The future of our cities

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In Singapore, there are automated meter readers and drones to detect infectious diseases, autonomous cars, assistive robots in healthcare; and one can travel with ease through the city’s train and bus system with contactless payments. In fact, Singapore has a Digital Government Blueprint, which outlines how the government will better deliver public services through the use of technology.

Singapore has been declared the smartest city in the world, according to a survey published by the Swiss business school IMD. The survey looked at how well cities are adopting digital technologies and improving the lives of the people who live there. As a tourist, the ease of moving around the city without having to buy tickets attested to this. As far back as in the nineties, this has been part of Singapore’s strategy.

Throughout the world, there is a shift towards embracing smart cities. Simply put, this is the implementation and development of urban services through the use of digital technology. It is, perhaps, one of the most prevalent instances of the internet of things (IoT) and a representation of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) in action.

The 4IR is already changing how we live, work, and communicate and is by virtue, reshaping government, education, healthcare, and commerce. Not only do we have more access to information than ever before, but we also see a confluence of cyber, physical, and biological technologies which no longer exist in labs but impact us every day.

According to Deloitte, there are over 1,000 smart city projects in countries like Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Half of these projects are in China, giving it the largest concentration of smart cities.

Advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), including autonomous operations where machines or entire facilities can run themselves, could be a game-changer. Around the world, smart cities and local governments are leveraging this technology in many ways.

Data from the United Nations indicates that more than half of the world’s population now lives in urban centres, and this proportion is expected to increase to nearly 70% by 2050. Africa is urbanising faster than any other part of the world. It is estimated that African cities will double in population by 2050.

This brings with it its own challenges. It is estimated that 70% of South Africans will be living in urban areas by 2030. For South Africa, this pressure to innovate by local governments is perhaps now more crucial than ever. Service delivery frustrations are not novel in South Africa, and more often than not, municipalities often have a bad reputation because of operational and financial challenges.

Added to this, municipalities are incapable of keeping up with the swift pace of urbanisation. The fast growth of informal settlements and the unwillingness on the part of metros to accept them as a permanent reality has resulted in a slow response to the service delivery needs of communities in our largest metros.

In the 2019 financial year alone, it emerged that more than 100 municipalities had unfunded budgets, primarily due to the funding of projects they had not budgeted for, and around 30 had collapsed. Research from Municipal IQ’s Hotspots Monitors shows clear evidence that most protests continue to occur in informal settlements in our largest metros, incapable of keeping up with the swift pace of urbanisation.

One solution posited in the recommendations made by the presidential commission on the 4IR is to build infrastructure, which integrates with existing infrastructure. This is particularly applicable to our municipalities. Much of the disillusionment with service delivery stems from a local level. The challenge of healthcare, education, public transportation and water and sanitation have to be addressed at a local government level to expand access. Importantly, this will only be successful if it meets the needs of the population.

For instance, in Paris, the smart city initiatives have been unsuccessful. Reinventer Paris introduced around 14,000 bicycles into the city, aimed at alleviating congestion and reducing pollution. Yet, this has been ineffective, and the smart city index ranks Paris 51st out of 102 cities in the world.

Last year, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that a new smart city, which will be home to up to 500,000 people within the next decade, is “taking shape” in Lanseria. The new city is expected to be 5G-ready and aims to be an international exemplar for green infrastructure. As the President explained, the development will be a “truly post-apartheid city that will change the social and economic apartheid spatial architecture”.

Of course, the hope is that this does not go the same route as the African Manhattan project in Modderfontein that ultimately fell through because the developers were unwilling to consider low-cost housing.

Yet, it is important to note that the notion of a smart city does not only entail creating a separate entity such as the city envisioned in Lanseria but can include digital technologies in existing cities.

For instance, incorporating Wi-Fi into public spaces or automated parking payments can be classified as characteristics of a smart city. The worry is that the public funding required is immense, but collaboration across the public and private spheres will be necessary.

So, how do we pivot solutions that make sense in our own context? We need to invest in the generation and delivery of energy, the extension and development of health, water infrastructure and educational infrastructure to create a coherent and comprehensive infrastructure network.

On the issue of energy, we must deploy renewable energy, including solar power. At the University of Johannesburg, we now generate 13% of our energy from solar.

South Africa should develop a comprehensive set of infrastructure priorities with achievable timelines. We have seen numerous cases of this being effective around the world. The challenge of healthcare, education, public transportation, water and sanitation have to be addressed at a local level to expand access.

During the current pandemic, what has become even more apparent is that there is a need to map areas quite clearly as we tackle the logistical nightmare of screening, testing, reaching the vulnerable and distribution of food parcels.

With the implications of Covid-19 and the need for governments to consider schooling, access to primary and secondary healthcare facilities and transportation, for instance, it is evident that the there is a need for new energy for efficiency and effectiveness. The absence of this could precipitate disaster for particular localities.

For example, through AI, government websites can implement chatbots to complete transactions. This could be the first port of call for queries. A chatbot could function based on frequently asked questions (FAQ’s) which send pre-defined responses to questions entered by users on platforms such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, for instance.

We have already seen the success of this nationally with the government’s Covid-19 WhatsApp number, which provides updated information when requested. Similarly, robotic process automation (RPA) could also increase the speed and efficiency to cope with backlogs. RPA’s can handle high-volume and repeatable tasks that are often quite tedious for people to do.

Similarly, AI could be used in the awarding of tenders as it introduces objectivity and consistency. This eliminates human bias and reduces the possibility of unethical decision-making. This makes use of an AI system which detects vehicles in images from traffic cameras. This information can be sent to a control centre, where algorithms analyse traffic density. If the system detects congestion, it can direct traffic lights to re-route traffic, based on real-time data.

AI could also provide various solutions in terms of water supply, for instance. From predictive analysis to manage our supply networks to data analysis to track water consumption and water end-users, for example, to the management of sewage treatment plants or desalination plants.

Of course, as one talks of spatial planning, often the forgotten segment is our vast informal settlements. This has to be at the centre of relooking at urban planning, particularly given how prevalent these settlements are but how often they are overlooked. There is already technology in place that can map existing informal settlements. AI and existing spatial data-sets can be put in place to detect informal settlements.

Researchers from several universities involved in the Frontier Development Lab Europe programme have developed two AI-based tools that can automatically classify informal settlements using freely available satellite and aerial imagery. While a global project, this has already been done in some South African informal settlements.

In a country with stark inequalities such as South Africa, the adoption of smart technologies has to be inclusive.

In the shift towards digital transformation, we must remain wary of leaving vast segments of our population behind.

The goal is not to create deeper inequity but to ensure that a blueprint speaks to our challenges and posits the necessary solutions. There is a scope for smart cities in South Africa, but we have to get the how and why right. After all, as Bris said, “The real test will be whether citizens feel the benefits.”

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the author of the book: Closing the Gap: The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa. This an abridged version of the speech delivered at the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan last week. Follow him on twitter at @txm1971.