Smart City development post Covid-19: Inspiration for Africa

Globally, a Smart City incorporates information and communication technologies to enhance the quality and performance of urban services to reduce cost, wastage and consumption.

September 04, 2020

Globally, a Smart City is one that incorporates information and communication technologies to enhance the quality and performance of urban services to reduce cost, wastage and consumption. To date, the key features of a Smart City has included, inter alia, technology driven development, e-governance, increased mobility, safer neighbourhoods and sustainability. The concept of resilience, which can be defined as the capacity of a city to sustain challenging conditions and quickly recover from set-backs, had however merely been an afterthought and nice-to-have as opposed to a guiding principle. 

Smart Cities in Africa aim to rectify the ad-hoc and reactive development experienced to date.

Simon Ardonceau, Head of Strategic Consulting - Africa, JLL
The need for resilience

When the Covid-19 pandemic started in late 2019, no one could have foreseen the devastating impact it would have on the global economy and our daily lives. With lockdown restrictions and subsequent economic downturn leading to unprecedented job losses and increased digitalization of business and production, companies have had to re-look not only at how they do business but also at their business model itself. Similarly, health guidelines and social distancing protocols have led cities to re-look at how they function and become more resilient to outside impacts. 

Analysis has shown that urban governments in the global sphere are adjusting to the new reality, with Covid-19 driving efforts in resilience and digital transformation strategies. The main recurring theme appears to be the need to digitally transform how cities work and operate. 

The pandemic has been instrumental in driving the experiment on how to take advantage of the inherent flexibility of technology to aid in emergency situations, and thus boost resilience. Some examples include the employment of omniflow technology to analyse how busy a beach is in real-time, allowing app users to make an informed decision about where to go. This strategy is soon to be rolled out in the region of Algarve in Portugal. In Singapore authorities have used robot dogs to enforce social distancing in parks. 

The virus has also offered many world cities the opportunity to adopt Smart City principles more comprehensively. An example being Sydney that is fast-tracking the roll-out of cycle paths along key routes, as well as widening streets and creating pedestrian paths to help residents maintain physical distancing. 

Covid-19 will have a lasting impact on how cities are run in the future, and ultimately developed. It will reframe how resilience is approached and generalized, and better prepare us for future calamities. 

Smart Cities in Africa

On a continent that is labelled as the final frontier, the Smart City initiative is more valuable than ever to provide a proper, cohesive planning effort. Smart Cities in Africa aim to rectify the ad-hoc and reactive development experienced to date, while simultaneously trying to incorporate sustainability and Smart Growth principles into urban development. 

Thus far, Smart City development in Africa has largely tended to focus less on technological tools such as 5G, digital twins, The Internet of Things, etc. While it is true that Africa is an emerging economy and a continent ripe with development potential it is also a continent with an internet penetration rate of only 39% (Internet World Stats, 2019), and is renowned for having unreliable electric infrastructure. If the basic fundamentals required for these “smart features” to work are absent, then their failure is all but guaranteed. This is, in some ways, and advantage as it allows master planners to focus on rethinking urban life. 

Rahm Emanuel famously said: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before”. What we can take from this is that although Covid-19 has had a devastating and lasting effect on our cities and daily life, it also provides the ideal springboard from which to launch new planning initiatives to better respond to a changing world. 

While these initiatives might be highly tech driven in the “western” world they will in, all likelihood, remain less advanced - although not less innovative - in Africa. Examples of possible initiatives could include:

  • Increased pedestrianization and provision of concomitant infrastructure to account for the loss in carrying capacity in public transport systems due to social distancing guidelines
  • Rethinking how basic sanitation is provided and what the definition of that is. Having a tap within 100m walking distance of your home is not conducive to hand washing and proper sanitation. 
  • Adoption of basic technological solutions in countries within higher smartphone and internet penetration rates, such as South Africa (55%, Internet World Stats), for solutions such as e-commerce, e-governance and e-health. 
Looking ahead

The main take away is that, however disruptive the Covid-19 crisis may be, it creates an opportunity to make things better is a very different world, rather than merely resetting to 2019. And the African continent as much as any other continent, can seize the opportunity to embrace Smart City planning principles instead of merely carrying on the strategies implemented for the last decade in terms of urban development.