To date, the majority of smart city initiatives have progressed in developed economies, with authorities in Europe and the Nordics taking a lead in employing digital technologies to improve municipal services.

But the concept of the smart city encompasses more than the application of digital tech in urban spaces. Ultimately, private sectors and authorities need to ensure technology makes a meaningful contribution across many aspects of a citizen’s life, the World Economic Forum (WEF) argued in a report.

To achieve this, municipal authorities have begun deploying networks of cameras and IoT sensors to bolster public services in areas such as transportation and waste management.

Despite the objectives, WEF argues the adoptions and outcomes of smart city initiatives present a huge gap as technology companies favour to invest in cities with mature economies across the US and Europe over the southern hemisphere.

In November 2022, WEF noted London, New York, Tokyo and Paris were among the top ten smart cities based on nine metrics spanning from governance, digital skills to environmental sustainability. Developing cities including Nairobi, Lagos, Brasilia and Kolkata were among the bottom.

WEF further asserted smart city concepts are often criticised in the developing world, as local authorities are “frequently saddled with expensive systems” by foreign vendors, adding the projects are often “ill-suited to local realities”.

One potential reason for this is a misunderstanding of what a smart city actually is.

Louisa Barker, research manager for government insights at IDC Europe, told Mobile World Live (MWL) “too often there is a shiny aesthetics of what a smart city should be”, citing visions of modern buildings and unmanned vehicles as an example.

In reality, Barker said the definition of a smart city should involve “working with the core challenges faced by citizens and putting technology second”.

Joe Dignan, associate VP and head of IDC government insights Europe, concurred, while noting conversations around smart cities are clouded by “the futuristic parts”, leading to a lack of clarity about what a city really needs from smart initiatives.

Beyond the overall definition of smart cities, developing nations also face more basic challenges including supply of power or water shortages, which may hinder the appetite for potentially costly technology deployments.

Core city challenges  
A case in point would be Zimbabwe, where president Emmerson Mnangagwa announced plans to build a controversial yet ambitious smart urban landscape in 2022.

During the project’s opening ceremony, Mnangagwa explained the $500 million plan would bring about “the smartest city in the region”, replicating Dubai’s commercial, high-tech concept in the northwest of Harare.

However, Bloomberg reported the move triggered a split in opinions, particularly as the country remains plagued by electricity outages and many cities have had no reliable running water for years due to a legacy of racially divided urban systems.

The New Harare, backed by Emirati investors, will flaunt a new stock exchange, presidential palace and luxury villas, but there is no word on whether the country’s more prevalent issues will be solved.

Meanwhile, The Guardian reported a $90 billion plan unveiled by India in 2015 to build 100 smart cities was also met with backlash over fears of furthering economic inequalities.

An India-based think tank Observer Research Foundation noted the country pushed its original deadline of 2020 to June 2023 due to administrative backlogs.

While emerging technologies like AI, cloud computing and IoT have enjoyed spotlight in smart city discourse, Barker and Dignan explained data digitalisation sits at the centre of smart city planning across developing nations, helping governments reduce costs and make better decisions.

Open data as a first step
International Development Research Centre (IDRC), a research body headquartered in Canada, identified open data portals as a key enabler of smart city developments in Africa, Asia and South America, adding the technology remains an isolated topic in the broader smart city narrative.

The organisation described open data portals as a state-based initiative where a range of insights and datasets about a city’s urban development are made accessible to the public: supporting the evolution of smart technologies at a regional level and encouraging new digital services to become more citizen centric.

Similarly, Financial Times argued transparency and better-handling of municipal data are the lifeblood of new technologies.

With approaches like an accessible data portal or data crowdsourcing, developers can make digital tools tailored to address a city’s specific needs. In Burkina Faso, a partnership between local electricity company and NGO Open Burkina has helped residents of its capital Ouagadougou to become more resilient to power outages using “sensors installed in homes to collect data on power grid performance”.

The datasets are later distributed to the affected citizens and fed to the country’s national data portal.

Durban in South Africa is also an early adopter of an open data system. In 2011, the city established an open-source online repository to progress its smart city project, the Durban Edge.

Using deep data analysis, Durban Edge has published various metrics covering energy use, migration rates, financial inclusion, waste management and housing. In turn, municipalities can benefit from the datasets to optimise public services.

In 2021, Durban struck a long-term smart city initiative with Microsoft, which includes the upgrade of its national IT infrastructure with Azure cloud to enhance data processing: a move which helped redress issues around lost or outdated information due to unreliable power.

CNN reported the tie-up also covers the deployments of “dash cams” and “camera systems” as part of its cloud-based data integration to improve national security.

“I think increasing the efficiency of government administration through technology is where I can see a real opportunity”, said Barker.

5G unleashed
Dominique Bonte, MD and VP at ABI Research, stated 5G networks “will be very good for developing regions”, explaining real-time data rates and reliability are central to IoT in smart cities.

“Traffic sensors, surveillance and smart streetlights are good examples that can efficiently prevent crime and manage crowd control”, he added, naming New Delhi and Bhopal as sound use cases of smart poles and energy-efficient streetlights.

This also holds true for Dignan, who branded 5G “an important part of disruptive technologies that are really coming through” and enabling developing nations to “leapfrog” developed smart cities.

While the uptake of 5G in Asia Pacific so far is strong, uneven adoption due to a lack of digital skills persists outside of Japan, South Korea, Australia and Singapore, data from mobile industry association the GSMA showed.

What’s next?  
It’s convenient to imagine a world where smart tech intervention can solve every urban challenge. As cities have their own priorities and issues, technology deployments cannot be approached in a universal way and should fit a more localised context.

Public-private partnerships on smart initiatives might have pervaded developing markets in recent years, with WEF highlighting the potential of Asian and African regions in smart urban developments as the two continents are progressively employing digital tools to tackle problems that come with rural-urban migrations.

However, authorities should look more closely at ensuring the projects can serve the cities on a long-term basis. At the end of the day a smart city strategy “needs to be centred on addressing the challenges caused by the legacy infrastructure”, said Barker.

“If we ignore that, it’s not going to be effective”.

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