Africa on the road to embracing Smart Cities




By Dani Mansour 

Developing smart cities is certainly not a new concept, with more than 1,000 cities globally having announced their own initiatives. While the lack of consensus on what a smart city is inhibits direct comparisons and data collection, market intelligence firm International Data Corporation (IDC), estimates that cities will spend in excess of US$158 billion on smart city initiatives in 2022.

What makes a smart city “smart”?

Smart cities are less fragmented cities, incorporating a range of sustainable buildings combined into more mixed-use communities, more sustainable requiring less physical travel than in the past. With Africa due to host the COP27 summit in Egypt next month, (building on previous summits in South Africa, Morocco, and Kenya), it is no surprise that much of the discussion in smart city circles has focused on the central role of the environment. Many countries and companies have pledged to reduce emissions, the clean energy transition seems to be an inevitability.

Smart cities are green cities

If there is one topic that has defined the cities debate and the real estate industry more generally over the past decade, it is a growing awareness of environmental issues.

Designing and building greener cities, landscaping the public realm, and creating a healthier environment are assuming much greater importance in our everyday lives than at any time. COVID proved the importance of access to open space and triggered a flight to higher-quality urban environments.

Combining people and technology

The internet of things (IOT) will form a key component of the digital nervous system, connecting the physical environment to the digital environment. Amongst other things, this will provide citizens with access to strategic data allowing them to identify and evaluate their current and future needs for physical space.

The technology underpinning this data transfer has evolved rapidly over recent years and will inevitably continue to do so, requiring the need to incorporate as yet unknown technologies. Designing for tomorrow doesn’t mean predicting the future, but it does require the creation of an environment which doesn’t become obsolete within a few years, an environment that is evolutionary, flexible, and future-proof.

Recent advances in AI allow for a quantum leap in our ability to create smart cities. Focusing on the interaction of people and technology, AI offers a range of applications that are able to connect, interpret and implement masterplanning principles in a manner that will fundamentally change the way we live in, utilize and occupy physical space.

Key complexities in developing smart cities

While there has been growing awareness of the need for more sustainable urban environments across Africa, much of the focus is still on the micro level of individual buildings rather than green or smart cities.  However, this is now beginning to change with the emergence of several smart precincts or city districts.

Africa faces a number of challenges in relation to developing smart city precincts.  These include low levels of market transparency and a shortage of local materials, skills and investment capital in many markets.  Most African countries rated opaque in JLL’s transparency index (with a few exceptions such as South Africa and Kenya). This can create challenges in raising finance, resulting in longer pre-development phases and making it more difficult to implement master plans in general. Therefore, delivering smart cities adds an additional level of complexity to the development process.

The way forward

While bricks and mortar will always remain at the core of the real estate universe, the sector has evolved beyond the built environment. The drive to create smart cities epitomizes this evolution, with developments in the fields of proptech and big data, allowing citizens to influence their physical space in a manner that makes their lives easier, enabling them to focus on those things that matter most to them.

(The author is Head of Project & Development Services, Africa at JLL).

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