Rwanda recently hosted the third Transform Africa Summit on 10th- 12th May 2017 under the theme ‘Smart City- Fast Forward’. The focus was on developing smart cities aiming at leveraging technological solutions towards improved efficiency of the continent’s cities.
Rwanda, one of the smallest countries in Africa, made that bold move to host and spearhead this dialogue between states, touching on both public and private partners and academia towards ensuring more intra and inter connections within society which in turn leaves them more knowledgeable and more empowered to participate in nation building.
But just what is the concept of ‘Smart City’ all about?
A city is an economy of agglomeration that provides various advantages and opportunities. That is why we all flock to the cities in search of a better future. Although every city has its own history, culture and identity, there is no doubt that we need to nurture, preserve and renew the urban fabric with changing times.
The more the word SMART in the context of ‘cities’ rings in our minds, the more interpretations it generates, the more synonyms emerge, the more it attracts academicians and policy makers to engage with it, and the more confusion its is likely to stir of not well clarified at initial phases.
I will be attempting to highlight the different metrics of urban smartness in terms of dimensions and characteristics which are hoped to allow us quickly reach a shared definition and understanding of ‘Smart City’ as well as highlight some key performance measures that Kigali and Rwanda in general have displayed, in her zeal to get there.
The term “Smart City” was coined towards the end of the 20th century to frame the future of cities and their development and hence is rooted in the implementation of user-friendly information and communication technologies developed by major industries for urban spaces.
Smart cities are said to be forward-looking, progressive and resource-efficient while at the same time providing a high level quality of life. They promote social and technological innovations by linking existing infrastructures through incorporating new energy, innovative traffic and transport concepts that are easy to adopt and go easy on the environment.
Since their focus is on new forms of governance and public participation, it is believed that intelligent decisions need to be taken at the strategic levels; decisions on short, mid and long-term implementations considering cities as entire systems is therefore mandatory if cities want to become smart.
The writing on the wall is very optimistic; to the benefit of all, smart cities have the potential to forcefully tackle the current global challenges, such as climate change, scarcity of resources, secure economic competitiveness of cities and improve quality of life for urban populations which are continuously on the rise.
Why bother with smart cities?
It is widely held that more than half the world’s population already occupies urban spaces and estimates reckon that number is on the rise and is will reach two thirds by 2050, 33 years from now.
Alongside the many opportunities driving this rapid urbanisation lies an equal load of challenges and constraints, which we again throw back to the same environment we obtained our resources… Oh poor you, Mrs. Environment.
This should be seen as nuclear science. We are all aware that resources world over are getting more and more scarce. As cities become bigger and bigger, they consume more and more resources; they need more housing, more energy, more food, more mobility, more waste removal etc.
Climate change has remained a true threat to humanity, be it global warming, floods, heat waves etc. and consequently cities which are responsible for three quarters of green house gases worldwide have been called upon to reduce their ecological footprints.
The concepts and tools to become a smart city may vary from city to city, due to diverse geographical, spatial, social, economical, environment and political landscapes. Some cities have gone for approaches that are technology-based e.g London.
Some cities have gone for social-based e.g. Vienna but the goal is common, to add substance and to improve quality of urban life in their cities. All these will need newer technologies, smarter ideas, faster implementation strategies, hand on skills, a collective mindset etc.
How is Rwanda getting there?
Borrowing a leaf from Rwanda, it is clear that the first step towards becoming a Smart City is taken at the strategic level; policies on smart energy, environmental protection, economic growth, healthy society, good politics, proper administration and improvement on quality of urban life are but a few examples.
All these, beyond being a vehicle towards smart city, further enable a city to become more resistant and adaptable to influences from both internally and externally.
Rwanda has continuously put measured towards reducing energy consumption, promoting renewable energy sources such as biogas and solar, control over raw material consumption all towards smart energy generation, storage and consumption.
In terms of smart mobility, Rwanda is applauded for the introduction of the ‘tap and go’ ticketing and Wi-Fi in public buses in Kigali.
Not sure other cities in the region are there as yet. Such innovative and user-friendly transport systems are a plus for the smart city. Smart governance is Rwanda has called for proper coordination of projects and more active public participation as evident in the various city council, Rwanda Housing Authority and Mininfra forums on pressing urban issues in Kigali.
Urban dwellers feel involved in decision-making, which is key in smart cities.
It is in the social dimension where I still see a huge gap. Increasing quality of life in urban areas requires more than technological innovations.
To make smart cities become more real, more accommodative to society, we need to introduce more public spaces that enhance social cohesion, catalyze plurality in society, promote cultural expressions in the city, and continue to uphold high standards of education, health and safety.
A long journey is a combination of many little steps. We are getting there soon.
The writer is a lecturer at the school of Architecture, University of Rwanda. She is an architect and urban designer with keen interest on the dialectical relations between Architecture and Society.