Imagine the hundreds of traffic lights dotted along Nairobi’s major highways collecting data for the city authorities. Now, imagine that this data could be used for much more than improving traffic flow that at best could be described as chaotic in Nairobi, and has become part of city residents’ lifestyles.
The traffic lights could collect data to help in accident surveillance, vehicle and pedestrian count, to compile congestion reports and intersection approach volume and so on.
They could be the starting point for acquiring massive amounts of data to improve quality of life and other city services. This is how a smart city should look like.
With smart technologies, you could be able to detect available parking spots in the city center as opposed to the current unconventional method of driving around the city streets trying to locate empty spots.
Smart cities are those that use ICT or tech solutions through digital objects like mobile phones and traffic lights embedded in our streets to address difficult issues like congestion and the wider use of public transport and services, and energy management.
Erick Loki, an architect at Planning Systems Services defines the smart city concept as where local authorities use technology to improve on efficiency as well as share data mined or collected by installed systems to enable them offer better services.
“Each city comes with its own requirements and challenges. So, one must look at the residents’ needs to be able to improve their lifestyle. So really, there isn’t any need for a blue print but to identify the challenge and use technology to solve it, this is a key driver for smart cities,” Loki says.
“Now imagine what the data collected every day by these systems can be used for. Pedestrian traffic planning, provision of water points, public service vehicles terminus and much more. There is just a lot that this data can do to improve how we live and work,” he explains.
Generally, smart cities normally target energy saving and adopt environmentally-friendly technologies, which help to promote sustainable development.
Globally, Singapore is leading the way in adopting the smart city concept, boasting of cutting edge transport and virtual healthcare.
For instance, it has adopted street lights which gather and send information about traffic in real time, availability of parking spots, light sensors that detect light and darkness to enable auto lighting of streets.
The city also has smart roads installed with sensors that offer vehicle count, which allow authorities to plan in advance for the city’s infrastructure and vehicle traffic management.
In some neighbourhoods, there are thousands of sensors installed which measure energy, waste production and water usage in real time.
Last year, it said it wanted to become the world’s first ‘Smart Nation’ in its quest to take urban planning a notch higher.
Nairobi has been working on a new city masterplan that will update the current one implemented in 1978. This could offer a good opportunity for city planners to incorporate a smart city concept.
Muddy Ramrakha, the treasurer of the Kenya Green Building Society says that Nairobi could use this opportunity to come up with planning policies that will accommodate a smart city concept to embrace technology which can ease people’s lifestyles.
“We need to understand that smart cities are not simply urban areas dotted with sensors and other high-tech gadgets; they need to begin at the planning stage to incorporate all elements in a bid to be inclusive. We need to start seeing city authorities putting forward a framework or blueprint that will then be used to adopt the smart city concept.”
“A city that uses data and achieves efficient transport systems enables people to move faster saving time. This is the efficiency that we accrue from smart cities. Using data to get authorities to improve lifestyles is key in making smart cities a success,”Ramrakha says.
Already, Nairobi and Cape Town rank among the most advanced cities on the African continent on the smart city front, with the former having won the title of Most Intelligent City in Africa by the Intelligent Community Forum for two years in a row. Nairobi was lauded for having taken steps to create an economy that can flourish in the broadband economy.
“We have the capability to have our cities do all this. It really doesn’t require upfront financial resources as this can be introduced at different levels. Currently, we have seen Nairobi boasting of ultra-modern close circuit camera system that has been able to reign in on crime and help the city in traffic management. We have seen attempts at initiating a smart waste collection system, which are all tenets of a smart city,” he says.
Konza City, is Kenya’s attempt at implementation of a smart city concept. However, the project which was initiated by the government back in 2009 has been dogged by endless bureaucracy and funding shortfalls.
Tatu and Migaa mini cities have also been touted as examples that will put Nairobi firmly on the smart cities map on the continent, but they have also fallen behind on their implementation.
“Konza city, just like any smart city concept has been necessitated by the need for future cities to be able to provide quality of life drawing from environmentally sustainable and efficient practices. However, given that it is the first attempt by the government to actualise such a concept, it was bound to run into bottlenecks, which will become a learning process for future smart cities,” Ramrakha says.
As an ICT city, Konza’s vision is to have an integrated urban information and communication technology network, which will support delivery of connected urban services, allowing for efficient management of those services on a large scale. Once operational, the city will be able to gather data from smart devices and sensors embedded in its environment, such as roadways, buildings and other assets. This data will be shared through an integrated smart communications system and analyzed by software to allow for enhanced services to Konza’s population.
However, implementing the tenets of smart cities require a huge financial undertaking, especially when done wholesomely, but it can also be implemented in phases, dependent on the immediate needs. For example, Konza will cost more than $12 billion to bring to reality while countries like Singapore have spent more than $40 billion in its push to become a Smart nation driven by technology.
“In some areas this financial investment can be quite a lot especially of you want to have a full smart city, where you will need to automate a lot of things, use a lot of data collection and technology. This will allow you to use this data to give you necessary feedback to make decisions. This is what makes it a huge investment. However, you don’t need to do a wholesome project. It can be done in phases on areas you need efficiency like waste and traffic management,” Loki says.
Smart cities are being touted as the future given the level of efficiency they bring along and their deep use of data, automation and Artificial Intelligence in making lifestyles simpler and easier.