Smart cities- action and policy: An argument for inclusive smart cities

The creation of a smart city is a multifaceted journey, a journey that is entirely hinged on the developmental level of each city and the day-to-day challenges experienced by its citizens.

The smarter cities series was wrapped up with the Policy and Action session, which focused on how South Africa is taking on the “smart city” concept — looking at how practically — what a “Smart City South Africa” agenda entails. Three panellists led the conversation, Sithole Mbanga, CEO of the South African Cities Network (SACN), Avril Williamson, Director-General: Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) and Engela Petzer from The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

To provide a brief overview of where South Africa currently in terms of smart cities, Williamson referred to the President’s State of the Nation Addresses in June 2019 and February 2020. She stated that the President’s dream of a smart city had ignited discussion around the notion of smart cities within the South African context. She described a “smart city as a city wherein investments in human and social capital, and traditional and modern communication infrastructure, fuel sustainable economic development and high quality of life, with prudent management of natural resources.” The national government has developed the Smart Cities Framework for South Africa based on this idea, this framework is developed in collaboration with the CSIR.

This framework allows the national government to enable, guide, support, coordinate, and accelerate smart city initiatives. In a nutshell, the framework involves:

  1. Developing smart cities guidance and policy,
  2. Establishing and supporting partnerships,
  3. Facilitating information sharing,
  4. Supporting research and development and
  5. Monitoring implementation (Progress and Outcomes).

Engela Petzer from the CSIR elaborated on this, presenting the key findings of a study the CSIR conducted, titled “Inclusive smart cities appropriate to the South African context”. She said a South African understanding of a smart city should be based on the principle of inclusivity.

“Asmart city initiative should improve the well-being of the entire city and that these initiatives should not have an adverse effect on certain communities or members of society. Moreover, a smart city initiative should not; further marginalise the poor and the vulnerable, it should acknowledge the “digital divide” (e.g. do not assume everyone is tech-savvy) and consider the diversity of potential participants.”

She added that municipalities should play a critical role in responding to the issue of building smart cities. Firstly, municipalities need to assess the smart readiness of a city by looking at its pre-conditions, meaning evaluate whether it’s able to provide basic services such as water, sanitation, electricity, shelter and economic opportunities under its current conditions. Secondly, municipalities ought to be enablers for implementing smart technologies. This essentially means that municipalities need to reflect on its means and ability to leverage smart technologies, such as having digital infrastructure, interconnection, intelligence and skilled people. In conclusion, she said, municipalities need impartial decision-support to identify context-specific smart city initiatives and select environment appropriate technologies.

Meanwhile, Sithole Mbanga dived to the core of what he thinks the focus of the smart cities agenda should be. Taking the participants through the history and legacy of slavery and colonisation in Africa, bringing this topic closer to home, he spoke about apartheid in the South African context and its relevance on governance in present time. He was using the challenges of apartheid’s spatial planning, water and road infrastructure to illustrate the legacy of apartheid and its impact on the urban space economy and the alignment of infrastructure development. Additionally, he said COVID-19 has intensified many systemic inequalities, from joblessness, women suffering from domestic abuse to systemic racism.

From a policy opportunity perspective, he said, “there’s a global, all-round, all-of-society consensus that the present disruption needs another disruption for a proper reset to be in motion. He identified four areas of action opportunity:

  1. Enhanced mobility of people, goods and services,
  2. Land tenure, settlements, spatial reconfiguration,
  3. Equitable exploitation of the digital world/generation/era and
  4. All these actions are underpinned by a sustainable development agenda.

In conclusion, Mbanga said; the smart city concept is about optimal convergence, the intersection of intelligent policy and action, it’s not about technology. Adding that the ultimate benefactor of the smart city should be its citizens.

The Smart Cities series webinar has presented us with an opportunity to think more broadly about the concept of smart cities in Africa. While smart cities can steer cities into designing opportunities for innovation and improved livelihoods, challenges during and after their development will have to be faced. Technological innovations for technology’s sake will not create solutions to some of Africa’s cities’ most pressing challenges such as inaccessible healthcare, poor road infrastructure, climate change and inadequate education systems. When promoting smart cities, municipalities and policymakers must keep the bigger picture in mind, ensuring well-implemented infrastructure that meets the needs of citizens — ensuring that no one is left behind.

This year’s Urban Festival, themed “Empowering the Civic” has presented us with a month (October) full of activity, inspiration, insights and engagement. The theme, Empowering the Civic was an exploration into how the physical and virtual world can be harnessed to engage people in reimagining and shaping their cities, both in these strange and uncertain COVID-19 pandemic times and into the future.

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