Africa’s Smart Cities of the Future: Ideologies and Shared Challenges

Africa is the second most populous continent in the world and its population is projected to double by 2050. It is also the world’s fastest growing continent and most of this growth is expected to be absorbed by urban areas. This rapid urbanisation continues to present unprecedented challenges for Africa’s urban areas as they grapple with an increasing infrastructure deficit exacerbated by sprawling and fragmented development. How will African urban areas absorb this population bulge against the backdrop of these multifaceted challenges and at the same improve overall quality of life? This is the fundamental question facing Africa’s policymakers, who are now starting to acknowledge the growing global trend of leveraging technological innovations of the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Over the past few years, several “smart cities” have been gradually emerging in various parts of the African continent. Smart cities make use of an integrated system of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) devices to improve city efficiency and improve quality of life. Prominent examples of emerging African smart cities include Eko Atlantic in Nigeria, Vision City in Rwanda, Konza Technology City in Kenya, Lanseria smart city in South Africa, and New Cairo in Egypt, among others. While it is still too early to gauge the socio-economic impact of these new smart cities, they present new opportunities for us to rethink our city planning approaches and accelerate the embedment of technology in our city fabrics. Due to Africa’s limited drawbacks in legacy systems, the continent also has a unique advantage of efficiently leveraging these technological transitions and easily implement new technologies.

However, the adoption of the smart city model in African cities has equally been subjected to considerable criticism in both the academic and professional circles of city planning. Concerns relate to these cities ultimately turning out to be profit driven spatial enclaves that will only appeal to and benefit a privileged minority. Poverty and inequality are rampant in Africa. For Africa’s smart cities to be truly inclusive and improve quality of life, citizen participation must be a non-negotiable. Citizens must be given a platform to actively engage in and influence decisions relating to the broad spectrum of smart city initiatives and their implementation.

Another key challenge directly linked to the above relates to conflicting views between developers and local planning authorities on the visions of these smart city development projects. A good case in point is the Modderfontein Smart City project in Johannesburg which was abandoned in 2016 as a result of the reluctancy of the developer to incorporate the wishes of the City Council in the plan. The research conducted by Ricardo Reboredo on this project’s failure indicates that the developer’s “…aspirations to produce a high-end, mixed-used development did not fit with the City of Johannesburg’s approach. Rather than a luxurious global hub, the city wanted a more inclusive development – one which reflected the principles outlined in its 2014 Spatial Development Framework”.

It is indisputable that for Africa’s future smart cities to be inclusive and achieve long term sustainability, a collaborative approach is needed. Citizens must be the focal point and technology be the enabler. This implies that there will be a great deal of demand for capabilities in interdisciplinary approaches to urban planning and technological innovation.  

About the author

Robert Ndebele

Robert Ndebele is a SACPLAN registered Professional Town and Regional Planner (Pr. Pln: A/2538/2017). He has over six years’ professional experience driving multifaceted projects in spatial planning policy and land development management.

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