The city of the future is one where devices and people enjoy the benefits of instant connectivity and automation. Just how close are SA cities to that brighter future?


In 1995, less than 1% of the world’s population was online. Back then, in those dimly lit pre-Facebook, pre-Google days, the internet was a nice-to-have curiosity, used mostly by universities and mostly in the West. A decade later, in 2005, 1 billion people (about 15.8% of the global population) had internet access at home. Today, more than 3.5 billion people – about half of all humans – are online, and that number is growing at a mind-blowing rate of around 10 people per second.

Here’s another mind-blowing population statistic. According to UN estimates, the global population will explode by 2050, as the world becomes home to 41 megacities (six of them – Cairo, Lagos, Kinshasa, Johannesburg, Luanda and Dar es Salaam – in Africa) and about 9.7 billion people.

Combine those phenomena – internet connectivity, population growth and massive urbanisation – and you have the perfect environment for the city of the future: the smart city. This urban development vision combines cutting-edge ICT, machine-to-machine (M2M) automation and internet of things (IoT) solutions, creating a space where all devices are connected and all people are connected. Market analysts Forrester predict that by 2020, about $400 billion a year will be spent building smart cities.

‘It’s not often we recognise a smart city as a reality,’ says Jeremy Potgieter, regional director: sub-Saharan Africa at M2M firm Eseye. ‘More often we believe that it is something that will happen in the future and will inevitably connect all devices within homes and on our streets to each other. However, this future has been a reality for some time and it is coinciding with a very real need for the public sector to become more efficient.’

Jacques Vermeulen, resident smart city expert at Nokia, agrees. ‘The accelerated shift to urban centres presents a unique challenge in balancing financial and natural resources with the clear need for cities to evolve to provide services, infrastruc-ture and robust information and communication systems,’ he says. ‘The most practical smart city concepts point to the use of sensors, IT systems, software and narrowband and broadband communications infrastructure to proactively address the challenges and opportunities of modern city life.’

For all intents and purposes then, a smart city is essentially a practical city – one where connected technology makes life and business quicker, easier and more efficient.

In September 2016, the Smart City Playbook was released – a report commissioned by Nokia and undertaken by Machina Research that outlines best practices for smart cities. It was developed through research into the strategies and progress of 22 global cities. Cape Town was one of them.

While acknowledging that the Mother City was ‘very early on in its smart city programmes’, the report notes that it was adopting an approach suitable to its local context. ‘Rather than pursuing grand projects that its citizens cannot benefit from, [Cape Town] is tailoring its efforts to what it perceives are their needs,’ the report states.

Johannesburg, meanwhile, ranked 35th out of 41 on the 2016 Ericsson Networked Society City Index. Only two other African cities – Cairo at 37th and Lagos at 40th – made the list. Again, Ericsson notes that Johannesburg was ‘starting at a low level’ but was ‘progressing in all ICT dimensions of the index: infrastructure, affordability and usage’.

So how much more progress can we expect? ‘The process of making a city smart is extremely complex, and there are so many different strategies being put forward in the market that choosing the right path for your city can be an enormous challenge,’ Joachim Wuilmet, Nokia head of customer marketing and communications, said on the publication of the Smart City Playbook.

Cape Town, the report notes, has made strong efforts in digital training but its smart city strategy is ‘at present not focused on IoT opportunities’.

That might be a mistake. Potgieter points out that, as demand for a smart city grows, so too does the need for the IoT as the public sector scrambles to find ways to provide better efficiencies.

‘Learnings from European IoT initiatives demonstrate that IoT is fast becoming an integral part of the fabric in terms of how they live and how government delivers services. These examples will assist us in better tailoring existing solutions to meet the African landscape requirement.’

In Europe, commercial buildings are currently the highest users of IoT but IT research and advisory firm Gartner expects smart homes to take the lead (with just more than 1 billion connected things) in 2018. Potgieter sees huge potential here. ‘What is impressive is that effective use of IoT will assist in reducing the cost of energy, spatial management and building maintenance by up to 30%, if Gartner is correct,’ he says. ‘These benefits would be welcome locally as South Africa continues to develop real estate office parks and residential areas.’

How far are SA’s cities from becoming smart?

‘Several municipalities have made in-roads,’ says Marc Fletcher, manager: marketing and business development at Intervate. ‘Most have started with network infrastructure which includes internet connectivity, wi-fi and similar connection methods to help enable the city. However, it’s important to note that a smart city has many aspects – it includes smart infrastructure, including lights, road signs and traffic lights, smart buildings, smart transport systems, smart metering of utilities, surveillance any many others. Few have focused on enabling their biggest asset: the citizen, by giving them tools to engage with the city in bidirectional communication around some of these services.

‘Although the concept of the smart citizen is unlikely to be in full effect within the next two to five years, headway is definitely being made and the next decade looks to be an interesting one.’

Without doubt the public and private sectors will need to work closely to establish sustainable plans.

‘The public sector needs to now plan how they are going to deliver these services to current and future residents,’ says Reshaad Sha, CEO of SqwidNet, a subsidiary of Dark Fibre Africa. ‘They need to define, prioritise and commit to a list of projects and interventions that will ensure a sustainable future for them and their citizens. The public sector can benefit greatly by partnering with the private sector in the utilisation of resources and skills to develop, implement and manage their IoT based smart-city strategies.

‘Collaboration between the private sector and government could consist of physical infrastructure deployment and management and device manufacturing to data mining and analysis. The public sector will not be able to do everything themselves and might need to make use of service providers with the necessary expertise to maximise the benefit of the IoT for citizens.’

As the Smart City Playbook states: ‘Governments (and their third-party partners) that have worked to actively engage residents in smart city initiatives have been particularly effective, most notably those where the benefits are highly visible such as smart lighting and smart parking.’

Potgieter calls this ‘citizen buy-in’. He argues that in order to enjoy active citizen engagement, the public sector would need to consider what those citizens require. ‘When a clear picture is created of what is needed at a grass-roots level, then a solid foundation can be built,’ he says. ‘This will help demonstrate the need for IoT and the proposed outcomes and benefits.’

It is critical, he adds, for citizens to relate to the project and understand the value they would derive from its implementation. ‘IoT is an exciting opportunity for local authorities to improve efficiencies, become smarter, and to invest in a new technology that will deliver greater value to citizens than ever experienced before,’ says Potgieter.

Or as the Nokia report puts it, ‘ultimately it’s the citizens that are paying for the smart city. Vendors and city authorities need to engage them to make the benefits visible’.

According to Jeremy Green, principal analyst at Machina Research and Smart City Playbook author: ‘No one said becoming a smart city would be easy. There is no “royal road” to smartness. But there is a right way to travel – with your eyes open, realistic expectations and a willingness to learn from others. That includes other cities that might face the same problems as you, even if in a different context. It includes suppliers, who may have learned from their experiences elsewhere, including in other verticals. And most of all, it includes the city’s own inhabitants, who are your real partners for the journey.’

By Mark van Dijk
Image: Muti