Exploring The African Smart Cities Summit

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The end of August marked the start of the fourth annual African Smart Cities Summit which was hosted completely virtually for the first time. This much-awaited digital event was dedicated to Africa’s smart city ambitions and sought to help attendees understand what must be done to ensure that the cities of tomorrow are resilient, connected, safe and prosperous. It also aimed to help attendees explore lessons learned, challenges faced and winning solutions in various smart city projects, help them network and do business with key public and private sector players and to discover how public and private sectors can better collaborate to drive economic growth.

The welcome and keynote address was conducted by CEO of the South African Cities Network, Sithole Mbanga, who would be discussing government leadership and public policy that is driving smarter cities in Africa. After a warm and inspiring welcome, Sithole jumped into the first topic of the summit.

Sithole stated that urbanisation in Africa in full swing, as the fastest urbanising continent in the world. The principles that need to be considered include putting technology in place for a young and technology-savvy population, putting government systems in place that are responsive to the times and putting the type of socio-economic policy and agenda in place that promotes responsibility, efficiency and openness.

In the official first session of the summit, moderator Reuben Reddy, President of the South African Institute of South Africa, introduced speakers Richard Matchett, the digital lead at Zutari and director at BIMcommUNITY.Africa and Bridget Shoo, Regional Director of the Middle East, Africa, C&E, Europe and Central Asia for The High Commission of the Republic of Singapore.

The topic for this session included projects and policies, innovative funding, and investment for smart-city developments where the leaders’ plenary panel would be unpacking the opportunities for innovative funding and investment for smart-city developments.

After introductions, Richard Matchett spoke briefly on his company BIMcommUnity, a community that encourages building information modelling (BIM) across the continent. The driver to create this community was that many people were speaking about BIM and they wanted to bring that conversation into a single understanding. Richard added that during the last two years, they have been sharing knowledge and experiences in a communal manner and allowing collective awareness of what is possible in technology and how to leverage it effectively.

Richard emphasised that smart cities require smart systems, people and infrastructure. There is a need to recognise humanity in smartness as cities are where people and communities live, and thus smart cities needs to add value to the citizens. The main focus is on how infrastructure is delivered to allow smart city infrastructure to work.

Speaking next, Bridget Shoo spoke about the High Commission of the Republic of Singapore and their journey to becoming a smart city. Primarily this commission is a government-led institution that works around smart interventions to create a smart nation. This is driven around the introduction of technology in all levels of life. Bridget stated that Singapore’s goal is to collectively build better cities to support the vibrancy of smart ecosystems, improve citizen wellbeing, environmental sustainability and economic development. Singapore doesn’t have space, natural resources or manpower, therefore their relationship with technology is a necessity to overcome these natural constraints.

Bridget informed the attendees of the three main pillars that drives the development of their smart city, namely, implementing a digital government where the digital capabilities in government improve public service delivery and co-create solutions, digital society where they are enhancing digital access for all parts of society and boosting the economy so that various industries thrive and flourish with the advantages that technology provides. Additionally, Bridget added, there is a clear message that this is a whole nation effort and that is why this initiative is led by different industries in a coordinated approach together with the government.

Thereafter the speakers engaged in an interesting discussion on the importance of a design-led and uniform approach in order for technology to be unified and allow for the co-creation of solutions in addition to the funding sources and mechanisms where innovative business models are used to fund projects often with collaboration between private and public sector and even the citizens in a crowdsourcing capacity in one-to-one matching scenarios.

In the second session the chairman, Nomonde Ngxola, Executive Head of Business Operations introduced the speakers, Rose Moyo the Senior ICT Solution Expert at Huawei Enterprise Southern Africa, Pieter Pienaar the Chairman of the IoT Industry Council from South Africa and Dominic Papa the Vice President of the Smart State Initiatives at the Arizona Commerce Authority in the USA.

The topic that was discussed in this session was connectivity as a utility. The concept of a smart city would not be possible without ubiquitous broadband telecommunications as quality and reliability of connectivity is critical. This session looked to motivate why broadband infrastructure should be viewed as a utility like electricity and water and also examined the high cost of bandwidth while examining the effectiveness of smart cities.

Nomonde started the discussion by asking the speakers to talk about how to make smart cities’ utilities practical and tangible while ensuring accountability, taking into account the digital divide as the backbone hinges on a good quality network.

Rose responded first, saying that by putting this task into perspective, bringing digital to every person needs to be based on data and trends to “transform the world” into digital signals. It needs to be intelligent and bring value to every address in the city. Rose emphasised that nothing can be done in isolation and that the mobility of data and the overall infrastructure is extremely important. Connectivity is critical to bridge the national divide and ensure inclusivity.

Rose added that in order to make use of applications that provide these smart services, high bandwidth and secure cybersecurity is paramount. Additionally, processes need to be in place to connect people within silos in data systems so that there is a fully connected compass and full convergence. Rose emphasised that, due to the amount of information required to fully harness data within smart cities, cloud infrastructures are required.

The next speaker Pieter, started by stating that a smart city starts with data integrity. He encourages the community to consider a smart city from the ground up as the architecture that brings together a range of technologies is very important. Other technologies that will enable other areas of that are split into consumers, utilities and machines.

Internet of things (IoT) is made of machine-based applications that bases information required to increase efficiencies of municipalities and then rolls out to more sophisticated applications. Pieter stated that the approach is to look at basics and utilities to make service delivery and billing more effective and reduce challenges. He stated that they are working on a model that works with the development bank, president and 4.0 commission for a POC site for small and large municipalities that is multi-deployable to the most rural and metropolitan areas. The quality of data is key to achieve the goal as the data received must be trustworthy and managed properly.  

The last speaker Dominic started by stating that he works for the US government and works on the government’s model of smart cities. He went on to say that while IoT is great, unless there is a budget and plan, technology can be difficult to afford and deploy. What was focussed on was how to get cities and governments to collaborate and see that collaboration is a competitive advantage.

Dominic explained that in the greater Phoenix region there are 22 cities and towns that range from the fifth largest city in the country to the very smallest city and also includes both very urban and very rural environments. The governments approach was to achieve a smart region rather than just individual smart cities. This approach helps to connect the unconnected in these areas as inclusivity is key.

Dominic emphasised that scalability is important in creating playbooks that all people can learn from, adopt and deploy in a sustainable way. In its execution, it involved building a broadband taskforce where mayors come together to prioritise infrastructure investments and scale purchasing power to ensure all areas benefit. It is building a governance model where mayors can purchase technologies and infrastructures within large and small communities so both urban and rural places can benefit.

Thereafter all speakers discussed the challenges within government response times, transparency within government projects, citizen involvement and collaboration, smart cities in rural areas, IoT adoption, skill development in preventing job loss, inter-city co-operation, upskilling municipality staff and what is required in training the next generation of work force to understand technologies and governance models.

All attendees will agree that these discussions will form the backbone of real plans and strategies to build a smart city effectively with inclusivity and transparency as top of mind. The following two sessions promised even more valuable insights into what the future of smart cities will look like in Africa. 

The Second Half of the Huawei Smart Cities Summit

The second half of the fourth annual African Smart Cities Summit was met with much enthusiasm. Attendees seemed to be enjoying the virtual nature of the summit, this being the first time that it has been run fully digitally. The first half of the day proved to be full of interesting insights, initiatives, and hopeful discussions about Africa’s slow but inexorable march towards digital transformation and smart cities.

The third session on smart mobility for sustainability started with the chairman, Founder of the Mobility Centre for Africa and Mzansi Aerospace Technologies, Victor Radebe, warmly introducing the first speaker, Sasheen Rajkumar the Project Engineer at The South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL). He would be talking about road development for smarter infrastructure. This discussion would include the challenges and opportunities associated with transport systems and operations, infrastructure, and logistics management in support of industrial and sustainable development.

Sasheen stated that SANRAL is in charge of 22 000 km of road infrastructure and connects the country’s major centres. Sasheen emphasised that the major problem with regards to road congestion, lack of mobility and road capacity is too many cars on the road with low occupancy. The solution in reducing vehicle numbers by increasing vehicle occupancy would be through rapid public transport, encouraging carpooling and ridesharing, efficient ride hailing services, and encouraging modern food and goods delivery services. Roads can unlock development but there is very limited space to widen roads and interchanges which is why planning is so important.

Sasheen added that the main elements of smart mobility include being affordable, to meet the needs of all socio-economic classes, being integrated for a multimodal travel system, being connected where digital platforms are connected to the internet, being environmentally, economically and infrastructurally sustainable and being efficient and trustworthy to be on time and reliable.

SANRAL’s solution is to provide a smarter and more connected system that includes partnerships that allow for an integrated road and rail infrastructure. He stated that this would include partnerships with municipalities and law enforcement partnerships to maximise the mobility of people, allow for better planning and co-ordinated use of roads and significantly enhance road safety.  

Victor then introduced the speakers on driving smarter infrastructure for smarter mobility, Kevin Mutia, Professional Officer of Urban Systems in ICLEI Africa, and Edem Foli the Programme Manager of uYilo e-Mobility Programme in South Africa. They would be discussing technology developments that will support effective reforms for smarter transportation networks.

Edem was the first speaker and explained that the uYilo e-Mobility Programme was initiated by technology innovation and that their activities are focussed on looking at pilot projects, thought leadership and the creation of business models related to electric mobility.

Kevin introduced his department within his organisation, the urban systems unit, which is a global membership organisation with 1700 local governments that are committed to sustainability and accelerating change while promoting action. The urban resource network looks to create smart cities with local government as catalysts to contextualise the idea of smart cities in Africa.  

Thereafter the speakers engaged in a riveting discussion on the challenges and opportunities of a transition to the electric vehicle, the skill development framework required to avoid a loss of jobs in this transition, smart urban planning to reduce unnecessary uses of land such as parking spaces, options for varied mobility systems, the inclusivity and affordability of mobility, ways to reduce road occupancy and make vehicles more fuel efficient, micro mobility options and the requirements of infrastructure projects in addition to government and private sector involvement.

In the fourth session on envisioning Africa’s future, the chairman, Ntsiki Mkhize, Founder and Chief Social Entrepreneur at MentHer South Africa welcomed attendees and spoke on the first topic of the session: making cities for youth and our future generations.

Ntsiki introduced her organisation, MentHer South Africa, which aims to empower females through various initiatives with the help of volunteer organisations to drive change. These initiatives include a social impact founders club, MentHer magazine, MentHer chapters, a virtual incubator and MentHer hubs which are township-based co-working and makers’ spaces.

Ntsiki then welcomed the first speaker Henning Rasmuss, the Founding Director of the Paragon Group in South Africa. He would be speaking on an African Journey through a continent littered with Smart City visions and sought to take an in-depth look into the Smart Cities across the African continent.

Henning stated that although he is an architect, for this topic he speaks as a citizen. He emphasised that smart cities require smart citizens. A common new trend is the seductive images of futuristic cities that potentially provide a different image than what might be practical. The reality of building cities is that they are long term projects, and in some cases, politicians are only for short-term gain.

Henning emphasised that the imagery of smart cities is an embedded mythical thing where some of it is a Hollywood version of Africa. Aesthetically and culturally, smart cities should have a localised expression that shows African citizens in African cities. Africans have the right to see buildings that have architectural and a cultural extension that expresses where they are in the world.

Henning added that there needs to be a social compact where there is a values-based engagement between the government and all individuals. Currently, Africa does not have the best basis for smart cities, but we need to build this base every day. Citizens carry a heavy load as the cities don’t work well for them and there is a responsibility to contribute by thinking and acting like smart citizens. Henning concluded that ultimately it would be better to properly fix the cities that we have rather than build new smart cities as this makes more social and economic sense and allows for maximum inclusion.

Man on his phone.

Ntsiki went on to introduce the next speakers of the session, Professor Barry Dwolatzky, the Director of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering at the School of Electrical and Information Engineering in Wits in South Africa, Jabu Makhubu, a lecturer at the Architecture and Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, David Olatunji, the President and Founder of the African Smart Cities Innovation Foundation, Trevor Rammitlwa, the Chief Executive Officer of the National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa (NEMISA) and Malani Padayachee-Samaan the Chief Executive Officer of the MPAMOT Group in South Africa.

These speakers would be discussing skills development and new foundational skills in smart cities and would examine how we can develop the professionals of the future since smart cities are home to disruptive innovations and emerging industries.

The first speaker, Professor Barry stated that underlying any smart city is digital and one needs good connectivity to make it work. In addition, he constantly thinks about the huge challenge his children will face when the population looks to double in 2050 and 60% will be living in cities. We are going to have to do a lot of things to make cities work and make them much better through digital technology and transformation. It will be about creating lives where people have what they need. It is the skills that we need that will underpin this technology. Professor Barry added that it will include the technology that we are using now but we will be using it to scale and we will be doing more ambitious things with it. At the core we need to educate people and make them comfortable with digital to grow the technology and the environment.

The next speaker, Jabu, stated that smart cities are a built environment where urban design and the problem of making space is central. He added that current city structures were built on Apartheid and colonial mechanisms which don’t reflect the African experience of the city. Creating a smart city can’t be done without understanding the textures of the city and context. Jabu stated that we must adopt African principles and values.

Thereafter Trevor stated that smart cities should not necessarily be new cities that will be built in a different space but should be a transformation of what we have already. It should strive to further integrate those who were previously excluded and should integrate with the cultural and social fabric of how we live. In addition, it should talk to the current or future trends that are emerging. He stated that this will influence the skills that will be required which he believes will involve several different levels.

Up next, Malani stated that one must consider what a smart citizen looks like. This is a concept that needs to be explored, as the mature active citizen will dictate what form a smart city would take. She added that she is a firm believer that in order to consider smart cities, there needs to be an understanding of what our needs are in the continent to address the legacy issues that exist first. We must get the young population ready to drive smart cities forward and fast track opportunities to address infrastructure.

The last speaker, David stated that we only need to modernise to create modern cities as we have all the structures already. It’s just a case of introducing technology and innovation into existing infrastructure. However, doing this just on a private sector level is not easy. It is down to the government to assist in providing the Africa that we want. It is important for policy makers to ensure that this is driven to be beneficial to the citizens and investors.

The speakers then went on to discuss the emphasis of innovation within thinking, creating technology that meets our needs, support required for innovators, requirements from citizens to co-create smart cities in Africa and globalised information. They also spoke about African-based building designs, breaking the digital divide, the role of connectivity, future-proofing cities, the role of the government and youth, smart technology patents, data-centric research, circular economies, and policies enabling innovation.

After a short break, Sithole Mbanga introduced the last set of panellists, Dominic Papa, the Vice President of the Smart State Initiatives from the Arizona Commerce Authority in the USA, Kabir Muhammad Mansur, a part of the Surveyors Council of Nigeria from the Nigeria Smart City Initiatives (NSCI), Eugene Seah, the Managing Director of Smart City Solutions in Surbana Jurong, Middle East, Asia & Africa, Eng. John Tanui the Chief Executive Officer of Konza Technopolis Development Authority in Kenya and Willie Vos the Chief Executive Officer of the Waterfall Management Company in South Africa.

This group discussed the practical examples of global and local smart city solutions and implementations. They examined in great detail the practical case studies from local and international smart and sustainable city initiatives to discover how innovative solutions and technologies can help African cities overcome challenges and become better.

The summit ended with attendees feeling inspired and hopeful that African smart cities are not only possible but when realised, would usher in a new age of improved service delivery, inclusivity and daily life for all.

This post and content is sponsored, written and provided by Huawei.

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