Can South Africa’s Smart Cities Please Stand Up?

Future Cities

By Hylton Mitchell

Cities are the crucible of our urban experience and for the first time in human history, more people live in cities than in rural areas. We are now truly living in an urban century where our cities are expanding at an unprecedented rate and depending on whom you ask, it is estimated that in the second half of this century, our planet will be dominated by cities with an urban population that will grow from 3.5 billion to 5 billion people.

The obvious environmental cost of having more people living in cities can inextricably be linked to the rise in global warming, the impact on pollution, the health of citizens, the rise in energy costs and also the growth of informal settlements on the periphery of our cities. This increased urbanization puts pressure on the traditional makers of our cities; architects, urban planners, local government policymakers and politicians all scratching their heads in order to come up with sustainable solutions to this increased gathering of people. But more and more these days this concept of designing and shaping our cities are being challenged by an evolving revolution of people crowding on social networking sites, urban activist think tanks, technology, open public data and smart phone applications that are shifting the balance of how urban dwellers can keep the urban environment civilized, habitable, and sustainable. Undoubtedly now digital technologies are accelerating human interactions in cities and readying citizens to be in a stronger position to allow for a more inclusive view of city making.

Some people even believe that digital technologies are taking on a more dominant role in influencing the city of the 21st century, facilitating a new kind of urban experience where the way we live and interact in malls, shops, parks, public transport nodes and energy consumption can become a collaborative process dramatically revolutionizing the urban context. You just have to trawl the Internet to see a growing amount of academic research and some innovative global technology companies and cities that are busying themselves to illustrate how technology is becoming an integrated and necessary part of urban life.

So how can South African cities benefit from this newfound optimism that seems to equipping our sister cities in the North? Our cities are inherently complex, as increased populations put pressure on poor apartheid spatial planning, peak hour traffic, health services, the unpredictable energy grid, the influx of rural people seeking a better life, the rising cost of food production and improved access to basic municipal services, these are all interrelated challenges. But how can citizens through their user experiences on social networking sites and other smart technological applications transform South African cities into digital or ‘so-called smart cities’? Is the Internet the long awaited elixir that will transform the bricks and mortar of our city streets into digital highways, where we can monitor our energy consumption, instantly know when our next dentist appointment will be or when the fresh baked croissants came out of the oven at the local deli?

Laying Fibre Cable

Digital neighborhoods can become an attractive alternative to the traditional way we view our urban and suburban neighbourhoods. This is possible as cool and user friendly digital technologies are linking more and more people through Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites and it also presents opportunities for urban planners to consult with key stakeholders; the people who live, work and play in our cities to find out where change should happen.

Ultimately we will have to address the gap that exists between the digitally connected and the digitally disenfranchised citizens in our cities but on the flip side mobile technologies are narrowing the digital divide at a welcoming rate. So once we have dealt with getting more people online, we’ll have to figure out how we can start optimizing this new digital networked reality, where urban planning and policy-making processes can be done in this new mediated urban context. Failure by local government stakeholders, urban planners and policy makers to acknowledge the power of the digital citizen, will result in continued service delivery protests and poo throwers soiling our streets.