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'Smart Nation' Singapore gives SA smart city advice

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
Johannesburg, 03 Aug 2023
South Africa receives advice from Singapore for its smart city ambitions.
South Africa receives advice from Singapore for its smart city ambitions.

South Africa must start small with its smart city ambitions, taking a ‘bite-sized’ approach and building on from there.

So says Rahul Ghosh, director of Enterprise Singapore for Middle East and Africa, sharing best-practices South Africa can learn from the Asian city-state that is considered to be the poster child for smart cities around the world.

Enterprise Singapore is an agency under the ministry of trade and industry in Singapore.

In 2014, Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong began the Smart Nation initiative, to create a nation powered by digital innovation and technology that responds to citizens’ ever-changing needs. This resulted in the introduction of a wide range of smart technologies in both its public and private sectors.

In 2019, the World Economic Forum stated that Singapore was named the world’s “smartest city”, based on the inaugural IMD Smart City Index.

Speaking to ITWeb, Ghosh said his country has learned that starting small is important.

“South Africa has on its plans some smart city developments and we've been in discussions with the different parties related to that. It doesn’t need to start at the city level; it can start at a small municipality level, at an estate level, or even just start with smart building.”

Ghosh was in the country as part of continuing the discussions that took place during the Singapore prime minister’s official state visit.

During this time, South Africa and Singapore solidified their diplomatic relations, agreeing to work together in areas of ICT and human capital development.

South Africa’s communications minister Mondli Gungubele and Dr Janil Puthucheary, Singapore minister of communications and information, are signatories of the ICT memorandum of understanding.

Rahul Ghosh, director of Enterprise Singapore for Middle East and Africa.
Rahul Ghosh, director of Enterprise Singapore for Middle East and Africa.

The South African government, through provincial governments, has in the past expressed ambitions to move the country’s cities towards smart city status.

This was further amplified by president Cyril Ramaphosa in his 2019 State of the Nation Address, when he expressed his vision of a new South African city driven by smart technologies. Ramaphosa later gave an update, in February 2021, saying much progress had been made to bring his vision to life.

“The Lanseria Smart City, the first new city to be built in a democratic South Africa, is now a reality in the making. The draft master plan for this smart city – which will become home to between 350 000 to 500 000 people within the next decade – was completed in November 2020 and is now out for public comment,” said Ramaphosa at the time.

There have also been several pronouncements that smart cities are being conceptualised in the Western Cape, Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape.

Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane said during his State of the Province Address in February 2022 that the province is pushing ahead with the development of its “African coastal smart city”, after signing a deal with the Coega Development Corporation to facilitate the implementation of the project.

However, developments have been unravelling in slow-motion, with not much to show for the smart city projects.

Ghosh highlights that unlike South Africa, Singapore is small, so certain things, such as deployment and implementation, can happen quickly.

“We have always tried as a country and as a government to make infrastructure investments related to technology, including skilling talent. This includes helping corporates build up the skills for their own people, but also making sure the common man on the street becomes part of the digital revolution.

“When everything starts to fall in place…then it's like a symphony orchestra − every part needs to work.”

South Africa can start its smart city process by deploying green technologies and solutions that are sustainable and resource-efficient, he notes.

“For example, this can start at a municipal level with solutions that are able to detect water leakages. There can also be deployment of smart street lamps, which won’t only provide light but also be used to capture data for traffic. There also needs to be provision of WiFi solutions, especially where there’s no WiFi or internet connectivity through fibre.”

He further stresses that policy regulation and frameworks are important when governments consider establishing smart cities.

“Some of these smart city solutions are getting into the personal space of citizens, so there must be discussions in terms of getting the necessary regulations and specific frameworks in place as the smart city projects are being rolled out,” he concludes.