State should do more to construct smart sustainable cities for future

Nairobi City skyline. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The urban population in Kenya is currently estimated at 15.6 million. Rapid urbanisation has brought enormous challenges, including a growing number of slum dwellers, increased air pollution, inadequate infrastructure, and constrained provision of basic services.

As cities become centres of economic growth, using technology and data-driven solutions is an effective strategy to deal with urbanisation challenges.

Smart and sustainable cities are defined by seven pillars: smart living, smart governance, smart economy, smart people, smart infrastructure, smart mobility, and smart environment. The pillars represent a future in which technology and creativity are key drivers in enhancing quality of life, and generating sustainable, resilient, and prosperous urban settings.

Kenya has four cities – Nairobi, Kisumu, Mombasa and Nakuru – with a few more planned soon. Based on the 2019 population census, approximately 32 percent of the population are urban dwellers, with 60 percent of this living in informal settlements characterised by the absence of essential amenities such as water, sanitation, adequate housing, security and health facilities.

Kenya has implemented various initiatives to promote smart and sustainable cities, with ambitious plans such as the Konza Technopolis. Other upcoming smart cities include: Tatu City, Northlands City and Athi River Smart Green City.

Policy and legal frameworks such as the National Land Policy (2009), National Urban Development Policy (2016), and Cities and Urban Areas Act (2019) have supported the emergence of smart cities. Moreover, the Bottom-Up Economic Transformation Agenda roots for sustainable initiatives, including electric mobility and blue economy.

That said, Kenya is lagging compared to the leading smart and sustainable cities. A Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis 2024 study on smart and sustainable cities has identified key issues and recommendations along the smart and sustainable pillars.

The smart people pillar is characterised by low digital literacy, low information and awareness levels, inadequate caring community facilities and inadequate inclusive education. This calls for more resources to fund digital literacy, information awareness initiatives and provide caring community facilities to cater for the needs of vulnerable individuals. Further, enhancing access, equity, and education in the cities is critical.

In the smart living pillar, cities face insecurity, inadequate urban basic utilities including poor housing conditions, inadequate water and sanitation, poor health conditions and inadequate cultural facilities. It is therefore important that the governing bodies of cities establish a legal framework to coordinate the implementation of national and county security initiatives. Fast-tracking the approval and implementation of the National Building Codes 2022 is key for quality buildings. Prioritizing investment in healthcare accessibility, education, clean water, cultural and recreational initiatives will contribute to increased life expectancy. Provision of incentives to promote smart urban and home applications are a key priority.

Under the smart economy pillar, the key issues include low digitization and digitalization, low digital literacy skills, slow uptake of e-commerce and leakage of revenue collection in cities. This calls for the development of a comprehensive policy framework to support essentials for digitization and digitalization, including digital skills, innovations and infrastructure. Fast-tracking the implementation of national addressing systems in all cities will unlock the digital economy potential.

In the smart environment pillar, cities face key policy issues such as air and water pollution, poor waste management and traffic congestion. Promoting use of renewable and clean energy sources and implementing stricter emission standards for industries, vehicles, and power plants will reduce air pollution. Implementation of comprehensive waste management systems and imposing penalties for littering and dumping of waste, including e-waste, and enforcing waste disposal regulations are key considerations. Other priorities include investing in modern sewage treatment facilities and promoting water conservation practices.

For the smart mobility pillar, cities are characterized by inefficient transportation, poor non-motorized accessibility, low level of smart urban infrastructure for parking and intelligent transportation, and low usage of electric vehicles. Developing a comprehensive transport policy framework for electric mobility, intelligent transport and parking systems and supporting non-motorized accessibility along major roads is instrumental in enhancing mobility in cities.

Under the smart infrastructure, cities experience inadequate resources to support the planning, designing, implementation, maintenance and upgrading of essential infrastructure, leading to poor access and distribution of essential services.

Therefore, there is need to develop a comprehensive policy framework to support the allocation of adequate resources, design and implement essential infrastructure and incubation centres for future technologies and innovations such as Digital Twin. Tapping on the available funds, such as Universal Service Fund, is critical to enhance accessibility of digital services in unserved and underserved populations in cities.

Finally, on the smart governance pillar, the key issues include barriers to public engagement, digital democracy and increased cyber threats and digital divide barriers. Formulation and implementation of a comprehensive policy framework to serve as roadmap for implementation of secure e-government services is important.

Scaling up smart and sustainable cities in Kenya symbolizes a promising future in urban areas with improved services, economic resilience and quality of life.

Humphrey is the Head of Infrastructure and Economic Services at Kippra. Catherine is a communications specialist at Kippra.

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