Smart city initiatives in Africa

Eyerusalem Siba and Mariama Sow at Brookings: “…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….

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.)

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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…(More)”.