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Africa must embrace smart cities or risk falling behind

What is a smart city?

The term is the highlight of many conferences and think pieces but what exactly is a smart city?

According to Ruckus Networks sales director for Sub-Saharan Africa, Riaan Graham it’s not just about fitting sensors to everything and then corralling that data for analysis, but rather efficiency.

“A smart city is about building an infrastructure that provides a metro with more cost-effective ways of delivering services,” Graham tells Hypertext.

For instance, if a water pipe were to burst on your commute home this evening, chances are good traffic will slow to a crawl. In a smart city, traffic could be diverted around the burst while sensors inform the municipality that a repair team must be dispatched.

The knock-on effect of this is that less time is wasted identifying and solving problems.

While this sounds like a luxury that isn’t needed in Africa it is becoming a necessity.

The UN predicts that by 2050 the global population will have grown to 2.2 billion people and half of that growth will occur in Africa. This could spell disaster for countries which are already strained in terms of resources and infrastructure.

As the population grows the strain on older infrastructure such as waste removal, power grids and the like gets worse. As a result being able to manage this infrastructure is vital to keep a city running smoothly.

Smart means efficient

Building a smart city isn’t something that happens overnight. As Graham tells it, depending on the solutions required, building a smart city can take anywhere from 15 to 20 years but the benefits will eventually be felt.

For instance, if a city were to fit its infrastructure with Internet of Things (IoT) sensors that are in turn linked to a machine learning algorithm, cities could develop a preventive maintenance framework that insures issues are sorted out before they even happen.

“Government would have the ability to see where problem areas are and with the help of IoT and machine learning determine the best course of action,” explains Graham.

This use of smart devices could be extended to something like waste removal. Where currently refuse removal services visit areas on set days, smart technology could be fitted to wastebins allowing a municipality to only dispatch removal services when needed.

This brings about cost savings that can then be provisioned for other areas or used to fund something such as internet access for a community. While we all dream of free WiFi in our cities somebody has to pay for it if government could recuperate those costs by saving money, it’s not as out of reach as we might thing.

While less traffic and WiFi everywhere is a nice benefit that is not the goal of smart cities. The goal is to use IoT and data to make operations more efficient.

In addition to efficiency Graham believes that areas which have smart capabilities would stimulate growth.

“You’ll find that smart suburbs will become hotspots. Schools will move there, businesses will move there because of the benefits of smart infrastructure that can be seen,” explains Graham.

Who’s paying?

Of course the road to a smart city is not free and that raises the question – who pays for the development?

The simple answer is government and municipalities but these entities require help from private business.

“What private business can do in collaboration with metros is sit down and identify key problem areas. Private business can then assist them by laying out a blueprint of how best to solve those issues, and eat the elephant one piece at a time as it were” explains Graham.

The director proposes that government could even give businesses that help with the push toward smarter cities a rebate of sorts, spurring along involvement and ultimately the availability of solutions.

Honesty in our smart city policy

While money is a concern Graham tells us that government will also have to own up to its faults and shortcomings.

“We can’t get to where we need to if we keep saying everything is fine and dandy. It’s not. We have to point out the problem areas, address them, get them fixed and move onto the next thing,” says Graham.

At the moment municipalities have divisions that operate on their own often without input from other verticals. A smart city cannot function without information being shared across divisions in fact as Graham explains information being shared across municipal divisions is what drives the success of a smart city.

This in turn will lead to greater accountability while service delivery is improved.

If not now, when?

As we’ve eluded to, creating a smart city takes time and for that reason now is the best time to start working towards the future but is Africa ready for smart cities?

“We are. From a technology perspective yes. From a knowledge and expertise base in the private sector to help design and build this, yes. The challenge we face is the financial will to do this and more importantly the political will,” says Graham.

We work in a global economy and if we don’t embrace smart cities we won’t be taking part in that economy for very long according to the director.

“If we as South Africa want to be competitive in the global economy we need to insure that we can serve the needs of a global economy,” concludes Graham.

It is clear that Africa is ready for smart cities but it requires government and private companies to collaborate for the benefit of all stakeholders, from the family at home all the way through to the mayor’s office.

[Image – CC 0 Pixabay]

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