In the past, the concept of smart cities may have been a lofty consideration for a Sunday afternoon, but smart cities are no longer a preference—they are quickly becoming a critical necessity. This is due to the confluence of increasing urbanization, greater pressure being placed on the successful management of a city due to a rising population, and climate change. The latter in particular means that a city needs to have the wherewithal to manage a sudden natural crisis, such as flooding, and be able to dispatch emergency and medical units without delay to save lives.
Compounding matters is the fact that, according to Gartner, the digitization of IT (1) is further forcing cities to adapt, and, like most businesses, have a digital strategy in place. Smart cities are far from a flash in the pan—according to Transparency Market Research, the global smart cities market is growing 14% at present and is expected to reach a value of $1 265.85 billion by 2019.
The benefits of smart cities are wide ranging, affecting a broad spectrum of industries and making life easier for residents in a multitude of ways. Take for example the healthcare sector that could be positively impacted. Local and provincial hospitals currently deliver services in isolation, and patient records are not mutually accessible. Yet, in a smart city with integrated systems, standardized records will be available regardless of which hospital the patient visits. This process will provide better service to the patient, and more accurate national health information to the relevant authorities.
ICT research company, International Data Corporation (IDC) notes that South Africa is the leader when it comes to smart city technology in Africa. (2) All three of our biggest cities ̶ Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban ̶ have put into operation some variants of smart city solutions.
The benefits of living in a smart city are plentiful, if the ‘smart’ part is implemented correctly and the city is well managed. For governments it means that cities can be better monitored and looked after, but also improved. An example of this could entail a network of sensors being placed in the drainage system. It would be able to provide indications of where blockages are occurring, and during flooding, also real-time information of where the biggest trouble spots are. Furthermore, through e-government initiatives, cities would be able to improve governmental processes to its stakeholders, including businesses and citizens. This includes many online services which could cut down on process cost and time. Examples of this includes SARS’s highly successful eFiling system, and the online application for car licence renewals or the registration of new businesses.
Locally, service delivery stands to benefit significantly from having effective systems and processes in place. The implementation of the City of Joburg’s “load-limiting” smart meter is one such instance, enabling the power utility to better monitor and manage electricity supply. During periods where the electricity grid is under pressure, households will be alerted to turn off high-consumption appliances to avoid full power cuts.
Smart cities explained
But what exactly is a smart city? In a nutshell, a smart city should provide the technology framework that enables its citizens, its resident businesses, its varied government and non-government stakeholders, and itself to be better served through innovative use of information and communication technologies.
Pervasive high-speed connectivity is the catalyst of and foundation for the development of a smart city. It is this connectivity that will enable effective data collection and analytics to ensure continuous improvement along with the use of mobile technologies to reach every citizen in South Africa. In short, only once a comprehensive high-speed network is in place will our cities be in a position to address our unique challenges and become smart.
However, this is only the first step, since the formation of a smart city requires a long-term urban plan. The reason for this becomes obvious when looking at the growth of the world’s urban population, which is set to increase from 54% to 66% between 2014 and 2050. South Africa’s major cities need to have a defined 20- to 40-year plan, coupled with a long-term vision to accommodate this projected expansion.
Obstacles on the path
A number of other challenges still stand in the way of smart cities becoming a reality in South Africa. Along with underdeveloped infrastructure, an even more troubling obstacle is the skills deficit. This is a particularly vexing hindrance to the advancement of smart cities nationally, requiring well-trained, tech-savvy individuals who understand and can use IT systems when under pressure. Unfortunately, this development of human capital does not happen overnight.
Recently, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) launched the first global online community to encourage the development of smart sustainable cities. The aim of the portal is to assemble a community of experts to explore the factors that drive and impede the progression of global smart city development.
The evolving South African citizen of the future will be highly knowledgeable and more tech-savvy than ever before. They will expect enhanced, highly personalised service from cities and will move between cities to get what they want.
Cities, in effect, will become competitors for the top talent that, in turn, attracts businesses. To satisfy this new breed of citizen and so expand their tax bases, South African cities will have to see them as customers. This will require our cities to evolve considerably as they struggle to meet a new set of needs and to improve the quality of inhabitants’ lives.