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COVID-19 strengthens the need for smart African cities; Chinese enterprises are suggested to participate in the construction

Released on:2020-06-10 Views:

By Andrew Christian


SHUZIFEIZHOUGUANCHA is the official WeChat account of the implementation platform of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT). It aims to introduce the latest policies, dynamics and trends in Africa's digital industry, hold digital exchanges between China and Africa, develop in-depth reports and release research results, and promote win-win cooperation in the digital industry between China and Africa.

Editor's note: Based on China's experience in fighting COVID-19, smart cities, together with such technologies as big data, AI, IoT and cloud computing, have created significant value and played an important role in preventing and controlling the epidemic. With the continuous escalation of the epidemic, Africa, the remote but familiar continent, is facing increasing demand for the use of digitalization to implement epidemic prevention and control, improve public security, and empower the traditional economy. There is a reasonable prospect that under the background of global efforts to fight the epidemic and build a community of health for all, the vigorous development of smart cities will effectively improve the anti-epidemic capabilities and performances of African countries and even all developing countries in the world.

We found in previous field research that American digital companies such as IBM and Microsoft are building demonstration platforms and environments for smart cities in some African countries. They are also participating in the smart city planning and design of local governments by releasing white papers and providing policy advice. Compared with the solutions of Europe and the US, China's smart city solutions better match the actual situation of developing countries. Moreover, they are continuously improved, strengthened and upgraded in the anti-epidemic process, with significant comparative advantages in dealing with public health incidents and the like.

To this end, we put forward the following suggestion: In order to provide better digital city solutions that are more efficient in epidemic prevention and control to Africa, our good friend, partner and brother, and to promote Africa's digital transformation while helping the 1.3 billion Africans fight COVID-19, Chinese enterprises in the field of smart cities should take advantage of the crucial moment to participate in international competition. By pooling advantages, seeking synergy and conducting win-win cooperation, they should increase their presence in African countries with a basis for digital foundation, building smart city demonstration platforms and environments, releasing professional reports and white papers, and exchanging and discussing with local authorities on top-level design, policy planning and technical standards. They should promote the construction of African digital cities steadily and systematically from the perspective of epidemic prevention and control, and highlight China's digital industry's role in the construction of China-Africa community with a shared future.


By 2050, almost three-quarters of the world's population will live in cities. Burgeoning urbanization is progress, but infrastructural challenges have made people worry about the influence of the coronavirus outbreak and its secondary problems on cities. The current pandemic has placed the livability of cities in the spotlight. Smart cities are a lifeline in the battle against such outbreaks, but the current situation in Africa shows its so-called mega-cities are far from technologically adaptable.

Eased but not easy. Under severe economic pressure and living pressure, from Johannesburg to Lagos, Cairo to Nairobi and Accra to Kigali, more of Africa's best-known cities are easing their coronavirus lockdowns to reduce the economic impacts of the crisis, hardly because the situation is any better. Reopening businesses and keeping the infection curve flat all at the same time is easier said than done.

Lagos, Africa's most populated city, is where Sub-Saharan Africa had its first confirmed case. Till date, it remains the COVID-19 epicenter of Nigeria. Even as the mega-city's government relaxes movement restrictions, it remains a huge challenge to navigate through its 1,171 km2 landmass without stirring a COVID-19 related ruckus. The following figure shows the largest cities in Africa, including Lagos in Nigeria, Cairo in Egypt, and Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.



While the best way to stop a pandemic is to not let it start, the digitalization and infrastructure of cities play a huge role in stopping contagions from becoming a catastrophe. For example, the University of Newcastle has been using a couple of smart city technologies to keep an eye on the effectiveness of the United Kingdom's social distancing measures. Such smart city technologies go a long way in helping urban settlements deal with pandemics and even slow their spread to rural areas. But beyond drones, healthtech startups and several 3D printing attempts, Africa's smart city game is far from perfect.


In as much as digital interventions like contact tracing are happening in Africa's most developed cities, there are gaps that need to be effectively plugged in defense against future outbreaks. Cape Town, the "most advanced city in Africa", is now the epicenter of coronavirus infections in the continent. Despite having one of the region's most developed infrastructural provisions, the COVID-19 crisis has challenged the city, spotlighting the need for a more robust development.



Figure: Proposed Smart City in South Africa

Mega solve. The largest cities in Africa have exponentially grown over the decades to become homes to tens of millions of people. These people are spread between overcrowded settlements and offshoots of similarly unplanned sprawls, including satellite towns. These cities have experienced outbreaks, and they have worked with national agencies to set up capable public health systems before COVID-19 entered. Big problems can be solved with big solutions, at the middle of which there need to be digital innovations, reliable data, adequate infrastructure and human-centric initiatives. African cities presently are presented with the avenue to reassess how technology can be used to address challenges like climate change, urbanization and population growth. One of the most important things a dangerous pandemic has in positive offing is a paradigm shift that offers an opportunity to leapfrog into a new era of digitization.


About 99 percent of Africa's city infrastructures are technologically inefficient, but there is room and need to make them more flexible to respond quicker and better to crises. An ideal attribute of a smart city is one that balances environmental impacts and economic growth. With the right data, this is quite possible. Smart infrastructure can become all-sensing to become a system of adaptable features that improve the quality of human life—even during pandemics.



Photo: Eko Atlantic, Proposed Smart City in Nigeria

In terms of the use of smart city technology to fight COVID-19, South Korea's Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, as well as its Ministry of Science and ICT, have been using the Smart City Data Hub. With this system, the two governmental departments do contact tracing by monitoring and analyzing data collected from cameras and other sensors. The technology allows the country to identify who a confirmed coronavirus patient has recently come into contact with. Since March 16th when the use began, South Korea's cases have doubled, showing that the nation is doing something right with the technology. Being that the continent's economy majorly depends on the economic activities in cities, smart cities need all the more attention going forward. Ambitious smart city plans like Eko Atlantic in Lagos in Nigeria, Waterfall City (South Africa), Rwanda's Vision City, Egypt's New Cairo, and Kenya's Konza Technological City are already on ground.


Going forward, while pushing forward the development of African smart cities in this pandemic, some cities' plans need to be reevaluated in the way they are built, maintained and lived in. Some have already begun by closing roads to cars to create more room for cyclists and pedestrians. Building additional hospitals and homeless shelters is much needed, especially in Africa's well-documented slums. Public amenities are just a start, as all spheres of the communities need some sorts of tech-hinged developments.


Building smart cities would take time. But no matter how long it takes, things just need to kick off. Pandemic-proof cities are built not in one day. Adaptable cities are able to repurpose old buildings to solve new problems, probably turning abandoned houses to new quarantine centers. They use technology to connect people and services and empower dwellers to solve problems. Transparent, quick and accurate decisions will be able to calm communities and help them get through this pandemic situation. At the end of the day, smart-city platforms and solutions will help African governments to effectively but responsibly reduce the spread of infections by leveraging data and AI-based sensors.