What does a smart city look like?

A few years ago this finweek correspondent attended a conference in Barcelona on the Internet of Things and Smart Cities.

The city of Barcelona had partnered with various private sector players to test smart city technologies through pilot projects.

Delegates got to interact with bus stops that had been turned into WiFi hotspots. Smart parking spots allowed commuters to log into an app and find the nearest available spot to park, and the city could tell when you had overstayed and didn’t have to rely on random monitoring to issue tickets for parking violations.

Efficiencies in waste and refuse systems had been created, with sensors monitoring smell and gas build-up and waste.

Refuse removal trips were planned so that half-full storage containers were not emptied.

Water supply and distribution were monitored and problems picked up by the system, not through complaints.

Museums illustrated how they had digitised their entire collections. This had taken them from being national or regional museums to international online museums. 

On the streets of Barcelona, tourists were able, via their phones, to have virtual interactions with the history of certain sites in the city.  All very impressive. 

But when considering the state of internet connectivity in South Africa, it did feel as if many of these technologies were for the developed world. After all, we live in a country where #DataMustFall is top of mind for many South Africans.

Increased urbanisation

Globally, cities produce more than 80% of economic output and are critical to the world economy.

In SA, the eight largest cities house 37% of the population and contribute 59% of economic activity.

But SA’s cities are expanding rapidly. It is estimated that by 2050, 80% of all South Africans will be living in one of its cities.

While our cities cannot create enough jobs for all residents, the average metropolitan income for an SA resident is 60% higher than the national average and four times that of rural residents. 

Economic migration is on the increase and the race for the best skilled residents is becoming increasingly competitive.

Cities need to think about how to attract today’s global workforce, and citizens from within its own country, to become residents.

Reshaad Sha, chief strategy officer at Dark Fibre Africa (DFA), says the increased levels of urbanisation that SA’s cities face mean that they have to have a long-term plan to manage six key areas.

He lists these as:

  • Electricity/Gas
  • Sanitation/Waste
  • Safety/Security
  • Water
  • Transportation/Traffic management
  • Connectivity

He says SA’s cities should plan for how they will deliver these services, to its current and future residents, and believes there is not enough long-term planning in SA’s cities.

According to him there should be a 50-year-plan that addresses all of these areas. And when you take into account future population and economic growth, it becomes clear that these services will increasingly need to be automated.

“It’s not possible for all these things to be managed by people. We need to build a lot of intelligence into these areas.”

How smart are SA’s cities?

Johannesburg and Cape Town are seen as leaders in the race to become a smart city, yet they are only just out of the starting blocks in the bigger scheme of things.

Both have announced smart city strategies – Johannesburg has its Growth and Development Strategy 2040, while Cape Town has its Smart Cape project.

Both have prioritised the roll-out of WiFi hotspots and begun installing smart meters, but these are seen as mere building blocks of a smart city.

This year, Johannesburg was ranked as the top African city in terms of sustainable urban development and ICT maturity. It was ranked 35th (it dropped from 29th place in 2014) on the 2016 Ericsson Networked Society City Index, with the only other African cities being Cairo at 37 and Lagos at 40.

It’s what you do with the data

“There is no room for a city not to be smart,” says Sha.

DFA builds, installs and maintains a communications network of more than 10 000km and offers both inner metro transmission and long-haul transmission, meaning that both your email to a friend in the same city and to one on the other side of the country may travel on its network.

DFA started rolling out its network in 2007 and has invested over R5bn in its fibre infrastructure. It’s networks like these that create the environment for smart city technologies to be put in place.

“The future for smart cities is not 2020, it’s tomorrow, it’s this afternoon,” says Sha. “Today there are lots of efficiencies that can be created through the use of operational technologies.”

Operational technologies are at the heart of the smart city concept. They are the OT to information technologies’ IT.

Objects, whether they are smart electricity meters, smart parking sensors or smart waste monitoring sensors, have a certain level of operational intelligence built in so that they can collect and transmit data. This data can then be transmitted to a storage site.

But it’s how the data is used and analysed that creates the real benefits.

“It’s not about saying this is a smart meter,” says Sha. “A smart meter is just a basic building block, it’s what you do with the information from that smart meter.”

A smart utility can measure consumption of electricity by the hour and transmit this information back to the utility daily. It also allows for two-way communication between meter and utility.

“How do I find optimisations, efficiencies and savings from that information?” he asks. “It’s still a dumb meter if you are not using the data properly.”

In essence, all cities are going to have to hire teams of data wranglers to turn the data into useful chunks that can help drive service delivery and policies, making living in the city a more pleasant experience and a much cheaper place to live.

Cape Town’s WhereIsMyTransport app, which helps residents coordinate access to public transport, is an example of a more innovative smart city solution for residents.  

The city and national planning

A recent report by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) argues that the ”centrality of the city” is not evident in South African policy documents, that even the National Development Plan only devotes a few pages to cities in its chapter on transforming human settlements.

The report argues that cities need to play a much greater role in national policy-making and suggests amending the Constitution to give SA’s largest metros the same political and fiscal standing as the provinces.

It argues that this will allow them to take direct responsibility for schooling and healthcare, which are currently managed by provinces.

The report suggests that the current human settlement programme results in RDP homes being built on the cheapest land, which is often poorly located at the outskirts of the city and creates a transportation headache for residents. These transport costs, whether borne by the state or residents, are unsustainable and cities’ housing policies need to be reconfigured.

“Instead of building more RDP houses, existing home owners should be provided with incentives to build second or third dwellings on their properties. This would reduce the cost of housing provision, because bulk infrastructure and roads are already present.”

The report said it would also positively increase city density and provide homeowners with potential revenue sources. It suggests a political system which allows for directly elected mayors, who should build their campaigns around what they would do for the city and how.

This is a shortened version of an article that originally appeared in the 15 December edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.

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