SA’s smart city ambitions

The smart city is not hoverboards and flying cars, which is something of a disappointment for most of us, but is about improving citizen quality of life by transforming resource usage and access to services.
By Tamsin Oxford
Johannesburg, 20 Feb 2023

The smart city, as defined by Wikipedia, is a ‘technologically modern urban area that uses different types of electronic methods and sensors to collect specific data’. Forrester says it is interconnected systems that optimise services and improve citizen experiences. And these intelligent environments are considered to potentially be the best route for Africa, which has the highest urban growth rate in the world, according to an analysis across 7 600 urban agglomerations in 50 African countries.

Thing is, South Africa can’t even get potholes and water supply right, much less electricity. How does this country move into a digital future when basic infrastructure is crumbling and corruption remains the most prolific local resource? Well, the answer is…it has to. According to a recent report by the Dulla Homar Institute, South Africa ‘does not have a choice on whether or not to proceed with smart cities’. The global landscape, the citizen need, and the demand for smarter resource usage and sustainability make this less of a nice thing to have on the horizon and more of an essential investment.

South Africa’s crime statistics speak for themselves, so one of our major requirements would be related to security. Smart cameras with analytics and AI capabilities would be a must.

Glenn Noome, Smart Integration

This need is reflected in the ongoing development of several smart city projects in the country. There’s the Lanseria smart city initiative that has already seen some fake tenders and a proliferation of scammers. However, it has also made some significant strides towards its goal – moving from a basic foundation in 2020 through to a growing intelligent space in 2023. So far, the smart city project has seen steady growth and is expected to reach its full development potential in around two decades while focusing on creating a city that epitomises urban sustainability.

A symbiotic environment

President Ramaphosa announced the Mooikloof Mega-City development near the east of Pretoria in 2020, which has a projected value of more than R84 billion and is first focusing on residential developments before moving onto schools, retail outlets and offices. Then there is the project near the Kruger National Park, Nkosi City. This city is expected to cost in the region of R7.8 billion and is focused on agriculture, a move that plays to the strengths of the region and brings together community members alongside wealthier landowners to create a more equal and accessible space. It blends tech with agriculture to create a more symbiotic environment for people living within the area and plans to replace the trees traditionally used to line streets with ones such as macadamia and citrus. Then there’s the Durban Aerotropolis, which is expected to sprawl over 32 000 hectares and may provide up to 750 000 jobs within its five-decade planning stage.

This requires regulation that supports innovation and does not stand in its way.

Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar, Bolt Southern Africa

These initiatives are noble and all plan on using connectivity and smart technology, such as sensors and the IoT, to create cohesive services and environments that deliver the best possible citizen experiences. But they’re inhibited by crime, governance, legislation, resource limitations, corruption and inequality. As the Dullah Omar report found, these challenges will seriously affect the readiness of South Africa to move towards smart city development. There’s an urgent need to invest in skills development, create more cohesive ecosystems for role players to connect and collaborate, and for government to stop playing in the children’s sandbox and pay attention to the very real needs of the country.

Desperately seeking smart

Brainstorm: What technology can realistically be implemented in the South African city to imbue it with smart features today, and how could this evolve?

Glenn Noome, director, Smart Integration, an Ulwembu Business Services organisation: South Africa’s crime statistics speak for themselves, so one of our major requirements would be related to security. Smart cameras with analytics and AI capabilities would be a must. Not only could this be used preventatively for violent crime and rioting, this type of technology is also critical to traffic management, as well as the monitoring of accidents and the automated dispatch of emergency services to nearby locations.

Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar, head of public policy, Bolt Southern Africa: In our view, cities of the future will need to integrate a variety of sustainable transport modes. This is an important shift as it embraces multimodal solutions for mobility in our cities, centring development away from the private car, and reshaping cities to align to meaningful public transport solutions, technology-driven solutions and proper data-sharing between public authorities and technology platforms.

Gregg Sanders, head of digital transformation, NEC XON: An IoT-based monitoring system could use smart data analytics to collect, correlate and flag relevant data. Machine learning can identify trends and outliers in critical infrastructure such as water and electricity supplies to automatically dispatch technicians to deal with outages, or even predict outages and prevent them in the first place.

Shane Chorley, head of sales and marketing, Frogfoot Networks: Connectivity can help South Africa’s cities become more efficient and sustainable. Connected traffic lights with intelligence would work based on actual traffic patterns rather than changing at predetermined times, helping reduce congestion. A future where more autonomous vehicles occupy roads could make a big difference toward reducing road deaths in our urban centres.

Andrew Dickson, engineering executive at CBI-electric, low voltage: It all comes down to data. With an analytics layer on top of that, many things can be predicted, optimised and ultimately changed for the better.However, South Africa only has some basic building blocks, and for a smart city, there needs to be integration between components, data movement and storage, analytics, policy, governance, environment and economy, as well as security. All of these are not currently in place, so we need to break this down into smaller chunks.

Ofentse Mokoena, head of public policy, Uber South Africa: Transforming South African cities into smart cities would require appropriate infrastructure and ‘infostructure’. At first sight, it appears as if it’s about regulations and plans to incorporate technology into government programmes, how companies adapt to virtual work, etc. However, it’s more about the ability of both the public and private sectors to adapt to changes driven by digital tectonic shifts.

Brainstorm: How can the public and private sectors collaborate to bring the potential of smart into the South African city?

Andrew Ihsaan Gasnolar, head of public policy, Bolt Southern Africa: This requires regulation that supports innovation and does not stand in its way.

Mervyn George, executive advisor: EMEA South Business Innovation Office, SAP: The appetite for this level of collaboration is already there. Citizens, I assume, would be in favour of any smart solutions that help remove friction from their interaction with the cities they live and work in. From a private sector perspective, recruiting a mix of experts spanning tech, management consulting, spatial planning, design thinking, etc. would be a good way to start. From a public sector perspective, it’s important to put aside the departmental and political lines of accountability and focus rather on the collective impact to the citizen in order to truly progress.

Thabang Byl, digital energy lead, Schneider Electric: The recent Driving Energy Efficiency in Buildings event, presented by the French Embassy in South Africa, the French South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FSACCI), Business France, Les Conseillers du commerce extérieur de La France, EDF, Saint Gobain and the Green Building Council South Africa, is a primary example of the public and private sector coming together to discuss buildings and, indeed, cities of the future.

Andrew Dickson, CBI-electric, low voltage: Everybody has a need to have their hand in things and to put their name on things, but that will not bring about smart cities. Two or three people need to stand up and take action to enable the deployment of smart technologies.

Bonga Ntuli, executive, Royal HaskoningDHV: A broad partnership with the private sector, academia, and NGOs also allows for more creative and diverse uses of available data. On a broader scale, it requires connecting urban development with public-sector initiatives, like the Presidential Commission for the 4th Industrial Revolution, Johannesburg’s Tshimologong Precinct, and Ekurhuleni’s Drone Accelerator Programme.

A history of smart cities

* This feature was first published in the February edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.


* Article first published on