Africa’s Story – Is Urbanisation The Only Solution To Rising Population Growth?

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How Can Smart Cities Tackle Rising Population?

Aspire to thrive? Move to a city! This is a common notion people have, especially in developing countries. But when they do move to a city with a dream to improve their lives, they experience a different picture. Most of them end up living in crowded, unhealthy areas. They get low-level jobs and low wages. Access to clean water, sanitation and education hardly remain a reality. 

So, getting a high-quality life in such cities is perhaps just an illusion. Unless you are well-educated and earn a good income – your survival is tough.

This scenario is actually true to many African cities among other continents. The focus is more on technology rather than people – despite the goal being perfect. As per UN study published in June 2019, the population of Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double by 2050. More importantly, over 60% of this population is estimated to be living in urban areas. But are African cities ready to manage the influx? 

Some say that Africa is yet to understand the positive gains of rapid urbanisation experienced elsewhere. People moving in cities is increasingly becoming a burden for the urban areas. Because there are limited infrastructure and services including affordable housing, employment, health, education and safety. 

Whether it is about appropriately managing the influx of people or the rising population. Both will find refuge from a single solution. And therefore, some are adopting ‘retrofitting cities’ that already exist. Whereas some are creating smart cities from scratch. 

Reports show that retrofitting existing cities is up to three times more expensive than planning for infrastructure in a new/advanced settlement. Considering the case, a few urban leaders see the construction of entire new smart cities as the absolute solution. 

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What Is A Smart City? The Habitat Of Elites 

Smart City Plan of Africa

African cities are planning to move into the age of futuristic, technologically sophisticated so-called ‘smart cities.’ But it is important that these new smart cities stay away from the pitfalls experienced by cities such as the Cyberjaya in Malaysia. 

Cyberjaya was a lofty ambition of the Malaysian government to imitate Silicon Valley. Their aim was to build such a groundbreaking tech-hub of Asia.  

Going in line, Cyberjaya was constructed on a 2,800-hectare undeveloped land. It was a vision to create an urban space where intelligent minds from across the globe could live a high-quality life and focus on innovation. Malaysia believed that the concept would attract investors and be a model for the city of the future. 

Unfortunately, the result was almost contrary to it. The new smart city lacked the understanding that people move to cities not just for infrastructure but also for the amenities. The Malaysian government overlooked this while planning Cyberjaya. 

Today, the city is just a habitat that only highly educated elites can afford. Because they do not require additional amenities outside a suitable work environment. Many areas in Cyberjaya remain empty, even today.

Diamniadio Lake City – The Utopia Of Technology 

Diamniadio Lake City is a futuristic city in Senegal located 35 km from the country’s capital Dakar. The construction of the smart city aims at easing a bit of demographic pressure on Dakar. A city is currently home to 14 million people. 

The new smart city is preparing to test AI in order to manage urban development. Digital Technologies Park constructed in the city is being taken as a reference site to conduct modelling and work on water runoff scenarios. Flood is a recurrent problem in Senegal each rainy season. The picture of muddy water and garbage floating on the streets, making them impassable.  

The situation is not different in Diamniadio Lake City, experiments are going in the park spread across 25 hectares. 

As per the reports, the project aims at creating a smart city where the management model is based on data storage. The data, then, could be used to control air quality, streetlights, wastewater treatment, transport and even health services. It is expected that the residents of the future city would live in connected homes and use digital transport tickets. Plus, they would also have access to smart parking systems, e-health services and reside near artificial lakes. 

Sensors will be installed citywide for monitoring site security and maintenance. They will also have to manage electric vehicles and automated waste management. Several of Africa’s forthcoming smart cities are based on the same concept which indicates conceptualisation flaws. 

Senegal’s smart city of Diamniadio is an important part of President Macky Sall’s 2035 goal. Intended to be a “city of knowledge”, it will be home to an industrial park, entertainment facilities and residential areas. But the core part is that the futuristic city is very unlikely to be an affordable place to live for the majority of the population in Senegal. 

AI Is The Solution  

AI could be the answer to sustainable social and environmental policies in response to rapid urbanisation. This is believed by Jean Claude Koya, the technical advisor at the Ministry of Planning and development in Côte d’Ivoire.

Referring to his country, as an example, Koya explains that Côte d’Ivoire owns a supercomputer that will be of help. It will collect and process the data coming from agriculture, climatology and health sectors. Analysing this data will help us achieving climate resilience and sustainable development goals.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, most of the jobs are concentrated in a single city which is the problem leading to the rapid influx. Hence, introducing AI can create job opportunities that can prevent migration to already highly congested areas.

Further, Senegalese AI researcher Seydina Moussa Ndiaye warns that African governments need to integrate digitisation of all administrative procedures. Or they would risk having “intelligent ghost cities.” Because there would be a lack of data to generate services for the residents. He also points that lack of digitalisation leads to a low level of connectivity – an obstruction to the creation of successful smart cities. 

Besides focusing on technology, governments also need to invest in cybersecurity. As smart cities emerge, data will be a matter of public security and national sovereignty, he continues.

Away From Smart City 

Cities in Africa are still residential and commercial clutter where people earning low-income are ignored. Most of these ignored communities migrate from villages. Hence African governments should consider improving lives and livelihoods in villages as the starting point. Instead of focusing only on creating new smart cities, Africa should consider developing ‘smart villages.’

A smart village does not mean a hub of technology. But considering the basic needs of quality life, people should have access to healthcare, education, finance, jobs, communication and information. Electricity, clean water and sanitation need to be the priority. 

In fact, a smart village goes beyond these critical aspects to a good quality of life. For example, students in a smart village will have access to worldwide information without the internet. Aleutia is a company that provides a “solar classroom in a box” in east and west Africa. These solar classrooms enable students to have access to computers pre-loaded with encyclopedias, maps and other educational information. Even without the internet, the students get to connect with the entire world. 

The conclusion is that solutions can be as simple and effective. If people are getting what they need (to thrive) in their very own village – why would they migrate to smart cities? 
Smart ruralism can be key to reducing the rising population pressure in smart cities.