Creating a smart city requires the involvement of citizens, private and public sectors because technology alone cannot solve the world’s problems

Photo by Hugh Han on Unsplash

Many cities around the world are integrating digital technology, knowledge and assets to become smart cities. Think of cities such as Tokyo, Seoul, Amsterdam, London, and New York. Cities in Africa are rarely mentioned when there’s a discussion about smart cities. For example, Rwanda’s Kigali is the only African city listed in the top 50 Smart City Governments by the Eden Strategy Institute.

There are many definitions of what a “smart city” is. But it can be described as a city that uses information and communication technologies (ICT) to increase operational efficiency in services such as energy, transportation, and utilities and to improve both the quality of government services and citizen welfare. Speaking at the recent Civic Tech Innovation Network Food for Thought Breakfast session on smart cities, World Bank Smart Cities expert Minju No, said South Korea is a good example to look at when discussing smart cities from around the world.

South Korea, a smart city case study

No, shared global smart city strategies and solutions based on his international experience but with a specific focus on South Korea.

“In South Korea, their smart cities were successful because they focused on the development of smart cities that provide better services to citizens. Smart city developers provided services based on the demand of the citizens. South Korea is one of the leading smart cities around the world and their practices can help South Africa understand the concept of smart cities,” No said.

The lessons he shared focused on smart city strategies, governance and frameworks used in South Korea. He says that South Korea used six strategic directions in implementing smart cities:

(i) Citizen-centric: The smart city must be technically-centric and cater to the human needs of its citizens. It should be human-centric and add value to the city. It should take care of the old and young citizens. “For example, there is an ageing population in South Korea, to address their needs and welfare the government has installed CCTV cameras in each house to detect the health and welfare of the elderly and when they are unwell they can automatically call and send for help to the individual,” he added.

(ii) Innovative: It should be a structured city development which realises new technology to life.

(iii) Customized: Each smart city should be customised to its citizens and their needs. You should be able to differentiate the concept of the smart city and fit it to the characteristics of that city.

(iv) Convergent: It should use public data extremely well and develop new services and solutions for citizens.

(v) Sustainable: It should be a sustainable city able to implement smart city platforms and share smart city data and knowledge.

(vi) Open data: The private and public sectors should be able to work together; and internally and externally share open data, including open administrative and spatial data and cater to the demand-centric and attract the private sector.

“It is very important for South African public and private sectors to internally and externally share data such as general administration, culture & tourism, public health, and the environment because they can work together to create new services and products for the citizens.”

No, said that understanding these strategies can help South Africa in its smart city pursuit.

He also shared other factors that can affect the success of a smart city. “The progress and success of developing smart cities differ in each country because a smart city application depends on good city management, a good working relationship between the public and private sectors, as well as economic, political, environment and social features of the city. There are other factors which can also affect the progress including smart technology, big data, Internet of Things (IoT), ICTs, cloud technologies and much more.”

While the South Korean government found a way to incorporate smart city technology in their urbanisation and digitisation, No insists that African countries should find strategies that work for them but in whichever direction they take, “specialisation, customisation and participation should be at the top of the implementation strategy”.

Smart tech in smart cities

Phathizwe Malinga, chief executive of Sqwidnet shared his experiences in how the IoT is changing urban life as we know it. Malinga’s knowledge of IoT expands to smart sensors and how they can be used to change urban experiences and create new opportunities. He shared ways IoT is shaping South African cities into smart cities and how they can stay ahead of the maintenance curve.

“Cities have growing populations, people are moving into the city for a better quality of life but that means the city must be prepared for the influx. My interest is in the maintenance of the city and how IoT technology is being used in smart city infrastructure to address the growing challenges and the strain of city growth,” he said.

Malinga suggests that cities can stay ahead of the maintenance curve by using smart technology and he thinks IoT is starting to meet the expectations of the cities. “For example, let’s take the smart water system. If I have a smart water geyser or smart water system and the information comes to me I can act and help the city save water and this example could be seen in Cape Town during the recent drought.”

He gave another example of the air quality in Kalafong Heights, in Attredgeville, South Africa, where a company used a VLC monitor, wind gauge and a hydrogen sulphite sensor to tell what kind of smells are being emitted.

IoT has given way to many cities to create smart cities which are designed to improve efficiency and quality of life through data and technology. Although the future of smart cities use smart technology, human participation and collaboration is still important in the process.

Malinga echos No’s point on the importance of big data in smart cities. “The common ground for all smart cities is reliable data. Data helps cities in decision-making, big data can help cities study the city infrastructure, the influx, and to monitor and anticipate any other city issues. Smart cities can use IoT technology to collect data and efficiently use it in their services.”

City of Johannesburg’s smart city plan

Speaking on the sidelines is the director of the Smart City Unit at the City of Johannesburg (CoJ), Lawrence Boya, he said that the city is implementing a holistic approach towards becoming a smart city.

He said this approach is informed by the overall mayoral priorities which are encapsulated in the Game Changers, Diphetogo report.

“These [approaches] are focused on improving the stability and reliability of basic services such as water and power, and bring these services to more people, ensuring longer city service periods, opening up opportunity centres in the different regions of the city, and inner-city revitalization,” explained Boya.

“These priorities require smart approaches and technology to enable them. We will, therefore, be doing an extensive smart city technology review, to ensure that we have the necessary infrastructure and platforms to rapidly develop from pilot phases into the citywide implementation of smart solutions.”

Boya added that the development of a smart city in Johannesburg is still at the early stages, whereby the initiatives being implemented are still at a pilot stage. He shared some of the lessons the city has learnt so far:

“A smart city programme needs to be fully integrated into the Integrated​ Development Plan (IDP) of the city and become one with the IDP. When implementing a smart city programme, a holistic approach is required. The smart city ambition should be a societal ambition not just a top-down strategy from the city. All stakeholders and communities should be involved and a smart city should be citizen-centric, reflecting the desires of citizens, and addressing the needs of the citizens.”

Boya shared his hopes for CoJ’s smart city future: “Johannesburg must look and function like any other advanced city in the world. It must be spatially integrated, inclusive, livable, and sustainable. More of its citizens must have access to basic services such as water, sanitation, energy, waste removal services, access to broadband at a household level, housing, roads, and social amenities.

During the breakfast session, the speakers and attendees all agreed on one other thing; that creating a smart city requires the involvement from everyone, including city leadership, central governments, municipalities, private sector companies and citizens, because technology can only solve ‘so many problems’.