Africa's Story

  • The Smart City

The term smart city is generally used to refer to improving the overall quality of life for people at home, work and play through the use of data and digital technology integrated throughout the built environment…

(LightSavers, 2017)

Powerful forces are converging to make smart cities a growing trend all around the world. Some of the drivers of these smart cities include growing urbanization, growing stress, inadequate infrastructure, growing economic competition, growing citizens’ expectations, growing environmental challenges, rapidly improving technology capabilities, rapidly declining technology costs, etc.

The leading and emerging smart cities across the globe have proved the numerous benefits of the Smart City Concept. Some of which include enhanced livability, enhanced workability, enhanced sustainability to name a few.

The smart city concept embraces some of the most critical challenges facing global society today, as well as a range of innovative technologies that present potential solutions. The smart city is a simple label for the complex forces shaping urban life in the 21st century (UK Smart Cities Index 2017). This spans across the built environment, energy, telecommunications, transportation, health and human services, water and wastewater, public safety, payments, etc.

Some of the technology enablers for the leading and emerging smart cities include connectivity, interoperability, data management, security and privacy, computing resources, analytics, etc.

Bringing it down to the African context, the challenges posed by the rapid rate of urbanization currently found in African cities can only be tackled with the Smart City Concept.

In this writeup, we will look at how to plan African cities to become Smart Cities — so as to optimize all the benefits mentioned above.



  • Smart Leadership

Extrapolating from Navigant’s Research in the UK Smart Cities Index 2017, Strong leadership from city leaders and executives is vital to develop a coherent and sustainable smart city strategy. This entails

  1. Guiding vision statement, roadmaps

  2. Public/Private working groups

  3. Linking innovation to city priorities

The first step in transitioning African cities to smart cities is setting up the right leadership, which in turn formulates a roadmap and overarching strategy for the city. In many leading cities across the globe, a city council headed by a city mayor is appointed, and major decision powers and responsibilities are devolved from the national to the city level.

For this to be effective in the African context, conducive and supportive policies need to be implemented at the national level — the government.

However, ensuring that the national digital infrastructure is adequate for the challenges of the future must continue to be a responsibility of government.

The city council will consist of representatives from academia, industry, civil society, and other levels of government. To build a smart city that improves quality of life for all people, smart city plans should be developed to solve the true community needs. These needs can only be identified through inclusive and extensive citizen engagement (Geneva Starr and Amanda Smith, Smart Planning our Future Cities).

More importantly, however, the strategic roadmap developed by the city council should be context-specific because each community faces different challenges, is in a different state of readiness, and has access to different solutions. By establishing the local context, the plan and the technology applications it includes can be better fitted to the city. Knowing the current context will also define a baseline for results to be measured against.

Moses Itanola presenting at the Wema Bank Hackaton


  • Smart Community

A Smart City combines the physical and digital worlds to deliver a sustainable, prosperous and inclusive future for its citizens…

(Charles Sturt — A Leading, Liveable City, Smart City Plan 2018–2025).

As mentioned earlier, setting up the city vision and strategy is an outcome of civic partnerships and inclusiveness. Most smart city projects begin with demonstration — pilots phase — before large scale commercial deployment. To maximize inputs and collaboration, many leading and emerging smart cities across the globe set up an open innovation platform that serves as a testbed for continuous city projects. The open platform helps to maximize engagement from city dwellers, as well as ensure transparency.

In the African context, after setting up the city council, the next step should be setting up community hubs, with which to involve city dwellers’ inputs.

There are already a number of innovation hubs in existence in African cities. These existing hubs can be leveraged to gain insights from city dwellers. Through these hubs, ideas can also be shared from the young entrepreneurs in the city coming up with innovative solutions to tackle the city problems.

A currently underutilized channel in African cities is academia. A lot of researches and projects are carried out in tertiary institutions all over Africa. The potential to convert the findings into viable solutions that will impact the community and environment is totally untapped.

To make city progress a joint effort in African cities, there is the need to create a nexus between entrepreneurship, academia, industry and the government. A very common approach utilized by smart cities across the globe is the creation of city apps, with which to generate actionable data from city dwellers.



  • Smart Infrastructure

Data and technology are transforming and redefining the cities we live in. This digital revolution once led by industries is now being harnessed by governments to empower citizens…

(Geneva Starr and Amanda Smith, Smart Planning our Future Cities)

Extrapolating from Navigant’s Research in the UK Smart Cities Index 2017, a focus on innovative uses of ubiquitous data for policy development and the creation of new services is a primary building block of smart city programmes. This entails

  • Evolving open data strategies.
  • Building platforms for IoT data.
  • Exploring the use of advanced analytics.

The rapid growth in the number of sensors and other intelligent devices deployed across the (global) city landscape is creating an immense amount of new data that these cities manage and exploit to the benefit of all. For example, London has established the London Office of Data Analytics (LODA) and appointed a Chief Data Officer to help accelerate the use of data to improve services across the city.

Therefore, central to the smart city concept is open data — otherwise known as Digital Innovation.

For African cities, the starting point is the availability of data networks — broadband, public wi-fi, 4G, fiber, 5G, etc. This is the backbone of every smart city — a prerequisite for smart city projects to become successful.

Many global smart cities have deployed or are planning large-scale deployments of low power networks, are vying to be test beds for 5G technologies, and are looking at future fiber needs to support these ambitions. They are moving beyond broadband programs for public buildings and Wi-Fi in the city center to look at access requirements across the city, including less affluent and digitally excluded communities.



  • Smart Economy

The opportunity to take a more holistic view of city challenges is one of the foundational concepts of the smart city movement

Some cities, for example, are looking at the idea of smart districts or communities where the interconnection between transport, health, energy, housing issues, and innovations can be tested at scale.

(UK Smart Cities Index 2017)

Cities are multi-sectorial systems, comprised of diverse facets: Transport, Health, Education, Energy, Safety, Sustainability, IoT, Data, Strategy, Partners, etc. Innovation in a particular facet directly or indirectly impact the others.

The long-standing issue of siloed working is being addressed by cities taking a more holistic approach that understand the links between these sectors. This is a very necessary step for African cities to transition into smart cities.

According to Charles Sturt — A Leading, Liveable City (Smart City Plan 2018–2025), the goal is to create an economically thriving city that has access to digital infrastructure and leverages it to support business growth, investment, and sustainability across priority sectors. Some outlined actions here include:

  • Consult targeted sectors via survey, interview, workshops, etc. to identify priority needs and opportunities for infrastructure, innovation, and capability development — this informs the city leaders’ action plans.
  • Support business collaboration and innovation through such vehicles as co-working places, business hubs, hackathons, online tools, learning, access to data & resources.
  • Promote links with business, universities, and government to drive innovation, economic growth, and open learning.
  • Provide a platform for business to easily access the council and other economic information and data to encourage innovation and investment etc.



  • Smart Livability

As mentioned earlier, the primary aim of the smart city movement is to improve the overall quality of life for people at home, work and play through the use of data and digital technology…

According to Laura Tam (Sustainable Development Policy Director at SPUR) in the Future of Cities Podcasts by KaterraThe Mission, what makes a great city is a sense of community; a sense of place; a city that is safe and provides freedom for its people to do what they want to do and what they are inspired to try; a place that takes care of its people when they are struggling; a place that is welcoming to people to move to and search for a better life; a place that respects its natural environment and is growing with it in some way… Simply put, a great city is a place that offers people the chance to live an efficient lifestyle — more than might be provided in other settings.

City life can easily get very chaotic and stressful — intercepted by transportation, work, personal responsibilities, etc. The smart city concept can be utilized to make city life more pleasant and bearable.

The first solution possible with smart city technology is the transportation system. Traffic and parking optimization leads to reduced time-on-road for cars and correspondingly reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Sensors of real-time traffic can be used to control smart traffic signals to increase travel speeds and reduce intersection delays… (Geneva Starr and Amanda Smith, Smart Planning our Future Cities).

Distribution of city services is also a good way to ensure social inclusion. In a functional city, proximity from the place of residence, to the place of work, to places of entertainment, commerce, worship, socialization, etc. should be short and conducive.

Availability of fast data networks also ensures social inclusion, as many activities in the city are starting to rely on the data networks.



  • Smart Environment

Climate change is one of the most pressing issues we are currently faced with.

CO2 emissions must be reduced in the decades to come while measures need to be taken to reign in global warming, floods, and extended heat waves. Cities are responsible for approximately three-quarters of greenhouse gases worldwide. Being major polluters they are also called upon to provide solutions

(Vienna City Definition)

One of the five assessment criteria employed in the UK Smart City Index 2017 is Sustainability and Environmental Impact.

Firstly is a city’s sustainability strategy and the explicit targets set for energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and related goals.

Secondly is the city’s achievements against sustainability targets and the implemented environmental and sustainability programmes.

According to Charles Sturt — A Leading, Liveable City (Smart City Plan 2018–2025), the goal is to apply technology and innovation to improve our environment. Some outlined actions here include:

  • Use technology to actively monitor the impacts of climate change including urban heat and tree canopy.
  • Use urban design techniques that respond to the changing climate and community needs.
  • Work with utilities/partners to improve smart power and water technology with real-time data analytics to improve efficiency.
  • Utilize RFID and sensors for domestic garbage pick-up to collect waste data and incentivize recycling etc.

In African cities, use of local and sustainable materials — like wood — is yet to be optimized. Meanwhile, there is a need to reduce the use of concrete in building construction. The use of green elements in buildings and outdoor spaces also helps to create a more sustainable environment. Finally, zoning and overall city planning also help to minimize pollution, especially in residential areas.



  • Smart Technologies

In an increasingly digital and technology-driven age, cities need to look towards new approaches, innovative technologies and smart infrastructure to create an environment that supports both community and economic growth.

(Geneva Starr and Amanda Smith, Smart Planning our Future Cities)

Through open data and inclusion efforts, smart city applications can more deeply connect citizens to city leadership and to each other, and build the capacity of citizens to make informed decisions.

A future city outlook for African cities could feature the following technologies:

  • Smart Lighting: smart poles could provide energy efficient LED lighting; and each pole can house WiFi signal points, sensors, public address system and more.
  • Smart Screens: interactive smart screens could provide information to help people find out the latest on what’s going on in the city.
  • Internet of Things (IoT): an IoT platform would connect almost any device in the city to the internet and to each other. Apps, sensors, and smart city applications and blockchain technology generate data on the city.
  • Public WiFi: free public WiFi would provide high-speed quality internet access.
  • Smart Energy: buildings could be powered by the sun through solar panels connected to battery storage.
  • Smart Parking: sensors in the streets would detect available parking and send data to drivers.
  • Smart City App: a city app makes information on the city easily available etc.

These technologies would help to generate actionable data from the city dwellers, which would, in turn, help the city council and management to make more informed decisions.

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***Adapted from Blaze Monthly Digest – March 2019.

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