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African cities could lead smart city innovation

Lauren Kate Rawlins
By Lauren Kate Rawlins, ITWeb digital and innovation contributor.
Johannesburg, 02 Oct 2017
Takeaway food will be delivered via drones from 2050.
Takeaway food will be delivered via drones from 2050.

Emerging markets, like those in Africa, have the opportunity to leapfrog now-redundant technologies in developed nations and create truly smart cites.

South Africa's Cape Town and Kenya's Nairobi are tipped to become the first cities to achieve this 'smart status'.

"While it can be assumed that considerably more developed countries across the world in Europe, America and Asia are more likely to become smart cities at a quicker rate than in Africa, this is not necessarily true," says Mark Burton, a spokesperson for Schneider Electric.

"Many African cities are seen as ideal locations for smart city campaigns, as they are essentially being developed technologically in particular, from scratch. In other words, there are fewer complications. They are building the foundations, rather than undoing a load of work, which other major technological hubs in the world face on their path to becoming a smart city."

Burton says Cape Town and Nairobi are considered to be the first cities in Africa to become smart, as they look to Singapore (which aims to be the first smart nation) as a role model for the cities of the future.

It is predicted that by 2050, 70% of the world's population will be living in smart cities. By 2030, at least six of the world's megacities (a metropolitan area with a total population in excess of 10 million people) will be located in Africa.

Schneider Electric created an interactive graphic that tells users what to expect from cities worldwide during their lifetime. Users plug in their age and scroll through what is predicted to happen in smart cities at various stages of their life. It makes predictions as far as 2060.

Some of the predictions include flying taxies by 2020 (Uber will trial on-demand taxis in Dallas and Dubai, and hopes to be transporting paying passengers by 2023), talking to buildings by 2040 (lighting and temperature in smart buildings will be controlled through voice), and takeaway food will be delivered by drones by 2050.

Africa focus

African cities are not being left behind. While some of the more headline-grabbing innovations are happening elsewhere - like flying taxies - smart city campaigns across Africa have been put in place.

"There is a range of smart city initiatives taking place across the African continent, from technology hubs like Ghana's Hope City to business and residential areas, like Johannesburg's Waterfall City and Lagos' Eko Atlantic," notes Burton.

"Not only this but the Smart Africa Alliance started by Rwanda shows off 20 joined countries that have made technology part of their national development plans."

Konza City, in Kenya, 60km from the centre of Nairobi, is expected to become the African version of Silicon Valley.

An interactive infographic shows what is predicted to happen in smart cities around the world up until 2060.
An interactive infographic shows what is predicted to happen in smart cities around the world up until 2060.

"This city will not only be smart because of the technology companies it will be home to, but the place itself will be smart. Konza city will gather data from smart devices and sensors embedded in places such as roadways and buildings, allowing traffic to be monitored in ways that optimise traffic flows."

In SA, several cities have plans to become smart, including the City of Cape Town with its five-year strategy, while the City of Johannesburg aims to be smart by 2040, with the City of Tshwane following 15 years later.

Talking about SA, Burton says Cape Town's government has established a four-pillar project with which to reach the status of a smart city.

"The four main issues they have focused on are digital infrastructure, digital inclusion, e-government and digital economy. The city is already using data for emergency forces, such as fire and rescue, law enforcement and disaster risk management."

He says the usage and waste of energy and water are crucial pieces of data in smart cities.

"Cape Town has implemented remote utilities meter reading, enabling the government to analyse electronically captured consumption data and use it to plan how and where to invest new resources across the city."

Residents in the city are also using the Internet more and more. "They are now able to pay all their utility bills, report crimes or emergencies and apply for permits, for example, online. Connectivity is crucial to smart cities and Cape Town is making developments in this."

Digital foundations

Burton says mobile connectivity and the fairly cheap cost to use mobile data have been crucial assets to the African continent. This enabled infrastructure to be built that will support a digital economy.

From 2040, smart buildings will have lighting and heating controlled by voice.
From 2040, smart buildings will have lighting and heating controlled by voice.

He notes that up to 13% of the tech hubs in Africa have established partnerships with mobile operators, particularly Orange (France), MTN (SA) and Vodafone (UK).

"Increasingly, mobile network operators in Africa seek to innovate more aggressively in order to support long-term revenue and profit growth."

However, Burton warns: "Across the world, smart cities remains a popular term, rather than a successful reality."

Because of this, he says it is difficult to say how emerging markets shape up compared to developed nations. "Each faces different challenges."

Burton says the challenges facing African cities will fall on private companies and the extent of their influence on how African cities develop, as these cities are likely to be dependent on their investment.