Take a byte of the Big Apple

Is South Africa ready for Smart Cities?

Last week I was invited to speak on the SABC’s Economics Unbound programme.

The topic was Smart Cities, and we discussed various aspects, primarily whether President Cyril Ramaphosa’s vision for a South African smart city was realistic, and whether South Africa was ready for a smart city.

Based on the feedback received via social media, it became clear that the general sentiment among South Africans on the topic of smart cities was negative.

Many people believe that it is a bad idea, while others feel South Africa is not ready for smart cities.

One person commented on LinkedIn that, “if half of South Africa is living in poverty, how can we build such smart cities if we have not addressed the fundamental problem of our country?” Another person simply commented on Facebook that, “I think it’s a bad idea”.

Based on these and dozens of other comments, it becomes clear that South Africans have some serious misconceptions about what smart cities actually are. Firstly, it seems many people get their ideas of smart cities from movies like Elysium, where pictures are drawn of futuristic utopias with tall, shiny skyscrapers, flying cars and ultra-intelligent citizens who enjoy all the best facilities that technology provides, like advanced health care and ultramodern schools.

The second misconception, most likely derived from the first, is that smart cities will benefit the wealthy and marginalise the poor because only the privileged upper class of society will be able to afford to live in them.

The third misconception is that smart solutions are always hi-tech and expensive to implement.

These are, as I said, misconceptions, and there is actually nothing further from the truth.

Smart solutions for a smart city

Smart technologies, if done correctly, have the potential to eradicate some of our most serious challenges, and to benefit people from across the economic spectrum.

Furthermore, the solutions do not have to be hi-tech or expensive. In many cases, cheap, low-tech solutions have proven to be the most viable.

As an example, consider the problem of traffic congestion, which is a major problem in South African cities like Johannesburg, affecting everyone without discrimination.

If a smart solution were applied that could reduce the morning commute by even a fraction of the time it takes, it would be a relief for everyone.

New York City achieved this with their “Midtown in Motion” concept, which uses a number of traffic sensors and cameras to gather traffic information from around the city and feed that information to an artificial intelligence system. The system then uses the data to control the traffic lights in real time, allowing traffic to flow more freely.

Along with this hi-tech solution, New York City has implemented a somewhat low-tech one, which has also proven to be highly successful.

The “City Bike” initiative makes thousands of bicycles available for use 24/7 throughout the city.

To ease traffic on the streets people are encouraged to cycle rather than drive. To use the service, you simply go to one of dozens of bicycle stations throughout the city and unlock a bicycle with an app.

The app shows how many bicycles are available, and also the best routes to take.

These two systems have already made a significant impact by cutting down the number of vehicles on the streets, and reducing commute times.

The best part is that they work for everyone.

“The main challenge for South African cities that aspire to become smart cities is the fact that in certain areas there are still some basic infrastructure shortcomings. Since there is a need for infrastructure developments, the solution could be building smart cities,” associate vice-president, Sub-Saharan Africa, at IDC Middle East, Africa and Turkey.


Another major issue in South Africa, and a major cause of unemployment and poverty, is a lack of access to valuable skills.

It’s what you Do with Data

While many of us have the internet at our fingertips, and are able to access any number of sites to learn anything, from participating in a tutorial to completing a degree, the vast majority of South Africans do not even have internet access.

In New York City they’ve had a similar challenge, and have found a way around it by providing access to computer centres in areas where poverty is high.

These centres contain computers with high-speed internet and are housed at libraries, parks, recreation centres, and municipal offices.

By repurposing existing facilities, they have cut down set-up and operating costs to a minimum.

To date, over 100 centres have been established, and they have already made a significant impact by enhancing the digital literacy of citizens and providing valuable workplace skills via online courses.

These are just a few examples of the smart solutions that New York City has implemented to uplift the lives of its citizens and provide a better quality of life for all.

“The future for smart cities is not 2020, it’s tomorrow, it’s this afternoon. Today there are lots of efficiencies that can be created through the use of operational technologies.” Reshaad Sha, chief strategy officer at Dark Fibre Africa (DFA)

Looking at these, a few things become clear: that many of our challenges like poverty, are not unique to us; that there are some really great solutions out there that we just have to go out and find; that the solutions are not always hi-tech; that they are not always expensive; and, above all, that they can benefit everyone.

The Big Apple proves without a doubt that smart cities are not hi-tech utopias for the rich, but are actually real cities with real problems for which we can find realistic solutions that can uplift the lives of all citizens.

Finally, South Africa is not just ready for smart cities, they are long overdue in the country.


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