In both emerging and developed economies, city planners are increasingly turning toward technology to solve logistical problems and to enhance overall liveability.
In the case of fast-developing cities such as Nairobi and Johannesburg, for example, planners are contending with rapid urbanisation, ageing infrastructure and a growing middle class that is demanding seamless service delivery.
With high-speed internet connectivity now an essential feature of any smart urban development (increasingly, it’s the fourth utility – after water, gas and electricity), it is no surprise that many urban developers and planners are embracing the concept of smart cities.
In essence, smart cities harness a wide, sophisticated network of connected devices (the Internet of Things) to better coordinate and manage a city or community’s assets.
Locally, the concept is undoubtedly gaining traction as a way to promote environmental sustainability, enhance civic efficiency and service delivery, and to bring cheaper connectivity to more people.
Jacques du Toit, CEO of Vox Telecom, a local ICT provider, says that in South Africa, planned communities are in fact leading the local race towards becoming truly integrated, smart developments – and not Johannesburg, Durban or Cape Town, as one would have expected.
“While the smart city concept is gaining momentum in SA, local cities are still a long way off when compared to their counterparts in the US, Europe or Dubai,” he says.
“A major challenge deals with the issue of legacy – it’s why we don’t believe that the first smart city in SA will be Johannesburg or Cape Town.
These major urban areas have been built over a period of time using closed systems that aren’t designed to connect or communicate with each other.”
According to Du Toit, the more promising smart city environments are being driven by developers who are entering into strategic partnerships with ICT providers to deliver broadband internet access to planned mixed-use communities, and also to large-scale shopping centres.
“With a 100Mbps broadband link and WiFi connectivity from day one, each home in one of these planned communities has the potential to be a smart home, with built-in security and entertainment being just the start,” he explains.
“This is then extended to the broader community – technology can be used by authorities to better manage the use of street lights, the collection of waste, and to cut down on water wastage, while residents can find parking more easily.”
He adds that in SA, the country’s “unique challenges” require stakeholders to build from the inside out, with connected homes in multiple smart communities ultimately being combined to form smart city environments.
Long term vision, leadership
For SA’s cities to make any real progress towards the Internet of Things (IoT) and seamless connectivity, stronger partnerships will be required, coupled with coordinated leadership.
Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of technology consultancy World Wide Worx, says that any successful smart city roll-out requires leadership, vision and a clear strategy for all stakeholders.
“The primary challenge now is that there is no coordinating body or coordinating set of regulations that facilitates the roll-out,” he explains.
“We can see that with fibre networks. There are different companies trenching the same pavements, which is an absurdity made possible by the fact that there is no framework of regulation for this sort of infrastructure roll-out.”
As a result of this piecemeal approach to urban development, Goldstuck argues that we only really have “starter building blocks” with regard to our smart city ambitions.
“In the same way that town and city planning is both science and art with project management at its heart, smart cities need a careful, step-by-step process,” he adds.
“It is not something that can be thrown together in a haphazard fashion, unless you want a chaotic, unintegrated web of services that do not support each other or the overall objective.”
With regard to leadership, however, the country’s volatile politics and ever-changing leadership dynamic is a definite stumbling block for coordinated urban planning.
Du Toit notes: “If we talk metropoles, one of the challenges [for smart cities] is the regular change in leadership.
After working with a team of people and building the relationship, if there is a change in leadership, then one has to build those relationships up again and start the entire process from scratch.
So suppliers can become susceptible to deal fatigue.”
Added to this, he says that regulatory issues are a challenge, as “government is not always aligned with supporting innovative thinking”.
Innovative thinking need not be attached to grand visions of a city that runs entirely on smart sensors – it can just focus on working towards a city that is sustainable, environmentally friendly and efficient.
Development frameworks can start small, and find affordable ways to immediately enhance service delivery.
“Smart cities use recent advances in communications and digital technologies, data sharing and analysis, and intelligent design to make cities more liveable, resilient, economically sound, and sustainable,” says Reggie Nxumalo, general manager at Philips Lighting Southern Africa.
“However, smart cities do not always have to equate to employing the latest and greatest technology or trends like IoT or big data analytics to affect change.”
For instance, he notes that conventional street lighting can account for as much as 40% of a city’s total energy budget.
By just switching to LED, cities can reduce the energy consumed by street lights by 30% or more.
By integrating wireless communications into an area’s lighting systems, businesses can ultimately deliver location-based services and real-time information via mobile apps to people in illuminated spaces.
According to Nxumalo, connected lighting provides businesses with “greater customer insight and a superior customer experience”, while it also creates personalised workspaces by adding a layer of intelligence to the environment – which responds and adapts to people’s needs.
Jennifer Belissent, principal analyst serving customer insights at research firm Forrester, says that the lighting example (sometimes referred to as LiFi, whereby lamps are hubs of connectivity), demonstrates how incremental services added to an asset or infrastructure can present huge opportunities for cities and communities.
“When I was a teacher in the Central African Republic, I often saw my students on the street in the evening reading under the street lamps,” Belissent explained.
“Now with new technology, those lamps can provide additional services such as WiFi, electricity through solar power, or any number of services.
For cities the lamp posts have moved beyond just providing light and can host other services and provide a source of revenue.”
A city’s ambitions
So what will it take for local city planners to incorporate these types of innovations?
Nxumalo is optimistic, asserting that we are not too far off from the smaller smart city implementations, especially given that a great deal of the required infrastructure is already in place.
“To implement connected lighting systems, for example, we can work with existing infrastructure – the only new element is the luminaire,” he says.
“So this solution is really accessible. Ultimately, technology represents a mindset challenge – leaders have not been thinking about development around connected devices.
It’s about ambition… where do you peg your ambitions as a city?”
For urban ambitions of any sort to be realised, whether it’s connected street lamps or sensors that direct traffic, coordinated leadership and strong partnerships are required.
While ICT providers are working hard to raise awareness and educate other stakeholders around the many benefits of connected cities and communities, grassroots leadership has to buy into the concept wholeheartedly.
Until then, any smart city development will be sporadic, haphazard and fragmented.
Vox Telecom’s Du Toit comments: “Smart city initiatives often fail because of this siloed approach to city management, and overhauling these systems requires substantial investment.
“As such, turning existing urban environments into smart cities takes time, and upgrades need to be implemented in a staggered and economically sustainable manner. Government and city leaders have a critical role in the facilitation – by bringing their teams in line with what the private sector has got to offer.”
This article originally appeared in the 24 August edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.