Africa is undergoing rapid urbanisation, with cities poised to accommodate over half of the continent’s population by 2030. This unprecedented growth offers a unique opportunity to reshape urban areas into “smart cities” where the use of technology and data-driven solutions and innovations can enhance the efficiency, sustainability, and quality of life in urban areas. Technologies such as smart mobility and housing, cleantech, agritech, e-commerce, fintech, energy, and healthtech can bring increased efficiencies such as improved waste management systems, improve health and quality of life of citizens and reduce the overall environmental footprint. If implemented correctly, these new technologies can also help bridge the socio-economic gap, bringing greater equality across society.
With urbanisation comes rapid industrialisation and motorisation, which are among the main drivers of environmental issues. Shifting towards smart and circular cities is a means to mitigate these issues, while also ensuring they achieve one of their main objectives of an inclusive and just transition.
While adopting a smart cities approach is appealing, integrating new technologies and innovations into existing infrastructure poses a set of challenges that must be addressed strategically. Yunus Environment Hub collaborates with Make-IT in Africa for the Smart Cities Innovation Program (SCIP): Specialisation of Innovation Support Organizations (ISOs) across Eastern, Central and Southern Africa to build a strong regional community of 11 ISOs with expertise in supporting smart city start-ups. As part of the program,tailored capacity building, tools, and access to networks to help them specialise and become the go-to organisations for smart cities entrepreneurs in their regions.
Below are some of the major hurdles that hinder smart city adoption in Africa, and the strategic approaches that can pave the way for innovation.
Environmental concerns: The adoption of smart city technologies before implementation must consider the impact they might have on the environment. In some cases, the focus on economic development may overshadow the need for environmentally friendly solutions, which can impact the long-term viability of smart city initiatives. The need for economic development leads to increased demand for natural resources such as water, minerals, habitat destruction, loss of biodiversity, generation of waste and greenhouse gases.
Social concerns: Smart approaches need to contribute towards a just transition. For example, many citizens may not have access to, or understand educational awareness campaigns to adopt new technologies, and efforts will need to be taken to ensure they are considered. Digital illiteracy among citizens has led to the rejection of smart city innovations and is an important element to overcome for holistic solutions. Equal access and education on new technologies for low-income and marginalized communities is essential to build a smart city for all citizens.
Limited Internet connectivity: In line with social concerns, uneven access to the Internet and digital technologies across different regions has created a significant digital divide. Without widespread connectivity, implementing smart city solutions becomes challenging.
Lack of basic and strong infrastructure: Many African cities still face challenges in providing basic infrastructure such as reliable electricity, water supply, and smart transportation. Smart city technologies often rely on a robust infrastructure, and the absence of these basics can impede the implementation of smart solutions.
Budget constraints: Many African countries have limited financial resources, and funding for smart city initiatives may be scarce. This makes it difficult to invest in the necessary technologies and infrastructure for smart city development. This hurdle poses a challenge for smart city start-ups, where they do not receive financial support from their governments to implement smart city innovations.
Lack of robust data protection laws: Concerns about data privacy and security are critical in the implementation of smart city technologies. Some African countries lack comprehensive data protection laws, making their citizens hesitant to embrace smart solutions due to fears of potential misuse of their data.
Lack of clear regulations: The absence of clear regulations and standards for smart city technologies can create uncertainties for both government and private sector stakeholders. Regulatory frameworks and policies are essential to guide the implementation and ensure responsible use of smart solutions.
Strategic Approaches to Address the Challenges:
Ensure a collaborative approach: Achieving a comprehensive and collaborative approach to address the challenges of smart city adoption in Africa involves coordinated efforts from various stakeholders. Governments play a central role in shaping smart city policies, offering regulatory frameworks, incentives, and funding to encourage smart city solutions adoption. Collaborative partnerships between government agencies at different levels streamline decision-making processes. Simultaneously, private sector entities, including technology companies, investors and innovation support organisations, contribute expertise and innovations through public-private partnerships and dialogues. Involving local communities from all socio-economic backgrounds in planning and implementation is vital, as their insights contribute to solutions addressing specific needs affecting them.
Avoid a “one size fits all” model: Smart city initiatives must be tailored to each region and city’s unique social, economic, and environmental characteristics. A customised approach, considering local needs, infrastructure readiness, and potential challenges, is essential. Solutions should be adaptable and scalable, allowing incremental implementation based on evolving circumstances and challenges. Implementation needs to take into consideration the different socio-economic situations of citizens for broad scale adoption, and to ensure no one is left out. Capacity building through training and support programs, such as the Smart Cities Innovation Program, empowers local start-ups and support organisations with skills needed for smart city projects and solutions. Inclusive design ensures accessibility, affordability, and usability for all segments of the population, fostering sustainable and equitable development.
Enable financial investments: To overcome financial and funding hurdles, innovative financing models, such as impact investing and public-private partnerships, address budget constraints for smart city solutions. Encouraging grant programs from international organisations supports initiatives, funding pilot projects, and capacity-building efforts. Local entrepreneurship support, including financial incentives and mentorship programs, stimulates innovation within the community, creating a robust start-up ecosystem for smart city solutions. Providing entrepreneurs and SMEs with financial readiness training is also essential to secure funding.
Digital literacy and adoption for citizens: Ensuring all citizens have access to the internet and any necessary technologies to adopt smart solutions is also critical for success. Citizens will likely need be trained to use the technologies effectively. Implementation of digital literacy programs enhances citizens’ understanding of smart devices, data privacy, and participation in smart city initiatives. Training for government officials ensures effective integration of technology into governance and service delivery. These initiatives collectively contribute to building a knowledgeable, engaged, and tech-savvy population capable of embracing and benefiting from smart city innovations.
Driving the adoption of smart city innovations within existing infrastructure requires a holistic approach that addresses challenges and embraces opportunities. The strategies outlined, coupled with the expertise of ISOs under the Smart Cities Innovation Program, can guide cities in navigating the complexities of the current environment. By considering these strategies and potential opportunities, ISOs can play a crucial role in supporting innovations towards the implementation of smart cities in Africa and beyond.