Smart communities make smart cities

Research ICT Africa · Senka Hadzic
02 Dec 2021

The promotion of smart cities is generally shaped by a technological lens that focuses on digital innovation and data. Yet, technological solutions to complex socio-economic problems do not necessarily foster inclusivity, especially in urban spaces in the Global South. In fact, a report by the OECD released last year argues that poorly planned smart city initiatives, particularly in a developing country context, exacerbate socio-economic inequalities, spatial segregation, and public funding injustice even further.

Getting smart city strategies right requires that they are informed by the factors they seek to transform. In the South African case, these would be spatial inequalities, the digital divide, and a significant presence of the informal sector.

The extreme spatial inequalities in contemporary South African cities are largely due to the legacy of apartheid spatial planning. Although there is no longer legal enforcement of spatial segregation, it still takes place along racial lines which remain strongly correlated with economic and social inequality. The implementation of the Group Areas Act in 1950 meant that non-white people were forcefully relocated to the outskirts of major cities. This led to the formation of townships, densely packed informal settlements. Nearly three decades after the end of apartheid, disparities and segregation continues to exist.

These complex and historical problems that exist in South African cities cannot be solved by the deployment of technologies and big data management proposed in most smart city strategies. The so-called “dashboard urbanism” decontextualises the city, and overly relies on quantitative data which may perpetuate existing inequalities. The disruption that comes with the smart city narrative often highlights digital infrastructure gaps and unequal access for citizens of different socio-economic backgrounds. So, what are the alternatives?

The importance of data

The term “data” in the smart cities context is mostly associated with big data generated by sensors, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and other automated processes. However, more traditional forms of data collection still contribute to some smart city objectives. South African affiliates of the Slum Dwellers International (SDI) have been producing their own data on informal settlements for over two decades.

To promote active citizenship and “bottom-up governance”, citizens themselves provide data on conditions of life in their communities. The launch of the City of Cape Town’s open-data portal triggered some local civil society organisations to address the absence of data from informal settlements. While the city’s official open-data portal’s main objective was to enable innovative entrepreneurship, the local civil society organisations are implementing data-driven solutions to address livelihood issues of the urban poor, often relying on grassroots data production.

A Cape Town-based organisation, Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU), by way of example, uses a participatory design approach to risk reduction and evidence-based violence prevention strategies, often including ICTs and data-driven solutions, such as mobile inspection tools designed to improve service delivery in low income areas and informal settlements. But first, the informal settlements have to be (literally) put on the map, invisible as they often are in the official maps used for resource management and decision-making purposes.

In an urban setting without addresses, street names, and numbers, geo-locating local infrastructure is a basis for the identification of items to be fixed or replaced. To facilitate a project of monitoring and fault reporting of sanitation infrastructure, VPUU geo-located every piece of infrastructure in Monwabisi Park, Khayelitsha, and created an attributed asset register. VPUU is directly engaged with the City of Cape Town line department fault reporting stations, and because of standardised reports, they are better able to respond. The local fieldworkers also direct repair teams to the broken items.

Essentially the concept is to engage the entire community to be part of service delivery in their own community. The success of the data collection initiative can be measured using quantitative data (faster response and shorter waiting periods to get the infrastructure fixed) as well as with qualitative data, such as perceived user satisfaction results obtained via surveys.

There are other notable initiatives across the country, adding to a collective understanding of what availability of data can do in terms of informing equitable service delivery. Open Cities Lab (formerly Open Data Durban) combines digital technologies, open data and co-design to promote inclusive cities, based on the principles of openness, inclusion, capacity building, and participation. WhereIsMyTransport produces urban mobility data platforms in major cities in the Global South, with a strong focus on Africa. Most importantly, their mapping includes data from informal modes of public transport, such as minivan taxis which prevail in South African cities.

The term ‘smart’ itself is often associated with images of futuristic spaces, highly efficient big cities as a result of deploying high-tech solutions, but the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) recently published a report about simple ways for a city to be smart.. The ITU describes a smart and sustainable city as an “innovative city that uses ICTs and other means to improve quality of life, the efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects”.

Criteria that make an intervention simple are low cost, short duration (providing quick results), small scale, making use of proven technologies, leveraging already present local skills, low complexity, and sustainability. In this context, being sustainable means either having a plan for continued operation beyond initial investment, contributing to one or more sustainable development goals (SDGs), and not working against any of the SDGs. This implies that interventions that increase inequality (SDG 10) are not sustainable. The recommendation to use only proven technologies raises the question whether 5G, for example, which is often considered the backbone and ultimate enabler of smart city applications, is the right way to go.

Complementary solutions

The PC4IR report states that “5G becomes the glue to everything smart, and it creates the super-fast highway in which all the other applications of a connectedness required in a smart city implementation is enabled.” It acknowledges the role the telecommunication sector plays in 4IR initiatives. But whether or not 5G will support South Africa’s inclusive digital transformation is debatable. If not rolled out carefully, with strong public value policy mechanisms, 5G is very likely to exacerbate South Africa’s persistent digital divide. It is not a technology designed for ubiquitous affordable access; it is a technology that has been designed to provide advanced services for corporate use and affluent households. But there are a number of public interest applications that should be reflected in the demand side valuation of such resources, rather than the commercial and supply side valuation that has come to dominate resource allocation.

Complementary solutions relying on local innovation provide a great opportunity to reach the marginalised, such as community networks for access provision, or grassroots data production enabling service delivery. Informal settlements are spaces that are typically underrepresented in official data sources. In this context, the case of VPUU is particularly noteworthy. The organisation has set up their own community networks in three informal settlements in Cape Town. VPUU uses these networks to support their operations of ICT- enabled service provision and monitoring and reporting fault infrastructure, while at the same time providing internet access to marginalised citizens.

While community networks are becoming increasingly recognised both in South Africa and globally, smart city initiatives from the bottom up still have a long way to go. There is a general understanding of quantitative data as being more reliable, free from subjectivity and bias and therefore more useful and effective. Data initiatives from local civil society organisations, which often provide blended data (i.e., a mix of informal and formal data), are often seen as risky, less credible, or too activist – whereas  these citizen-led data should be officially adopted as authentic complementary data used for decision making.

Being smart as a city is about understanding the needs of residents and communities who live in the city. Rather than being a playground for big tech, and a laboratory for testing new technologies, cities can start small by opening access to information and data and thus be smart in categories such as citizen reporting/citizen monitoring, participatory planning, tracking public spending and infrastructure projects. Undoubtedly, the Covid19 pandemic should be seized as an opportunity to make space for innovation and build equitable and resilient city systems.

Author: Dr Senka Hadzic, Senior Fellow RIA/ CyberBRICS