Citizen participation may be the key to building African smart cities

Smart cities and digital technologies present opportunities that can better public services for citizens, enable efficient use of resources and minimise environmental impact.

Similarly, Smart cities can provide innovative solutions to urban infrastructure and new opportunities for governance and better and inclusive decision making processes in Africa. This article shares some of the key highlights from our Smart Cities and Participation webinar.

In partnership with the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s Strong Cities 2030 CTIN presented the “Smart Cities and Participation” webinar, featuring Julien Carbonnel, Simina Lazar from ASToN Network which is supported by the Agence Française de Développement (AFD)Agence Nationale pour la Renovation Urbaine and Urbact, Derrick Demeveng from GeOsm and Charlynn Ainembabazi from Kampala Capital City Authority.

The webinar focused on how communities and their stakeholders can engage in making “smart cities” and the lessons from around the world that Africa can draw from. Principles that can be employed and cautions about the future of African smart city-making emerged.

What the research says

Carbonnel kick-started the conversation by sharing some of the insights he has gained through his comparative cultural study that examined Stakeholder Engagement in Smart-City. The study investigated three cities; Taipei in Taiwan, Tel Aviv in Israel and Tallinn in Estonia. In his research,

Carbonnel set the scene by highlighting some of the contextual factors that influenced the cross-cultural insights. These included state agenda, multi-stakeholders’ national branding, how geopolitical contexts shape the priorities and tendencies of the ecosystem and the human resource investment strategy for the states to succeed. He used some of his research work on the Smart-City as a basis or model for African urbanisation, stating that Civic Technology tools can be used to strengthen democracies on the continent.

He presented various examples that included; using public events for citizen engagement in political decision-making, encouraging the involvement of robust civil society. Furthermore, he spoke about the development of inclusive policies and practices of open-governance and having smart-city devices for extended and improved citizenship experiences.

Carbonnel is of the view that it is only through citizen participation and citizen can African smart cities be built. He added that most smart-city projects in Africa tend to promote international aspirations, with very little connection to local inhabitants primary needs. He emphasised the need for African governments to identify the needs of their citizens better, so as to better deliver products and services that fit their daily realities.

Closing off he said, smart cities can provide innovative solutions for African cities through the use of civic tech as an enabler to create more sustainable and culturally appropriate solutions that have a positive impact on local economies, citizen mobility and the environment. However, this can only be achieved if the citizens are involved in the design of the smart city. More of Julien Carbonnel’s work around smart cities can be found here.

African Projects/Examples

Carbonnel also brought Derrick Demeveng from GeOsm, to present the open-source location intelligence platform for Africa. GeOsm is an ecosystem of actors, relationships and resources who all play a leading role in developing, enhancing, and sustaining Open-Geodata based applications, a critical infrastructure for Africa’s digital transformation. Derrick elaborated on the work they do at GeOsm, stating that “smart cities in an African context require intelligent planning and an active citizenry rather than the overlay of technological solutions more applicable to international markets such as Europe.”

Simina Lazar introduced the ASToN (African Smart Towns Network), a network that brings 11 African cities together to develop digital practices to create sustainable and inclusive cities. ASToN is a flagship programme financed by the French Development Agency (AFD), managed by the French National Urban Renovation Agency (ANRU) and inspired by URBACT knowledge and tools. ASToN promotes the use of digital tools for more effective management of local public finances and urban services, appropriate management of public action and more effective citizen participation. Lazar presented the baseline study ASToN conducted, which aimed to question what digital transformation means for Africa and African cities and where the starting point is.

Lazar echoed Carbonnel’s points and added that “Digital connectivity presents a huge opportunity for governments to engage with citizens. If adopted effectively by municipalities, this could lead to much more effective decision making and improved user experiences for citizens. If adopted poorly, it may result in the decay of trust between citizens and institutions, underwritten by ineffective processes and systems”, she said.

Furthermore, she implored the participants to consider the risks and rewards of digital transformation in the African context. Stating that these present a need to leverage digital technologies for benefit in cities and municipalities and that local authorities need to see themselves as strategists and enablers of the complex systems that result from such a transformation and be prepared to anticipate emerging technologies, large datasets, and the disruption this may present.

Lazar wrapped up her presentation by introducing Charlynn Ainembabazi, ASToN project coordinator at Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) in Uganda.

Ainembabazi said that through the ASToN project, “KCCA has placed a strong emphasis on automation of processes in service delivery like Revenue Management System (e-Citie), smart permits, traffic control centre, digital communication among others”. She continued to talk about the KCCA’s commitment to harness the power of digital towards improved service delivery.

She emphasised the KCCA’s commitment to ensuring citizen participation, adding that local innovation and technology scene is robust in Kigali, and the national government has taken the development of this ecosystem as one of its priorities. Some of the ways that the KCCA ensures that it’s able to achieve its goals is by connecting, supporting, and empowering citizens to innovate for sustainable development — improving the efficient movement of people and goods within Kampala. Governance is a pivotal aspect of their strategic plans, ensuring openness and transparency, accountability with the use of digital services and technologies that improve customer service.

After the session, it was clear that African smart cities will not be identical, as each location is different and require different solutions that speak to Africa’s diversity. The making of African smart-cities must involve engagement between local governments, its different stakeholders and the participation of the populace for improved, convenient and more efficient everyday life. The role of government is to promote open, transparent, democratised data that will encourage more citizen participation and empowerment.

The function of a smart city is to promote efficiencies, which can be operationalised through environmentally friendly traffic flow management and waste management systems, digital civic services and the promotion of healthy lifestyles, to name a few — a clear indicator that a smart city cannot exist without the collaboration of public and private interests.

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