How can smart cities benefit emerging countries?

How can smart cities benefit emerging countries?

The over-arching purpose of smart cities is to improve the living standards of their people through multiple pathways, be it waste management, transportation or energy efficiency, to name a few. All of this can lead to making citizens more productive and delivering what all countries desire - economic growth.

A large number of smart city projects have been announced in developing countries, and developed nations have been tapping into smart technologies to upgrade municipal services. Creating and upgrading smart cities is seen as a key route to maintaining the standard of living in a sprawling city, as urbanisation is a trend that is not slowing down any time soon.

According to the World Bank, 56% of the global population live in cities and urban locations, equating to 4.4 billion people, and this is predicted to double by 2050, meaning 7 out of 10 people will live in cities. The World Economic Forum (WEF) projected 2.5 billion people will move to urban areas, with 90% of this occurring in Asia and Africa.

More than 80% of global GDP is generated in cities, so it is no wonder people are migrating to them. This may sound like we are heading into a cramped dystopian nightmare where we eventually rename metropolises to more utilitarian monikers such as Mega City 1 and Mega City 2, but the World Bank argues that urbanisation can deliver sustainable growth through increased productivity and innovation if managed well.

The challenge lies in the rapid speed and scale of urbanisation, which could be softened with smart city solutions enabled by ubiquitous, reliable and fast connectivity. According to the WEF citing the IESE Cities in Motion Index, Africa's smart cities ranked the lowest in a list compiling 183 cities globally, with Cape Town ranking the highest at 141. 

This index scans nine dimensions within cities: human capital, social cohesion, economy, governance, environment, mobility and transportation, urban planning, international profile, and technology. London was top, followed by New York and Paris among the top 10 encompassing - unsurprisingly - cities from developed nations. Given how developing nations have so many other challenges in their economies, should they be focusing on investing billions of dollars in smart city projects?

Speaking to Developing Telecoms, ABI Research verticals and end markets VP Dominique Bonte urged developing nations to upgrade their growing cities as it provides a route to what all less developed countries desire: becoming a developed nation.

“One of the goals, one of the benefits of a smart city is to boost economic growth. You cannot grow and drive economies without having a smart infrastructure in place,” said Bonte.

IDC research manager for government insights Louisa Barker noted smart cities “catalysedigital transformation of urban ecosystems to produce systemic environmental, financial, and social outcomes.

“Smart cities are, by definition, focused on using emerging technologies and innovation to make cities more liveable, and offer new services and economic opportunities,” said Barker.

“For several years, low-and middle-income countries have been looking to leverage digital technologies to help address their most pressing urban challenges, from improving traffic congestion and air quality through intelligent traffic management to more efficient and transparent public service delivery. Data and technology should be seen as one of many tools in a city’s toolbox appropriate for helping to achieve their vision.”

A holistic approach was urged by Bonte, highlighting that city governments must not compartmentalise each of their utilities, but rather build on them on a single platform to ensure synergy, with accurate data used to provide valuable insight.

He pointed to the use of digital twins technology, where a virtual model is designed to accurately reflect a physical object, such as a city. Cities outfitted with sensors can provide such data and measure city metrics such as air quality, traffic, or waste.

“What cities need to build is platforms that are multifunctional and can be extended to future applications, instead of thinking about very specific solutions that do not address the problems of the future. A platform with digital twins is vital and should be a big part of the planning of smart cities,” said Bonte.

The WEF stated developing nations are defining what it means to build a smart city by correctly harnessing smart city technologies to drive efficiency, reduce pollution and improve the welfare of people.

In the Indian city of Pune, smart systems have been used to reduce traffic and cut pollution by 12% and reduce water waste in its sewage system by 25%. The city was one of the fastest to inoculate citizens against Covid-19 by using digital kiosks to issue vaccination stubs to citizens remotely.

But India’s smart city programmes have brought up moral dilemmas, as critics argued a US$90 billion project to build 100 smart cities will deepen the gulf in class among citizens. Sensors could be used to keep out poorer citizens, for example.

Key challenges

Financial backing is key to delivering massive changes to quality of life, and unfortunately, not all nations can secure it. Another key obstacle would be the lack of infrastructure in the first place.

For this challenge, Bonte pointed to how some nations used the ubiquity of smartphones to make their cities smarter. In Indonesia’s capital city Jakarta, its city management launched the Jakarta Kini app which taps into the city’s resource of people to report faults in utility services to speed up repairs and improve efficiency.

“This is crowdsourcing intelligence in a very cost-effective way, it gives the city a lot of information and informs where to intervene and maybe fix issues and problems - it's not always about building very expensive infrastructure,” said Bonte.

“A smart city is one that is focused on leveraging the best tools available (technology, people, and process) to alleviate the most pressing challenges that the city and its citizens are facing,” added Barker.

“If a city is facing power outages, this should be the focus of smart city efforts. For example, in Burkina Faso, a partnership between local electricity company and NGO Open Burkina has helped residents of its capital Ouagadougou to become more resilient to power outages using sensors installed in homes to collect data on power grid performance.”

Falling behind

Cities face a myriad of complex problems due to their sheer size and population. According to Lloyd’s City Risk Index, which measures the political risk of cities in emerging and developed markets, cities are at risk from social unrest, terrorism, economic turbulence and natural disasters.

Bonte warned cities in developing countries need to be upgraded to mitigate the impending damage from natural disasters, arguing they lead to massive loss in GDP.

“That's what cities are risking if they don't invest in technology to mitigate the impacts of climate change. If they think smart they protect their citizens who are the true economic asset of cities, so not doing anything is a huge risk for them.

“Plus, if they don't invest in smart cities, their cities will start losing out competitively, compared to cities that do invest in smart infrastructure, as companies and talented citizens will move away,” said Bonte.

As Bonte noted, it is not only natural disasters that a smart city can defend against - it also keeps cities competitive as desirable places to live, attracting talented people.

By making a location more habitable, developing cities can dissuade their most highly-skilled citizens from moving to developed nations. This is a social phenomenon known as Geographic Brain Drain, and some economists state that this movement of people can keep less developed economies perpetually developing.

While economies continue to recover from the pandemic and deal with the shift in the global economic landscape, smart cities should not be ignored. They bring a myriad of benefits to a nation in the long run, and have the potential to be true economy changers - but only if done sustainably with real intentions to enhance every economy’s most prized asset: its people.

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