African smart cities: potential and pitfalls

Rapid urbanization in African countries, coupled with a race for better connectivity, is seen as an opportunity to introduce smart city initiatives in African cities.

There is a lot of discussion about what the concept of a ‘smart’ city actually means. Some argue that the smart city slogan is nothing more than a marketing tool. But in broad terms, a smart city can be defined as a place of strong investment in human and social capital, where traditional service systems and information and communication technologies (ICT) work together to stimulate sustainable growth through wise resource management.

Worryingly, the wave of commentary that argues for the revolutionary potential of African smart cities often obscures a clear understanding of the technological infrastructure required to make these smart cities work. The excitement about the potential of smart African cities often prevents us from genuinely thinking about what these smart city developments entail.

At an Urban Planners International conference, held in Paris on October 4, titled ‘the impacts of the digital over urban development in global south countries,’ speakers considered how the implementation of smart cities, and their associated technological infrastructures, will impact Africa’s urban societies and policies.

Speakers discussed smart city initiatives in Cape Town, Tunis, Casablanca, Dakar, and Douala.

Digitizing networks to enable service delivery

Digital solutions have the potential to transform urban services through creating new network nodes and including new users. In Tunis, for example, a collaborative app called WeClean was created to pinpoint places on the street where garbage accumulates and to organize waste collection. Similar initiatives exist throughout the continent.

In Dakar, two students created a ‘smart bin’ called [email protected], which ‘speaks’ in French and Wolof, explaining to residents how to recycle.

The [email protected] team designed a ‘smart’ bin that ‘speaks’ in French and Wolof, explaining to people how to recycle.

Smart initiatives change the way residents interact with urban issues and have the potential to change the ways in which city residents can voice their concerns about services. However, they are often limited to wealthy neighborhoods or rolled out as sporadic initiatives.

Such digital initiatives need to be supported by more integrated policies at the city level, and cannot precede the roll out of more basic infrastructure needs.

Without stable existing infrastructure, smart initiatives can fail. In Douala, for example, the energy operator ENEO centralized the management of electricity for the city to rationalise energy consumption. Yet, the lack of existing infrastructure hampered the impact of the project and the energy generated was eventually used for transport networks and not for dwellings, as initially thought, explained Audrey Sebbah and Ronny Mike Soua Doumamvom, graduate students with the nongovernmental organisation Urbanistes du Monde.

The challenge of inclusion

The public sector is crucial for tailoring smart initiatives to be more inclusive and transversal.

The digital inclusion project in Cape Town, South Africa — which involves deploying Wi-Fi hotspots in public buildings — and the e-douar project in Morocco — a smart house conceived as a digital and pedagogical hub for a village on Casablanca’s periphery — are genuinely ingenious projects that aim at using technology and network nodes to generate physical interactions between residents. These projects, discussed at the conference, are both public sector initiated.

A core challenge for smart city initiatives is the issue of inclusiveness. Who benefits from new technology, especially when digital equipment, such as mobile phones and internet connections, are unequally distributed amongst African urban populations?

Although mobile penetration is high on the continent, the cost of mobile communication and data is still exclusionary in many places. In 2016, internet penetration in Africa is 28.7%, far behind the world average of 49.5%. The cost of broadband data is also particularly high in many African countries such as South Africa.

The processing and sharing of data is also crucial to the smart city project. However, cities rarely manage to create inclusive dynamics that involve residents, public and private actors in a shared ecosystem of innovation. Cape Town’s data portal is in this regard an interesting approach as it involves residents, who have access to the city budget for instance, and private companies like Powertime which can inform users of eventual power outbreaks.

Regulating and financing smart city developments: who governs?

There is a common idea that smart city developments will contribute to the retreat of the public sector and the privatization of urban services and spaces. While there are situations where large companies, like Tunisie Telecom in Tunisia, monopolize smart city issues, this situation is rather uncommon, according to Imène Boubaker, also with Urbanistes du Monde.

Smart city projects rather bring about new platforms of governance. Many public private partnerships are for instance formed around the creation of new towns or pilot neighborhoods with the public sector playing a central role in creating an attractive and innovative ecosystem for investors and entrepreneurs. This often goes by the adoption of exceptional planning measures. In Diamniadio, near Dakar, three years emphyteutic leases are for instance made available to companies doing smart city work to encourage them to invest, said Marie Francoz and Anais Khaldi, urban planning students at Sciences Po.

In some countries, however, it appears that smart city projects leave little space for local initiatives, with central government playing a key role in their instigation and implementation. In Casablanca, King Mohamed VI directly influences smart policies and mega projects, with the desire to make Casablanca the North-African laboratory for smart cities, according to Clarisse Fabrèges and Quentin Nam, with Urbanistes du Monde.

In Diamniadio, near Dakar, the project of new town is also under the direct supervision of Senegalese president Macky Sall, who restarted the project, which had ground to a halt in the early 2000s, according to Francoz and Khaldi.

Interestingly, the Diamniadio project was not labelled as smart until recently, which shows how the label ‘smart city’ is obviously an urban marketing tool that helps to give impulse and visibility to urban projects.

What future for smart cities?

There is certainly not one future for smart cities in Africa. The way smart city initiatives play out depends largely on the power relations inherent in the context where they are being implemented. And while the smart city paradigm defends transversality, most of the projects underway on the continent are sectoral in nature. In this regard, Cape Town’s transversal focus on design in its smart city strategy is rather unique.

In future, it will be important for smart cities to be more transversal in conception.

While the benefits of smart cities include better management of urban services or better information for policy making, they also come with challenges. For one, very few smart city projects take into account the environmental component (Thorpe, 2014), which is something that needs to be addressed in the African city context.

Ultimately, smart city development cannot precede basic infrastructure investment, since without this a smart city cannot operate.


Hugo Halimi is an intern with He is a recent graduate from the London School of Economics and Sciences Po in Urban Policy and Planning. He also has a background in African studies from Sciences Po and previously worked as a project manager in a slum-upgrading organization in Kenya. He is particularly interested in local governments systems and land tenure issues in informal settlements.

Image via wikimedia commons.


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