Building sustainable cities

04 July 2024

Smart cities are changing the way we live. From ‘greenscaping’ major urban centres with sustainable initiatives, to enhancing citizen safety, smart cities have a lot to offer…

Smart cities are big business. As per Statista, African smart city revenues are expected to expand at 16.28% annually over 2024-2028 to reach US$19.71 billion. During the same period, the number of smart city connections is forecast to more than double, from 231.40 million in 2024 to 543.10 million in 2028.
Africa’s smart cities integrate a wide array of technologies and data-driven solutions to enhance the quality of life for its residents, improve efficiency, sustainability, and economic development. Relying on robust ICT infrastructure, data analytics of traffic patterns, energy consumption, air quality and waste management enable city planners to prioritise sustainability by targeting green buildings and eco-friendly practices.

But what’s the difference between innovation for innovation’s sake, and the development of genuinely smart, next generation cities that are beneficial for both people and planet?

“A city is truly smart when it can work for its people by improving safety, quality of life, efficiency, sustainability, and more,” shares Rony Cohen, co-founder and head of business development, floLIVE. “Take for example, the ability to time traffic lights with ambulances or fire trucks or rerouting traffic in real-time when an accident occurs. Cities become smart when waste disposal and street lighting can be automated; when air quality can be monitored; and when public transportation routes and timing are communicated at the moment.”

“One smart city may look very different to another - but smart technologies will help alleviate some of the pressures they are facing today and in the future,” says Phil Beecher, president, Wi-SUN Alliance. “According to the UN, just over half of the population lives in urban areas, but this is expected to increase to around 68% by 2050. In real terms, this means adding another 2.5 billion people to urban areas in the next 30 years.”

This shift from rural to urban, alongside huge population growth, will put massive pressure on authorities, municipalities, and city planners to tackle major urban issues like rising traffic levels, transport infrastructure, and environmental issues like air quality, as well as growing social issues associated with increased urbanisation such as crime.

“We will see major developments in smart grid technology as city populations increase, to help manage the load on the electricity supply, reduce peak demand and enable optimum use of newer forms of energy, like renewables,” predicts Beecher. “Street lighting is another example, with smart lighting initiatives becoming an enabler for more ambitious smart city development.”

Enabling technologies

Smart cities inherently rely upon secure, robust, reliable communications networks. Several technologies will play a crucial role in facilitating communication and data exchange.

“The right wireless communications network is critical to smart city development, one that is based on open standards, enabling true interoperability between devices,” asserts Beecher.

Cellular, and in particular 5G, is expected to be crucial to tomorrow’s smart city applications. Offering high-speed, low-latency connectivity, 5G enables faster data transmission and real-time communication, which is vital for enabling smart transportation and remote healthcare. Additionally, smart cities combine myriad use cases, all competing for speed and bandwidth – where again, 5G can deliver.

“Many of these use cases require real-time data communication, as well, so you’re creating a scenario where you need powerful, reliable connectivity,” says Cohen. “5G cellular connectivity is going to be paramount in supporting smart cities because of its high speed, massive bandwidth, throughput, and low latency. Layered on top of this is the ability to create private mobile networking with 5G. With private networking, smart cities leverage a dedicated network, which offers more reliability, dedicated bandwidth to the specific application, and greater control.”

Overhauling infrastructure is essential to bringing smart cities to life: “key to this is 5G, offering ultra-fast, low-latency connectivity that can support a wide range of smart city applications, such as autonomous vehicles, real-time data analytics and remote healthcare services, and crucially can be retrofitted in cities much more easily than fibre infrastructure. Outside of the cities, satellite broadband has a vital role to play providing access to support smart city initiatives in remote or underserved areas,” says Dominic Smith, marketing director, Cerillion.

Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and devices are another enabling smart city technology, supporting a truly staggering number of applications designed to advance sustainability and quality of life. Street lighting, air quality, traffic control, building maintenance, waste management, utilities, etc., are just a drop in the ocean of potential use cases.

Moreover, a single set of IoT sensors can be utilised for more than one application: “streetlighting is a great example of how a smart lighting network canopy can be used for other smart applications, such as IoT sensors for environmental monitoring, such as air quality,” explains Beecher. “Smart devices in one area could as easily be used for other smart applications that are essential to Africa’s smart city development. One of the most promising areas is in smart agriculture, such as irrigation control linked with solar generation. Water management is another interesting use case as a way to more sustainable agriculture, and also for detecting leakages particularly in areas of Africa where water scarcity is severe. Smart technology can also play a vital role in creating and managing smart spaces and encouraging citizens to make better use of green spaces.”

Fibre, mesh, WiFi, narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), LTE and hybrid solutions, too, will all have their role to play improving digital access and harnessing smart city solutions, however, “the network infrastructure in place must be able to scale to support millions of devices (often from multiple vendors), and future-proof smart city development,” says Beecher. “Scalability is key when designing wireless communications for smart cities. The networking technology must be able scale and be highly resilient, capable of providing coverage even in very demanding conditions and where cellular or other communications technologies struggle to cope.”

Smith adds that it’s not only the physical infrastructure which needs substantial investment, “but also the back-office BSS and OSS which play a crucial role in automating and future-proofing the smart cities of tomorrow. By leveraging the latest AI-powered BSS/OSS solutions, African cities can improve efficiency, sustainability and quality of life for residents, while addressing urban challenges and driving economic growth.”

Securing the city

Both consumers and government entities face significant threats from cyber-attacks with the advent of smart cities, however, the nature of the threats and their potential impacts vary.

For governments and local authorities, those in charge of managing smart city infrastructure, public services, and critical systems are prime targets for attack. Bad actors can disrupt essential services, steal sensitive data, or compromise infrastructure for political, financial, or ideological motives. Such attacks targeting government entities can result in significant disruptions, financial losses, and erosion of public trust. (IAN – add Malawi box near here please)
Cohen believes that governments are at a heightened security threat because so much of the information they store is sensitive and could be seen as valuable to bad actors: “if facilities are government-run, such as public transportation, traffic and street cameras, or other safety solutions, then these can be targeted in particular. Devices that are accessible in the open, such as cameras, pose a threat simply by the nature of being more easily accessible. This is not to diminish that cyberattacks threaten consumer devices, but more damage can be done and more valuable information accessed by the government. But anything that is connected to the internet is vulnerable to cyberattacks, so creating solutions that have security protocols built in from the very beginning is the best safeguard for both consumers and the government.”

That’s not to say that consumers don’t also face significant threats. Malicious actors can exploit vulnerabilities in IoT devices, mobile apps, or online platforms to steal personal information, commit identity theft, or launch phishing attacks. Compromised IoT devices can be used as entry points for infiltrating home networks, accessing sensitive data, or launching attacks on other connected devices, leading to financial losses, privacy breaches, and reputational damage.
According to Beecher, the government is responsible for setting the pace on security and privacy legislation and ensuring compliance by vendors, suppliers, developers and services providers – designed ultimately to protect consumers: “we already have much stricter privacy laws in other parts of the world, which have increased pressure on organisations to protect sensitive data, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe and California Consumer Protection Act in the US.”

It’s true that, while connectivity suppliers play a crucial role in supporting Africa’s smart cities by providing robust infrastructure and innovative solutions, they also hold a significant level of responsibility in securing the network.

“Cybersecurity is a major consideration in any digital use case, but particularly in smart cities,” says Cohen. “If public transportation becomes automated, a cyberattack could grind trains and buses to a complete stop and could even threaten public safety.”

“Smart city projects like streetlighting and other applications can use hundreds and possibly thousands of devices and sensors, which have the potential to generate huge amounts of data. Even if information is secure, handling it responsibly represents a risk,” adds Beecher.

While cybersecurity must go hand in hand with smart city development, “security remains a challenge for many, with around half of respondents citing security enhancement as their number one choice in recent Wi-SUN Alliance research,” says Beecher.

Cybersecurity awareness and training can go a long way in helping mitigate risk. Connectivity suppliers can offer cybersecurity awareness programs and training sessions to educate smart city stakeholders, including government agencies, businesses, and citizens, about cyber-threats, best practices, and preventive measures. Increasing cybersecurity awareness helps build a culture of security and resilience within smart city ecosystems. Moreover, collaboration with cybersecurity experts, industry associations, and regulatory bodies allows connectivity suppliers to stay updated on emerging cyber threats, vulnerabilities, and best practices. By fostering partnerships and sharing threat intelligence, suppliers can enhance their cybersecurity capabilities and proactively address evolving security challenges in smart cities.

Meanwhile, at the network level, end-to-end encryption, network segmentation and access control, intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS), regular security audits and vulnerability assessments, and incident response planning, can have a huge impact on securing smart city networks.

“Communications service providers (CSPs) must prioritise security at the network level and also in selecting the devices they use to deliver these services,” says Cohen. “They can also offer integrated network security for when customers have their own security systems in place to make it frictionless.”

“Taking an authentic layered approach to security is a must for any smart city development, extending from the customer grid-edge to the network, to the substation, and ultimately to the data centre,” adds Beecher.

Smart Africa

The creation of smart cities in Africa is essentially a done deal.

“Growing urbanisation, with increasingly limited resources, such as water supply and the demands on clean electricity, will necessitate that utilities adopt smart technologies,” says Beecher. “Municipalities have an opportunity to not only improve the efficiency of city infrastructure, but also to improve the quality of life for city residents, to the benefit of all.”

“Smart cities are the future, and Africa can see many advantages from embracing smart city functionality into its urban framework,” agrees Cohen. “Cameras are a great first point of entry into smart cities use cases as data costs and hardware, together, have become reasonable to support monitoring – even in real-time. These camera-based use cases can later be layered with artificial intelligence to monitor outside of human oversight to detect ‘anomalies’ such as crime, dangerous driving, and more.”

While challenges exist, there is a growing momentum towards embracing smart technologies, and investments in digital infrastructure will be crucial.
“Already, innovation hubs are emerging across the continent, fostering collaboration between governments, private sector, academia and startups, to develop smart city solutions that address challenges in transportation, healthcare, energy and governance,” says Smith.

Rampant urbanisation and population growth is one of the key drivers in making African cities smarter.

“Africa is the fastest urbanising region in the world; by the end of the decade, Cairo, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos and Luanda will all be megacities of ten million residents or more,” shares Smith. “As we’re seeing with our work at ACUD near Cairo, where a new future-proof administrative capital is being built in the desert, there is a clear trajectory towards leveraging technology to improve urban governance, infrastructure, and quality of life across the continent. With concerted efforts and strategic investments, the vision of smart, sustainable cities in Africa can be realised.”

Governments are increasingly recognising the importance of smart city initiatives in promoting economic growth, improving quality of life, and enhancing urban competitiveness, and today, many have launched smart city strategies, policies, and investment programs to accelerate the adoption of digital technologies and drive urban development. Public-private partnerships are playing a key role in driving developments forward, while international organisations, development agencies, and bilateral partners are actively supporting projects with funding, capacity building, knowledge exchange, and technical assistance.

While achieving universal ‘smartness’ in every major hub will be no mean feat, there is a growing momentum towards integrating smart technologies and principles into urban development strategies. Looking ahead, we can expect to see a proliferation of smart city features and initiatives in many cities, ranging from smart transportation and energy systems to digital governance and citizen engagement platforms. These developments hold the promise of fostering inclusive growth, enhancing sustainability, and improving the overall quality of life for urban residents across the continent.