Smart City: Is Africa Ready? Echoes from African Urban Slums

Everyone wants to go smart. But Emana Nsikan-George warns against creating a new class of unfit-for-smart-city urban dwellers, especially when African cities are still struggling with fundamental development goals. A thought-provoking tale of smart fantasies and urban realities.

In the recent past, the vision of transforming urban centres in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) into attractive and competitive spaces for foreign direct investments has been bought in by most African leaders. This vision relates in part to SSA’s exponential urbanisation rate: with approximately 1.1 billion people in the region, the current urban population is estimated to reach sixty per cent by 2050. The high percentage of the urban population living below the national poverty line in SSA further reveals the gross socio-economic disempowerment in SSA. It is against this backdrop, and the ambition of a competitive African continent, that the smart city concept has become an attractive planning response to rapid urbanisation in Africa in the recent past.

The Smart City Concept

Smart city development visioning coincided with an already globalised world where digital solutions were used to facilitate the flows of money, ideas, global goods, data and e-services. The new digitised way of societal interactions inspired intellectual engagements with scholars like Cohen describing the smart city as the evolution of city administration into digitally innovated public service management. In another work by Toli and Murtagh (2020), smart cities entail the optimisation of public services through utilising sensor-operated technical infrastructure and integrated communication.

In SSA, the smart city was thus conceived as a corresponding innovative management strategy to match the infrastructural demands of a growing urban population. As a new buy-in for many African governments, smart city visioning soon energised the collective ambition of a modern-day African society characterised by wishes for new realms of comfort. This ambition was to be sustained with technology and the internet of things (IoT).

Smart – but how Helpful for the Urban Poor?

With public services anchored on sensor-operated public operations, smart cities are transforming human landscapes and citizen-government interactions. In emerging African cities, urban centres are now assuming new digital identities, parallel to known traditional ways of daily living. Automation-enabled services are now interacting with socio-cultural systems and altering the way citizens expect public services. There are however major challenges of competition, inequalities and exclusion.

The larger proportion of urban dwellers, yet to be integrated into the mainstream urban fabric, is disproportionately impacted by technological transformation. The fantasy of and the speed of change accompanying smart city concepts are now widening social inequalities and income gaps, making rural-urban social integration more complicated. The urban poor in Africa, with its insufficient knowledge, capabilities and skills for digital interfaces of smart cities, is at risk for being excluded from automated public services. This digital exclusion is further aggravated by the absence of quality education, health, food and adequate shelter.

Echoes from African Urban Slums

Skills and development capabilities are indeed essential for facilitating technology-human interface. However, these are contingent upon development opportunities and the level of human empowerment. But to what extent, is the average urban African dweller empowered? After all, about 60 per cent of the urban population in African cities lives in slums. In SSA the proportion of urban slum dwellers is 56 per cent – and these numbers are expected to grow.
Curiously, urbanisation in African urban centres is occurring simultaneously with sprawl in slums and weak development indices. Although one would be tempted to argue that episodes of political instability, armed conflicts, and recently terrorism, have hampered progress in SSA, other urban African countries that have witnessed decades of political stability have still not fared better. Even in countries such as Cote D’ Ivoire, where normalcy has returned after eleven years of armed conflict, the SDG scorecards have not been encouraging.

Likewise, the Human Development Index (HDI) for most African Cities has not been encouraging either. Most SSA countries to date are still struggling with their HDI ratings, with their capability for a decent standard of living far from being realised. Thus, enhancing per capita development in SSA must be the first step to social inclusion and capability-building in urban centres prior to developing smart city concepts. This is to avoid creating smart city spaces and infrastructure that will remain unusable by a resilient, hard-working but less empowered people.

Indeed, the current situation shows a continent trapped in the dilemma of a smart city fantasy and development void, unready to unlock the full potential of the smart-city interface. Safety and security, food, shelter, clothing and self-actualisation are after all fundamental human needs which need to be fully realised before urban dwellers in SSA may dream about “going smart”.

Getting Smart with Basic Human Development

These statistics do not reflect a continent fully ready for smart city or, at least, for an over-night societal transformation to hi-tech city operations. What Africa needs are functioning macroeconomic policies with effective governance structures – policies that give priority to investing in the people rather than elite-oriented structures. The risks of adding a smart city layer to an under-developed space are numerous: the displacement of informal businesses and the commodification of social services are just a few to be named. In addition, low technological skills will also make integration frustrating. On the municipal side of things, not only will district budgets be strained for incentivising the accessibility of smart city services, but the maintenance of these hi-technologies will also impact the already weak tax revenue-based municipal budget.

We must avoid the creation of a new class of unfit-for-smart-city urban dwellers in growing African slums. Where spatial and socio-economic exclusion reinforced by a poor HDI exist, millions of disempowered Africans risk being invisible and uncaptured in urban development maps. Developing a smart Africa should imply improving the capabilities of urban dwellers to engage with digital interfaces rather than invading the struggling development landscapes in Africa with hi-tech automation incompatible with the level of human capabilities. When convinced about her development readiness, Africa can go smart from a vantage position as an active participant in global urban networks, rather than a passive recipient of smart technologies from the global North.

Emana Nsikan-George