Presented by BCX

Smart cities, doughnut cities and reimagining the future

 ·6 Jul 2021

Amongst the many things the pandemic has shown us, the most encouraging is that when faced with the need and the opportunity, South Africans have the willingness to embrace technology to restructure our present and the foresight to plan for a reimagining of the future.

Smart phones, smart-remote offices, smart homes, smart cars, smart shopping and, now, slowly and necessarily, the reshaping of South Africa’s urban centres as smart cities.

This is less science fiction than science reality, as the necessity of ensuring health and safety accelerates the digitisation of how cities operate, incorporating innovation and available technologies to rationalise operations, improve efficiency, simplify engagement and take the logistics of running a city to a higher level.

“A year ago, in February, President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of a smart city in Gauteng and while there were many who applauded him and understood where he was coming from, there were some who felt South Africa had greater issues to concern itself with,” said Mandisa Ntloko-Petersen, Chief of Marketing at BCX.

“Since then, because of the changes forced on us by the pandemic, we have seen an exponential jump in Africa’s digital transformation that has seen some of what the president spoke about already implemented and the groundwork for further change both plausible, necessary and within reach.”

The pandemic has seen a stark change in city centres across the world.

San Francisco, the home of many big-tech companies, has, along with the likes of Sydney, London and Amsterdam, become a “doughnut city” as workers relocated from offices to their homes to work remotely.

It created ghost towns in city centres, while homes in the suburbs became the new offices all working to simulate and match pre-pandemic levels of service.

Physical shops were shuttered, offices abandoned.

High-rise buildings became low-occupancy shells.

“The evolution of cities to smart cities during a pandemic is nothing new,” said Ntloko–Petersen.

“London, New York and Paris installed proper sewage systems in the 19th century after outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.”

“We have seen physical changes in cities across the world in terms of more bike lanes, greater use of parks, open-air cinemas, wider pavements, etc.”

“Technology is driving and refining the infrastructure changes that define how we engage with cities on a daily basis.”

Smart cities will use technology to monitor and control traffic, measure air quality, assist in security through smart cameras, enable a greater spread of contactless payment services across all municipal services, enhance response to disasters and accidents through artificial intelligence models, regulate public transport, amongst many others.

Enabling residents to interact with different departments, report issues and create a greater sense of collaboration with city fathers.

Smart cities will see the optimisation of public services through the use of real-time sensor-linked-and-operated infrastructure combined with artificial intelligence and systems that communicate across departments and requirements.

“For Africa, and South Africa in particular, the spread of 5G connectivity is key to all of this,” said Ntloko-Petersen.

“The speed and reliability of a mobile connection allow for real-time communication between user and the city.”

“We have seen global internet companies invest in upgrading Africa’s digital infrastructure.”

“Google have just laid the first phase of cable from Lisbon to Cape Town, while Facebook are working on installing some 35 000km of cable around Africa by 2024. Africa is seen as a place for tech growth.”

And, what will our smart cities look like?

The future of the use of office space in smart cities is one that has been highly debated.

Footfall has dropped dramatically in urban centres.

The modern office, for the meantime, will need more social distancing, bigger meeting rooms, if it retains any sense of normality at all.

Delivery companies, such as Amazon, are creating logistics hubs in the suburbs and in empty car parks to cope with demand.

Uber is buying up rival delivery companies as their ride-hailing business waits for a post-pandemic era.

The pandemic will reshape suburbs and rural areas as people opt to “semigrate”, enabled by the ability to work remotely.

South African property on the coast is already in high demand. Home is anywhere you lay your hat.

“Technology will change our cities in how they work and how they look,” said Ntloko-Petersen.

“There may be fewer people on streets and no one will be in automated cars for now, but a structured, careful use of the Internet of Things will enable a deep change in how cities operate – from their billing to public transport to reacting to potholes, sanitation and disasters. Real-time, predicted responses in a real-time unpredictable event.”

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