After taking the top spot in the Global Smart City Performance Index in 2017, it’s easy to see why Singapore hosted the World Cities Summit. From the brand new Terminal 4 at Changi Airport with its self-service check-in counters, automated immigration points and computerised tax refund booths; to contactless payments on the MRT with Mastercard; and smart sensors that control traffic loads, Singapore feels every bit a city from the future. But how would the rest of the world, including Africa and its unique challenges, get there?
Speaking at the World Cities Summit, Mastercard’s VP of enterprise partnerships Hany Fam said that in our generation, seventy percent of the world will live in cities, but no single city is ready or has a clear plan on how to deal with that level of impact on resources, waste, energy, housing, and employment.
“The challenge we see in big cities today is that it tackles a problem from ground zero as though it’s the first time it has ever been thought about,” says Fam. Due to limited time, he believes that cities undertaking a problem should start by investigating the last best solution.
To speed things up, Mastercard has come up with a solution called City Possible, a portal for public-private partnerships that brings cities together to solve system-wide global challenges. The company believes there are four components to a smart city: innovative partnerships; inclusion; interoperability; and insights.
“No one company or one city can tackle the biggest problems alone. One of the core components of the City Possible platform is a think tank that brings together forward-thinking mayors, executives, civic leaders, and academics working to create the blueprint for the future of cities,” says Anton van der Merwe, senior VP of market development for Mastercard Southern Africa.
“One-to-one solutions are no longer sufficient to solve global urban problems. Cities, private enterprise, and citizens can no longer afford to do it alone – for a smart, responsive city to succeed, collaboration is essential,” say van der Merwe.
Research analyst Arthur Goldstuck from World Wide Worx says the City Possible strategy is an excellent plan for cities that want to understand how public-private partnerships work.
Goldstuck thinks that local governments could go to Singapore to learn how it addresses very specific problems, like water shortages and public safety, but it can learn from many other cities, too.
“Singapore may well overwhelm them in terms of how much needs to be done to match this city state’s progress, but there are elements in all smart cities, from New York to Sydney, that can serve as examples. Using a resource like the City Possible portal would be a far more cost-effective and productive approach than taxpayer-funded tours of smart cities.”
Most major metros are talking the language of smart cities but most don’t have clear strategies in place, he says. “The City of Ekurhuleni City is probably the furthest advanced in this respect, having approved a 30-year Aerotropolis Master Plan, with OR Tambo International Airport at the centre of spatial, economic and social transformation of the region.”
Van der Merwe believes that Africa’s growth path lies beyond the digital divide and focuses on three core narratives: the evolution of commerce, driving digital inclusive growth, and scaling innovation.
“Too often, however, solutions offered by private enterprises focuses on fixing specific problems while governments and city authorities are looking for roadmaps to implement digital transformation across their operations. Real progress demands fundamental change in the way city and business leaders work together.”
Connectivity and data costs ultimately affect how people experience the smart city, but are not factors in holding back the development of a smart city, says Goldstuck. “The simple truth is that cities are not applying their minds effectively, actively and vigorously to the concept. They look at the need to prioritise service delivery as an overriding issue that does not allow visionary thinking.”
He adds that Cape Town has had elements of a smart city strategy for much of this decade, but they tend to be confined to specific projects, like its municipal broadband project. “There is a distinct lack of long-term vision in the city, as exposed by the water crisis of the last few years. A comprehensive smart city strategy would include resource management, and involve citizenry and private enterprise.”