Cities and Technology: Towards Smart Urbanity in Africa

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  • 5 years ago
  • Posted: January 20, 2015 at 2:10 pm

Cities all over the world despite where it falls in the economic spectra are caught in the eye of the technology storm brewing furiously. Urban planners are pulling data from cheap sensors mounted on traffic lights and installed in park benches, well, that does not really happen in Kenya, but Konza, Kenya’s first smart city should consider this neat play of tech, internet of things, folks! Additionally, even from the smartphones of citizens, information would be gathered so as to find out how their cities really operate.

Over fifty percent of the world’s population lives in cities and in the next thirty years, population growth in the world will be most prominent in cities. Their density and oftentimes infrastructure, cities have a significant impact on the environment, consuming over 67% of World Energy, thus contributing to it carbon emissions. Urban water systems are leaky and dry, especially in many suburbs of the capital of Kenya. Pollutions are growing extreme. That said cities are responsible for economic production. Did you know that thirty percent of the world’s economy and a majority of its innovations are concentrated in just over one hundred cities; you probably know which cities I am talking about, go on, and hazard a guess! The question begs, can technology help mitigate rapid population augmentation at the same time remain the lynchpin for driving economic expansion in cities? I am sure you have excellent ideas with regard to this question, but I leave you to your muse, extensively, it has become quite a pecuniary victory for companies such as Cisco, IBM, Siemens, Aricent, Oracle, Hitachi, et cetera. These and other companies have taken a highly public vein in displaying their versions of Smart cities by leveraging their technology in managing traffic lights, weather, transport, water management, energy utilization, and policing (Did you know that the startup Knightscope is rolling out Robot Security patrol guards, K-5 versions? Well, it excites me, especially when you consider the local policing actions, the arbitrary arrests, et cetera). The robots look like menacing, yet cute versions of Daleks, if you are a Dr.Who fan like me, you would be beside yourself with excitement!

Cities spend more than a billion dollars year on year and are expected to spend up to 12 billion dollars or more a year in the next decade, extrapolated, over 20 percent of our GDP, give or take. This should concern the governorate quite considerably, not to mention the highest throne on the little house on the hill. In order to justify this significant outlay, urban technologists will have to go past their test projects that dominate discussions today towards actualization (do you hear Vision 2030 Konza City People). They will have to provide to some of the grueling and profound problems of urban living. Cities being drawn in that direction are using various technologies to ease parking, managing traffic, save water, diminish crime rates, and make preparations for erratic weather patterns (National Center for Atmospheric Research, based in Colorado, US, uses artificial-intelligence based software which crunches numbers along with data from weather satellites, weather stations, and others).

That is not to say that there are no lessons to learn from cities whose grandiose technological endeavors are coming up short like Tianjin in China, which has few residents despite government support and great technology (it makes you wonder whether people will head towards Konza once it is built, if ever built, for that matter). Streets in high-tech cities in South Korea, Songdu, AbuDhabi, Paredes, Portugal, which are being designed to have minimal impact on the environment simultaneously offering high-tech conveniences such as solar-powered air conditioning and pneumatic waste disposal systems instead of garbage trucks. Meanwhile, cities with similar hopes are taking somewhat less ambitious approach that involves often benefiting from relatively inexpensive and versatile digital technologies. It would behoove the Kenyan authorities to prudently focus on small-scale initiatives that exploit technology and data, aiming to pull people into a practice of ‘participatory urbanism’. Something like setting a digital hotline that allows people to use their smartphones to report graffiti, trash, and service problems to City Hall (perhaps the gubernatorial throne over at City Hall Way, Nairobi, should consider this, the e-payment for parking tickets for a nice touch, bravo! Just hope it won’t become a dud, here’s a thought, how about instigating pilot programs on smart parking meters, pothole reporting, sensors that would alert drivers to alert open up parking space, carbon-capturing machines). These small actions build trust between government and the people and it extends to even other avenues of development such as education, healthcare, et cetera. The developing world, where most of the urban growth has been recent, mobile technologies are proving to offer a cost-effective way of addressing civic and environmental challenges.

Technology boosts cities growth by creating a more idea-intensive and complicated world and the fact that we are social beings we tackle these challenges especially well when we are drawn to each other, that is what a city does, attracting souls by its magnetizing allure because it cannot live without the souls, it is a veritable black hole of souls. It is moving us toward an economy that rewards intelligence and innovation, which moves in the direction of urbanization. So, join the bandwagon, partners, a toast to smart cities!

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Stefan Wolf
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