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Mega housing projects and large-scale infrastructure development are on the rise amid growing populations across South Africa and the greater African region. With urbanisation set to define the future building landscape of the continent, attention is turning to the smart city agenda and the ways in which a global model does, or does not, fit in Africa. The annual African Construction and Totally Concrete Expo is therefore staging the African Smart Cities Summit at the Gallagher Convention Centre in Johannesburg.

According to Schneider Electric Middle East and Africa president Casper Herzberg, smart cities in Africa are a big challenge and an equally big opportunity. “Digitisation entails connectivity across infrastructure and devices that were not previously connected, which offers many opportunities to make life in African cities better, especially in terms of water and energy management, as well as security and transportation,” he says.

African smart cities on the rise

“With fast-growing cities and greenfield developments, it is opportune to introduce smart city parks, with technology incorporated in the design phase, which makes it cheaper and more efficient to implement solutions, compared with trying to connect existing infrastructure. Therefore, Africa’s undeveloped cities are challenging owing to a lack of basic infrastructure, but it does also create opportunity for start-up smart development.”

Herzberg adds that African cities are already progressing towards smart connectivity. Digital leapfrogging and the overall sentiment towards digitisation of business (which affects city life) is prominent in East Africa, while Egypt and South Africa are the African countries where most of the debate, effort and focus around smart cities is taking place.

Wael Youssef, Director of Digital Solutions, Smart Cities and IOT; and head of the Orange Business Services Smart Cities Centre of Excellence in Dubai, says that Africa and the Middle East regions are coming to the forefront of smart city growth. “The regions’ rapidly growing populations mean increasing urbanisation – a perfect breeding ground for smart cities. This urbanisation, allied to an increasingly business-focused philosophy and a desire to attract tourists, has encouraged governments to implement smart solutions in order to drive the sustainability of city services,” he says.

According to the 2016 United Nations Urbanization Prospects report, Africa’s urban population was reported to be the fastest growing globally. By the year 2035 over 50% of Africa’s people will be urbanised. This means that in less than 20 years from now, every second person in Africa would likely live in a town or a city.

By 2030, six of the world’s 41 megacities will be in Africa, according to the report. Cairo, Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos and Luanda are the African cities reported as key drivers of their countries’ economic performance and those that are expected to connect Africa to the global economy.

“Economic growth is vital for African economies; however, the inclusion of both rural and urban communities is paramount. Realistically, smart city initiatives and projects are already taking place across many African countries. These are growing as technology evolves and expands, with many African governments striving to improve their competitiveness and keep their country relevant. It is important for governments and businesses to note that smart city development requires a holistic and sustainable approach to leveraging the sharing and exchange of information in order to fully generate value for all involved,” Youssef says.

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