The African smart cities dilemma: Build new ones, improve existing infrastructure

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It seems as though everywhere you look, there is an African country planning or working on a smart city. Smart cities vary in definition but what they all have in common is the use of advanced and even web3 technology to improve functions, data collection and service delivery in a city.

There are two approaches to these smart cities, and they have created some debate. This debate is not unique to Africa. It revolves around whether to construct all new cities or upgrade existing infrastructure.

  • The smart city concept is very popular in Africa, with as many as 35 projects at various stages across the continent
  • Some argue that investors should be put into upgrading existing cities
  • New smart cities provide opportunities to develop cities that represent the desires of current and future generations

Smart Cities

A smart city is a phrase that means many different things in many different applications. All the concepts have in common that they intend to use web3 technologies to better the experiences of people living in them. This is achieved using web3 technologies to collect better, understand and plan through data.

For example, using big data and blockchain to improve transport networks. They are massive infrastructural undertakings. Some smart cities will improve existing infrastructure while others will build completely new ones. The goal of smart cities is the improvement of operational efficiency and service delivery through improved data collection and processing thanks to technology.

Read: Decentralized finance: Redefining financial transactions in the digital economy

African examples of Smart City Projects

There are somewhere in the region of 35 smart cities planned or under construction in Africa. Countries like Mauritius have 6 planned with 1 underway. Morocco boasts a renewable energy city, the Mehdi renewable energy city. Ghana and Zimbabwe both have plans to construct Africa’s tallest tower; the former’s project has seen many delays, while the latter broke ground in July 2022.

Senegal’s Akon City is one of the most popular projects in the area. The Central African Republic recently announced plans for their smart city as part of the Sango project. Nigeria’s Eko Atlantic city is underway, as is South Africa’s Waterfall City. Kenya is pursuing a technopolis that will position the country as a technology hub. All this to say, the idea is being pursued all over Africa.

Upgrade existing infrastructure or build smart cities anew?

Many of these projects are to be constructed on virgin land though some are close to existing cities. Development in urban Africa over the last 3 decades has featured a migration within urban areas. For many cities, the central business district has been abandoned in favour of business parks or entire “new cities”.

These sometimes sprawling campuses are more open than what have become crowded cities. The ability to build horizontally rather than vertically is favoured. This is a feature of many African capitals, with Johannesburg, Harare and Lusaka standing as good examples of this shift.

The downside of this approach isn’t in the new cities but what happens to the old cities. Useful capacity is lost, and many of the areas become undesirable spots. We must bear this in mind as we discuss the arguments for both sides.

Upgrading existing cities to smart cities

Upgrading involves improving what already exists. So when we talk about it in a Smart city context, we mean simply applying new technologies to existing infrastructure. In some ways, this is intuitive and the evolution of human settlement. We add to what is there and improve what we have. Three arguments in favour of this approach are lower investment requirements, utilising existing capacity and logistical concerns.

Lower investment cost

This is largely straightforward. Before we look at buildings, we should look at the cost of servicing a new settlement with electricity, water and other services.

Africa already struggles with electrification, with an average of around 50% of Africans having access to electricity. The same concerns can be raised about potable water. Building on what already exists would lower the total investment cost.

Upgrading existing cities utilises the existing capacity

The capacity that exists to accommodate commerce and individuals in existing infrastructure is an asset. As with the example above on infrastructure, things such as rail, road, communication and other infrastructure represent existing capacity. Moving activity to a “new city” would involve capacity building all over again.

Logistics may be simplified

If we choose to locate our smart city in a new place, that comes with logistics implications. However, upgrading an existing area means taking advantage of what transport networks and systems exist there.

Not all but many smart cities are also looking at issues of sustainability and nothing goes against environmental sustainability like burning greenhouse gases. Something we currently do for locomotion.

Building  new smart cities

Building anew involves finding virgin tracts of land which Africa is blessed with. This sets us apart from our European and Western counterparts who are limited in this regard. New developments are not all bad and have some strong arguments in favour of them.

New smart cities escape problems of the past

Much of African infrastructure, particularly urban infrastructure is either heavily influenced by or completely a product of colonial planning. Amongst other factors, colonial planning was based on inequality, and try as we might, we cannot escape that. This comes with problems and infrastructure that is not fit for purpose. Building new cities and smart cities escape the problem that colonial influence has created.

Build in own image

In addition to escaping the problems of the past, we should also acknowledge that building smart cities on the new ground can shape the future. To put it better to shape the future that we want.

Morocco’s Mehdya renewable energy city and Senegal’s Akon City are good examples of this. To build the future, we require infrastructure that enables, if not facilitates, the future we envision. This is difficult to achieve with building on existing infrastructure. To quote Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would’ve said faster horses”. Evolution is taking the next step, not continuously improving the current step.

Little compromise

Construction and civil engineering are more arts than sciences. They require balancing many competing factors to achieve the best fit. So no construction project can go on without some compromise. Building anew does open you up to more possibilities, and there are no restrictions by the limitations of existing infrastructure.

A good example is building foundations. Put simply, the taller a building, the deeper its foundations need be. Building on an existing structure would involve demolition, clearing and reconstruction of the foundation. The same building on virgin land would require excavation of the land and construction of the foundation.

Missteps tend to be rather unforgiving. All may seem well for some time but they eventually show. So as to whether constructing smart cities anew or constructing on existing infrastructure is better, the results will show eventually.

Read: How Blockchain Technology Could Help Energy Transitions in Africa


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Kudzai G Changunda
Kudzai G Changunda
Finance guy with a considerable interest in the adoption of web 3.0 technologies in the financial landscape. Both technology and regulation focused but, of course, people first.
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