Wednesday 14 December 2016

The African Smart City

“Smart people, places, communities, businesses and governments work together to use the modern technologies that are changing our world to make it fairer and more sustainable in the process, giving everyone a better chance of a longer, healthier, happier and more fulfilling life.”
- Rick Robinson

Now Is The Time For Africa To Join The Smart Cities Revolution!

Which of these future scenarios would you prefer?

A) One future where the super rich politicians in the highest levels of government in Nigeria are chauffeured around in luxury cars that drive themselves while a robot nanny babysits their children at home?

Or B) Would you prefer a future where even the poorest people in Mushin (rugged town within Lagos, Nigeria) enjoy the most comfortable air-conditioned public transport buses that run, not on petrol or diesel, but run mostly on the energy gotten from the refuse that is collected day to day in that very town?

I would go for the second scenario. 

But it is not like I have something against robots or self-driving cars. Nor do I have anything against the super-rich merely for being rich (I hate the kleptomaniac politicians in Nigeria though). 

It is because I agree with the Smart Cities ideology that technology should improve the quality of life for all people.

Smart Cities Are About People

Along with renewable energy and storage, the Semantic Web, and the future of farming (powered by data); the concept of building smarter cities has become one of the topics I am most interested in. 

I strongly believe that African political and business leaders should be incentivizing business and entrepreneurship around these and other areas in transformative technology. 

And as usual, in the spirit of Africa Rising, I am here to help stimulate the discussion for smart cities in Nigeria and all around Africa. This indeed falls into the mission of those of us who care about a Digital Africa, since the process of planning and implementing smart city projects would certainly cause a tremendous increase in employment, skill acquisition and prosperity for the African youth. 


But first, we must understand the reality and the prevalence of the problem

Defining The Problem: 


Man can control how he plans a city. But man cannot yet control how people migrate from rural areas into any city they want to migrate to.

When urbanization gets out of control, no matter how well the city was planned, bad things start happening.
Slums develop. Then crime. Costs of housing, transportation, and food go up. Collection and management of refuse (or waste) gets increasingly difficult. A lot of strain is put on clean water resources. It's all pretty bad. 

It would be wonderful if we could build cities with infrastructure that can be functionally "elastic" enough to stretch to fit the challenges of urbanization, wouldn't it?

Defining The Solution: 

Smarter Cities

A Smart City is planned primarily to improve the quality of life of the citizens that dwell (and will dwell) in it. It is judged to be "smart" because it relies on the use of digital technology to bring about such life's qualities.

Each smart city should share this common objective, yet different smart city projects would be planned and implemented differently from one another.
However, most smart city projects commonly focus on 5 main areas:

Transport, Waste Management, Energy, Food and Water Supply.

I should also mention that so far, I haven't come across any smart city project that doesn't assume that a smarter city must be a green city (i.e. powered primarily by renewable energy). I would imagine that climate change skeptics may not be quite as big on that particular pre-requisite of smart cities though.

Smart Cities Should Convert Refuse To Energy

Mitchell Joachim, an architect at Terraform One, considers the most crucial technological piece for a smart city to be a central system for converting waste (or refuse) to energy.

When you really think about this (especially those of us who live in Lagos, Nigeria), that would be a fantastic solution to have at the heart of our cities. We would be killing two really really ugly birds with one stone. 

Anyway, this "spirit" of getting power out of waste, or of bringing good things out of not-so-good things, is what smart cities are ultimately about.

Cheong koon Hean compares a smart city (or town) to a human body. She likens the buildings where activities take place to muscles, the roads to the veins and arteries which move traffic (like blood) from building to building. She also compares trees and parks to the human lungs which help to cleanse the air and give oxygen.  

Mrs Cheong then compares the sensor layer of a data-driven intelligence system to the five senses of the human body, which works with our central nervous system and brain by providing information about what happens in the environment so the human being can learn how to adapt.

Then there is Dr Rick Robinson (The Urban Technologist)

The Social Scientist Not Forgotten

I first got interested in the topic of smart cities through my friend, an architect and a lecturer at the University of Lagos, David Adio-Moses. Yet, it was while reading Dr Robinson's blog that my eyes truly opened to the necessity of the idea.
This article from Robinson's blog could open your eyes as well. 

It is possible, perhaps, that the main reason why I like Dr Robinson's guide to smart cities so much is because of his regard for social scientists (of which I myself am a natural progeny).
Indeed, like the professor and father of artificial intelligence's Deep Learning, Geoffrey Hinton, Robinson favours a world where social scientists take more significant roles in the advancement of our species.   

The fact that the problem of urbanization, slums, crime and the spread of diseases are human problems means it is a social problem. I would say it is certain that no amount of technological magic would truly solve social problems without a strong participation of those who truly understand those problems. The social scientists. 

So in conclusion, we are now no longer indifferent; in that we realize that the problems that come with urbanization are real. We also know that there can be solutions that can help our cities adapt and learn how to tame these problems of urbanization. 

It all requires lots of planning and smart technology to get on top of these problems. And the best way to begin this planning and to learn to use this technology properly is to join the global smart cities conversations. 

I will be writing more about smart cities in the future. I will also be thinking of ways in which the technologies that I am interested in, like the Blockchain and the Semantic Web can help solve some of these problems. 

Thanks for reading. 
Please offer your contributions to this topic below. Also link up with me on LinkedIn or on Twitter.
You already know where to find me on GooglePlus.

I leave you with this video for more on smart cities.