Tech holds key to making cities liveable, sustainable


Smart cities are not simply about connecting devices and services, rather it is a means to offer and progressively re-establish quality lifestyle. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Across the world, cities are seen as places that drive diverse economic activities luring people to settle there for better lives. In Africa in particular, rural urban migration in search of job opportunities has continued despite cities not been agile and adequately equipped to accommodate the influx.

In East Africa for example, and with inadequate development roadmaps to guide the continual development, cities are often overpopulated and this has stretched the infrastructure and other social amenities.

The consequences of this unpreparedness have been evident during times of crisis. Chaos has been the hallmark with city authorities in most East Africa cities frantically struggling to contain diverse crisis including floods, fires and unrest.

But there is hope. Smart cities.

In developed countries, cities have been evolving to respond to the needs of a changing world that is highly connected. In these cities, technology and data have been key drivers of transformation. This means harnessing emerging innovations such as internet of things, artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data in order to make them more liveable, workable and sustainable.

Smart people and governance

People are always attracted to the extensive opportunities offered by cities. Cities must therefore put people at the centre of their vision.

Many city leaders tend to focus on the type of businesses or industries they wish to attract but if cities are to be smart enough, the focus needs to shift to the type of people they want to attract and plan accordingly.

It is people who create prosperity, start businesses and build communities. Incheon, South Korea, for example plans to attract expatriates and authorities are consequently designing the entire city vision to attract that group.

A smart city has coordinated leadership and promotes collaboration across government, industries and businesses which leads the way and enhances connection with citizens. Investments and resources in smart cities tend to be better managed by the government and lends itself better to leveraging other collective intelligence of the city.

The government is a major development catalyst for smart cities through infrastructure development, planning for land use, land aggregation, financing and creating opportunities for investors, business and its citizens to thrive.

It is not enough to create quality and affordable housing and work spaces, smart cities must also have common and social areas, green areas, public spaces, parks and identifiable structures that help associate the city with its identity.

Connecting people and business
Kenya’s e-citizen, Irembo in Rwanda and Ghana’s Immigration Service (GIS) e-migration system, have all provided platforms where citizens can access and pay for government services online.

In India, Kolkata Municipal Corporation modernised its service delivery systems that aimed at improving various aspects of administration and leadership structures. As a result, a web portal was developed and there was a process to redesign IT and accounting systems.

Through these technology platforms, service delivery has become more effective and there is better urban planning which has led to increased investment.

In Singapore, Govtech, a government technology agency has the mandate of establishing the necessary smart infrastructure, applications and platforms in the quest for making the city smarter and sustainable. Good governance in the establishment of smart cities establishes a balance between commercial expertise and accountability.

It is high time for African governments to consider adopting this approach if we are serious about achieving value for money as we invest limited resources.

Smart mobility

Traffic congestion has been a major pain point for cities around the globe leading to pollution and the loss of productive time. In most East African cities for example, efforts to decongest on many occasions have not yielded the desired results and instead, chaos has ensued because of the failure to implement holistic approaches.

However, a city with a technology-enabled infrastructure platform that provides for multiple modes of mobility, one that is safe enough for walking and cycling can help in solving the current crisis. Use of intelligent traffic management technology with the help of real-time data from traffic sensors and cameras can also help prevent congestion.

Ethiopia has been one of the first countries in Africa to implement a smart parking solution within its city centre through automated silos which lift vehicles into designated parking spaces at a low cost per hour. Smart parking will help in monitoring of parking spaces, apprising drivers on free parking locations and space availability as well as online parking payment.

Dedicated biking lanes in the city like the ones on Thika Superhighway, promote a cycling city hence cleaner air, reduced traffic congestion and cheap and easy form of transportation making cities more appealing to young people.

Sustainable environment

Smart cities must be sustainable hence the need to embrace the concept of environment sustainability. In Africa, disparities in household income in cities is a key determinant of where people live, the energy used for cooking and lighting and waste management arrangements.

However, if cities are to be liveable and sustainable, there should be a comprehensive assessment of activities in the city that result in pollution and degradation of its environment and roadmaps of how these negative impacts are tackled. In particular, waste management in the cities should be coordinated seamlessly to manage degradation.

Prior to the implementation of a smart waste system in the Sydney Fish Market Australia, customer experience was impacted by traditional waste management which would sometimes lead to the illegal dumping of waste or consistent overflow of waste bins.

However, with the implementation of technology which could indicate in real time the waste level of the bin, temperature and collection time, better decisions are made on how and when clearance of the waste bin is required. Such a system can be implemented within East African cities leading to optimisation of waste collection schedule and routes.

This is a challenge most cities in Kenya including Nairobi have struggled with.

Kenya has made significant progress within the production of renewable energy and is highly regarded as country that offer favourable investment conditions for clean energy. Kenya also recently issued, for the first time, a Green Bond which is aimed at raising capital for further development of renewable energy projects, and safeguarding of sectors such as agriculture.

Smart environmental monitoring such as of water supply networks using technology can help in detection of leakages and water shortages.

Adoption of smart meters to automate transmission of water and electricity consumption data and remote monitoring and billing are some of the ways technology can be used to promote environmental sustainability. Such types of investments are key in building a transformative ecosystem which is critical in promoting green cities.

Uganda and Rwanda have established electric vehicle assembly plants to promote the use of environmentally friendly vehicles.

Connected city

In the wake of Covid-19 outbreak, connectedness has played a key role in enabling government authorities to trace and contact affected citizens across the world. Indeed, the role of technology and telecoms in containing the spread of this pandemic is set to shape how governments and citizen adapt to the new reality.

To establish a smart living culture in the cities, deployment of high speed telecommunication infrastructure in public places and promoting new ways of connecting people and improving city amenities is something progressive cities will need to adopt. And because smart cities are dependent on data, ways of continually collecting and securing data will need to be devised especially in African cities.

Smart cities are not simply about connecting devices and services, rather it is a means to offer and progressively re-establish quality lifestyle while integrating collaborative and participative governance.

The success of smart cities will depend not only on technological and big data factors but largely on human and societal factors. The governments must drive this.

Eric Khaemba ([email protected]) is a Partner in Advisory at KPMG East Africa. The views and opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of KPMG.