The 21st century is the century of cities. More than ever, human life revolves around the city. The world is undergoing the largest wave of urbanization with more than half of the population currently living in the cities. Additionally, the digital revolution is leading us to a hyper-connected world and a sharing society. Digital disruption and the 4th industrial revolution is coming, and it is coming at a rapid pace. It is critical that the African economy be prepared for this massive shift. Failure to meaningfully rise to this challenge means that we will relegate ourselves to just being consumers of foreign technology and services. African cities have a crucial leadership role in accelerating Africa’s participation in the new digital economy. Building open and agile digital smart cities in Africa becomes increasingly more important as we look to the future.
Africa is also rapidly urbanising. At present, the African continent is 40 percent urbanised. There are currently 414 million urban dwellers – and only Asia has more city-based people. The continent’s largest cities all have populations of over a million people. Moreover, the continent is developing at an unprecedented rate: the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) predicts that Africa will be 50 percent urban by 2030 and 60 percent urban by 2050. Urban population growth in Africa is taking place at such a rate that – if there is not an adequate understanding of the situation, and if solutions are not developed quickly – the continent is heading towards a crisis of poverty, inequality and lack of resources for its city people.
The UN's 2010 State of African Cities report observes that “experience shows that across the world, urbanisation has been associated with improved human development, rising incomes and better living standards,” but warns that rapid urbanisation can be more of a burden than an opportunity for Africa.
The report states that “Socio-economic conditions in African cities are now the most unequal in the world”. This situation threatens stability, affecting not only the continuity of cities as socio-political human ecosystems but also entire nations. In many cases, there is in fact economic stagnation and contraction, yet city populations continue to expand and there are increasing demands on resources and increasing expectations of economic opportunity. The ever-quickening process of rapid urbanisation poses major challenges to African cities. There is no time to waste (with infrastructure planning for cities)”.
Local governments, traditionally the public sector’s weakest link in most countries, are the ground troops in refocusing to emphasise not just service delivery but the city’s leadership and enabling roles especially in tackling poverty, social exclusion, economic development, safety and the environment. The World Bank points out that managing such challenges in the face of local and global economic pressures has been difficult even in relatively well-run economies.
Cities have always managed to adapt to new challenges. Now it is the time to address the cities’ new digital ecosystem, to respond to the challenges faced by cities. New technologies allow the improvement of the citizens’ quality of life and a more efficient delivery of services by public administrations, in an environmentally sustainable way. Besides this, there is an opportunity to go beyond. The digital revolution should allow the City to be at the heart of a new digital ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship, expanding and transforming the information of citizens and organizations.
Cities must provide a digital infrastructure, a platform for digital services. This will allow not only the provision of today’s services, but the development of new services by any provider or entrepreneur supported on a common digital infrastructure of the city. The city may thus foster a flourishing, creative, innovative and entrepreneurial digital ecosystem that will lay foundations for future economic growth.
The city platform must be set up to facilitate synergies and ensure interoperability with other services and systems such as transport, energy, health, social services, etc. We need to encourage innovation based on an open platform and open data, promoting the city as a living lab for the Internet of Things (IoT) and a technology hub.
However for this to happen, we need a different approach to the way that we have been tackling problems, and partnerships across society (government, private sector, academic and citizens) are critical. African cities have a crucial leadership role in accelerating Africa’s participation in the new digital economy. To do so, African Cities must promote an open innovation platform for the city, thereby generating the necessary scale and encouraging the creation of ecosystems in which the development of solutions arises not only from the city, but also from citizens, businesses and the academic sector. The intellectual genesis of the digital revolution was collaboration - people working together to pioneer technological breakthroughs that have allowed them to nurture their own imagination and ally creatively with others. This is the opportunity that awaits us if our African cities understand their key role as a platform for digital transformation.