from the rest of the metropolis.
Africa’s city planners should avoid focusing on creating new exclusive urban development projects, which, if it stalls for any reason can quickly become white elephant projects. Future smart city projects should instead set about revitalising existing cities (a sometimes painful and disruptive process, no doubt), seeking to transform and improve them, all while promoting an overarching theme of social inclusiveness.