Countries around the world are slowly moving towards fully-connected smart cities, but even the most cutting edge technology is likely to run into challenges. This is according to a number of urban experts who were speaking to Reuters about the future of smart cities in developing countries such as South Africa.
“A 24-hour smart water meter can only be possible if you’re connected to the water system in the first place,” said Ayona Datta, a reader in urban futures at King’s College London.
She said that while technology may be introduced across a city to make transport or water services more efficient, it will likely only work in its richer areas. This is because the idea of giving the same thing to everyone in both middle-class and low-income neighborhoods can be problematic, she said.
“IT companies will sell (smart technology) as a package without any kind of customization at a grassroots level,” Datta said.
“Smart technology installed like this is “giving the icing on the cake to people who are already connected. In many cases, those who lack access to electricity or the internet cannot benefit from high-tech infrastructure.
“You really need to engage with the social context (and) social issues first.”
Nancy Odendaal, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Cape Town agreed with Datta, and said that a number of smart city projects were essentially just real estate projects.
“On the African continent this becomes particularly poignant as it is seen as the last frontier for property speculation and development,” she said.
According to Odendaal most of Africa’s smart cities tend to be “top-down” projects to create satellite cities – like Konza Technopolis in Kenya and Eko Atlantic City in Nigeria.
Dubbed “Africa’s Dubai”, Eko Atlantic is being built on Victoria Island next to Lagos. Developers say it will become a new financial headquarters for Nigeria as well as solving chronic housing shortages in Lagos. However detractors have argued that shiny urban centers like Eko Atlantic are designed for a wealthy elite, and do nothing to help poor communities living on their doorstep.
Odendaal said that the feeling was similar in South Africa’s major cities.
In Cape Town, some people see smart city projects as an excuse for gentrification – “just another way of turning old neighborhoods into swish, consumer zones”, she said.