If you ask someone to name a Smart City, they will probably give you one of the following:
- Songdo (South Korea)
- Amsterdam (Netherlands),
- Masdar (UAE),
- Stockholm (Sweden),
- Lyon or Nice (France),
- Barcelona (Spain).
Whether the city is on this list or not, chances are the chosen example will not be from an emerging country. The idea of a Smart City is often associated with the use of innovative technology to face the daily challenges in cities of developed countries.
But emerging economies are the ones facing the greatest urbanization challenges. According to the UN, 66% of the world population will live in cities in 2050 (vs 54% today), and most of this transition will be observed in Africa and Asia. India, China and Nigeria are expected to account for 37% of the urban population growth between now and 2050.
There are several reasons why people don’t tend to envisage developing country smart cities:
- The perceived lack of (or lesser quality of) telecom infrastructure, especially wireline;
- The lack of proper and/or redundant datacenters, required to store and analyze data;
- The relatively low uptake of smartphones. Developing countries however are quickly catching up on that one. In 2015, 1 billion smartphones were shipped worldwide, and more than half of them were intended for China, India, Brazil and Indonesia.
The more important issue however is how to adapt smart city solutions to cities in emerging countries: do smart meters make sense when not all utility connections are even metered? How can technologies contribute to smart mobility when transportation is provided by hundredss of micro-companies with minivans? How can citizens report local issues when municipalities don’t have geographic information systems?
But developing countries are no strangers to innovation, and sometimes embrace it at a faster pace than developed countries. Take for example mobile banking: it is estimated by the World Bank that 16% of sub-Saharan mobile users have used their phones for banking purposes. This is more than in any other region in the world. That’s because mobile banking is a smart answer to a real problem: there are few offices where one can pay their bills, so it can prove challenging and time consuming to do so in person.
Can developing economies leapfrog developed ones in Smart City development? They could, as many smart city services can be implemented via simple SMS exchanges:
- Visualization of utility consumption could be achieved through an SMS sent when a given threshold is reached (assuming of course that the meter can transmit data).
- Text messaging is also used for smarter mobility, even in Europe. In London, if you send an SMS to Transport for London with your bus stop code, you’ll receive real-time bus arrival information.
- Messages can also be a good medium for citizen consultation. Textizen is one of my favorite tools for enhancing the relationship between a city and its inhabitants: you just have to display a sign in a public space, with a question and a number where people can send their answer by SMS. More questions can then be shot directly to the user to capture his context and demographics.
Another aspect is that those services that require more elaborate infrastructure will likely deliver higher return on investment in developing countries. Think about Smart Grids: in many countries the current condition of energy infrastructure can’t allow 24/7 supply to households. Distributed electricity production and energy demand management would be a perfect fit to ensure a more reliable energy supply.
Finally, some cities in Africa and Asia are growing so quickly that new districts are built every year. Of course, this is a challenge for those cities, but also an opportunity to build “Smart City ready” neighborhoods and utility networks. In these new districts, municipal services can deploy state-of-the-art solutions: controllable LED street lights, roads or pipes with built-in sensors to monitor aging, ducts for future fiber deployment or to connect street furniture…
Some developing countries seem to have grasped the opportunity Smart Cities represent. India for example has announced a ‘Smart Cities Mission’, and plans to invest $16bn to develop smart cities as well as for its Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation program in other areas.
As for Africa, the Smart Africa program (with the support of the UNECA, World Bank, ITU and GSMA among others) includes a SMART Rural / Smart Cities initiative. Foreign investments are also on the rise in African smart cities, as can be seen from the $7.4bn investment of the Chinese company Shanghai Zendai in the new city of Modderfontein, South Africa.
The steep growth of urban population and penetration of digital technologies – as well as a younger population on average – represent interesting opportunities innovation in urbanization in developing countries. I personally can’t wait to see what’s going to emerge in Johannesburg, Kigali or Lagos in the next few years.