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Navigating the smart city
Home > Navigating the smart city

Navigating the smart city

29 February, 2024
The role of public sector in ensuring smart citizenship.

When visualising what cities of the future will look like, it’s easy to talk about the technology-driven innovations that will create a modern, intelligently designed, and sustainable utopia. The concept of a smart city depends on technology and how a city’s resources and services are managed. But using state-of-the-art technology to improve the quality of essential services – and potentially bring down the costs – is only the first step. What makes a city is its inhabitants, and digital citizenship only works if the people who live there understand what is going on. 

Smart citizenship matters, especially when you consider that 50% of the world’s population (around 4.4 billion inhabitants, according to the World Bank) live in cities. This number is expected to double by 2050, with seven out of ten people making up an advanced urban population. What that means for Africa is that there’s never been a better time to understand the role of the public sector in building and maintaining a smart city that fosters smart citizenship. What are the responsibilities of government agencies in providing essential services, ensuring data privacy and security, and promoting transparency? 

Not all smart cities are built from the ground up. There are greenfield and brownfield smart cities, and each comes with its challenges and opportunities. A greenfield smart city can be an inspiring undertaking that can drive significant investment opportunities, but a brownfield smart city is often seen as a more sustainable approach. Giving new direction to an existing city by installing smart technologies is often more feasible than trying to fast-track a regional economic powerhouse. An example of this is Eko Atlantic, a new $1 billion coastal megacity being built in Lagos, Nigeria. Eko Atlantic has been criticised widely for being greenfield. While the concept is climate-friendly and could help stop the erosion of Lagos’s coastline, there is also a need to invest in Nigeria’s current cities, where many live below the poverty line. It’s been 14 years, and Eko Atlantic remains empty despite investment by the public sector. 

A smart city needs smart citizens to flourish, and one of the learnings from Eko Atlantic, which has been criticised for a lack of citizen involvement, is that the relationship between government, services and citizens is essential. By involving residents in the planning and development of smart cities, the public sector will be able to shape a city around those who live in it and their needs. Technology is not only about service delivery. Social media, for example, can help the government gauge the community’s concerns and prioritise projects accordingly. Smart citizenship also goes hand in hand with civic-led responsibility.

A study by the University of Canada found that neighbourhoods with higher levels of civic participation have a greater sense of community, lower levels of crime and citizens who are healthier and happier. Additionally, research by Deloitte says that, if the government is truly going to tap into the possibilities of the current technological revolution, it must think differently about how it delivers services to citizens.

For digitalisation projects to succeed, a smart city must start with its citizens those who see the city as a place they want to live in, work in, and be a part of. While data is an important part of digitalisation, it’s good to keep in mind that a city is not a computer but an ecosystem, and the long-term success of a smart city extends far beyond technology. It relies on support from the public sector, meaningful public-private relationships, the acknowledgement that every city is unique and therefore needs specific solutions, and a citizenship-centric approach. Sometimes, you must stop and ask – is digitisation the best solution for this service-delivery problem? Even though a smart city requires sensors and other means of intelligence to understand and improve operations, getting the right data to the right people at the right time is what will solve complex urban issues in the long run. This is why smart citizenship is about fostering a sense of community engagement, empowerment and responsibility alongside the public sector – this is what will ensure that any technological advancements that come will benefit its inhabitants.



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