What are Smart Cities

“Majority of the African cities are hugely unplanned developments that have with time grown, historically driven and inspired by commercial or economic ambitions. As a result, close to 60% of Africa’s urban population lives in slum areas with limited access to quality housing and social amenities. Smart Cities increasingly will demonstrate that; “it is possible to offer a better quality of life alongside urbanization,” Edwin Musiime founder and President Smart Green Cities Initiative East Africa says.  

The President SGCI East Africa Edwin Musiime adds that; East African nations need to adopt international standards in the development of smart cities which will form the basis for the planning of more sustainable cities striking a balance between growing urban populations and limited resources.

Around the world, technology firms such as IBM, Siemens, Microsoft, Intel and Cisco are busy selling software to solve a range of city problems ranging from water leaks, to air pollution, to traffic congestion. Recently, the Daily Mail reported that Samsung has unveiled a Smart Home Management System which will enable televisions and other home appliances to be connected by a smartphone.

A smart city’s success depends on its ability to form a strong relationship between the governments; continuously including its bureaucracy and regulations and the private sector. This relationship is necessary because, most of the work that is done to create and maintain a digital, data-driven environment occurs outside the government. Surveillance equipment for busy streets could include sensors from one company, cameras from another and a server from yet another.

Additionally, independent contractors may be hired to analyze the data which is then reported back to the city government. This data could then lead to the incorporation of an application development team that is hired to come up with a solution for the problems found in the analyzed data. This company could become part of the system if the solution requires regular updating and management. Therefore, a smart city’s success becomes more focused on building positive relationships than on completing a single project.

Several major characteristics are used to determine a city's smartness. These characteristics include:

  • A technology-based infrastructure;
  • Environmental initiatives;
  • A high functioning public transportation system;
  • A confident sense of urban planning and
  • humans to live and work within the city and utilize its resources.

Our future cities

Our future cities are green cities where trees, ponds, and parks are the lungs of the boroughs where biodiversity can find its way in. In these cities, people will live in healthy neighborhoods, work in circular business parks, and all citizens will have access to sustainable food, clean water and other natural resources.

To SGCI, urban leadership means co-creating these solutions together with cities’ inhabitants. Therefore, we work with urban leaders in business, government and social movements to build green cities across east Africa.

Features of a smart city

Emerging trends such as automation, machine learning and the IoT are driving smart city adoption.

Theoretically, any area of city management can be incorporated into a smart city initiative. A classic example is the smart parking meter that uses an application to help drivers find available parking spaces without prolonged circling of crowded city blocks. The smart meter also enables digital payment, so there’s no risk of coming up short of coins for the meter.


Also in the transportation arena, smart traffic management is used to monitor and analyze traffic flows in order to optimize streetlights and prevent roadways from becoming too congested based on time of day or rush-hour schedules. Smart public transit is another facet of smart cities. Smart transit companies are able to coordinate services and fulfill riders’ needs in real time, improving efficiency and rider satisfaction. Ride-sharing and bike-sharing are also common services in a smart city.

Energy conservation and efficiency are major focuses of smart cities. Using smart sensors, smart streetlights dim when there aren’t cars or pedestrians on the roadways. Smart grid technology can be used to improve operations, maintenance and planning, and to supply power on demand and monitor energy outages.


More on Smart Technology

Smart city initiatives also aim to monitor and address environmental concerns such as climate change and air pollution. Waste management and sanitation can also be improved with smart technology, be it using internet-connected trash cans and IoT-enabled fleet management systems for waste collection and removal, or using sensors to measure water parameters and guarantee the quality of drinking water at the front end of the system, with proper wastewater removal and drainage at the back end.


Smart city components

Smart city technology is increasingly being used to improve public safety, from monitoring areas of high crime to improving emergency preparedness with sensors. For example, smart sensors can be critical components of an early warning system before floods, earthquakes, landslides or hurricanes.

Smart buildings are also often part of a smart city project. Legacy infrastructure can be retrofitted and new buildings constructed with sensors to not only provide real time space management and ensure public safety, but also to monitor the structural health of buildings. Sensors can detect wear and tear, and notify officials when repairs are needed. Citizens can help in this matter, notifying officials through a smart city application when repairs are needed in buildings and other public infrastructure, such as potholes. Sensors can also be used to detect leaks in water mains and other pipe systems, helping reduce costs and improve the efficiency of public workers.

Smart city technologies also bring efficiency to urban manufacturing and urban farming, including job creation, energy efficiency, space management and fresher goods for consumers.

How a smart city works 

Smart cities utilize their web of connected IoT devices and other technologies to achieve their goals of improving the quality of life and achieving economic growth. Successful smart cities follow four steps:

  1. Collection – Smart sensors throughout the city gather data in real time.
  2. Analysis – Data collected by the smart sensors is assessed in order to draw meaningful insights.
  3. Communication – The insights that have been found in the analysis phase are communicated with decision makers through strong communication networks.
  4. Action – Cities use the insights pulled from the data to create solutions, optimize operations and asset management and improve the quality of life for residents.


Fostering sustainability with smart cities

Sustainability is another major facet of smart cities. Urbanization is expected to increase even more in the coming years. The United Nations reports that around 55% of the world’s population currently resides in an urban area or city; this figure is set to rise 68% throughout the coming decades. Smart technology will help cities sustain growth and improve efficiency for citizen welfare and government efficiency in urban areas in the years to come.

While cities already present environmental advantages, such as smaller geographic footprints that impact fewer ecological systems, they also negatively impact the environment with emissions, such as their extreme usage of fossil fuels. The network of smart city technologies could alleviate these detrimental effects.

Smart city challenges and concerns

Smart city initiatives must include the people they aim to help: residents, business people and visitors. City leaders must not only raise awareness of the benefits of the smart city technologies being implemented, but also promote the use of open, democratized data to its citizens. If people know what they are participating in and the benefits it can bring, they are more likely to engage.

Fostering collaboration between the public and private sector and city residents is key to creating a smart citizen who will be engaged and empowered to positively contribute to the city and community. Smart city projects should include plans to make the data transparent and available to citizens, often through an open data portal or mobile app. This enables residents to engage with the data and understand what it is used for. Through a smart city app, residents may also be able to complete personal chores, such as viewing their home’s energy consumption, paying bills and finding efficient public transportation.


Smart city opponents worry that city managers will not keep data privacy and security top of mind, fearing the exposure of the data that citizens produce on a daily basis to the risk of hacking or misuse. Additionally, the presence of sensors and cameras may be perceived as an invasion of privacy or government surveillance. To address this, smart city data collected should be anonymized and not be personally identifiable information.

However, perhaps the biggest challenge smart cities face is the problem of connectivity. The thousands or millions of IoT devices scattered across the city would be defunct without a solid connection and the smart city itself would be dead.

Furthermore, public transit, traffic management, public safety, water and waste management, electricity and natural gas supply can be unreliable, especially as a system ages and grows. However, the importance of these operations will only increase as the city expands and the demands on its infrastructure increase. These systems must be constantly maintained and tested to ensure their proper functioning.

Smart cities are also challenged by finding ways to attract and keep residents without a cultural fabric. The cultural essence of an area is oftentimes what attracts residents the most; this is something that cannot be programmed or controlled with a sensor. Therefore, smart cities may falter because they cannot provide a sense of authenticity, distinctiveness or place.

Additionally, smart cities that are being created from the ground up — like Saudi Arabia’s Neom and Arizona’s Buckeye which are being built in the desert — lack an established population and are therefore presented with the obstacle of having to recruit residents. These future smart cities also have no past success to provide confidence. As Neom and Buckeye have been built, concerns have risen over whether or not there is even a sustainable water source available.

Why we need smart cities 

The primary goal of a smart city is to create an urban environment that yields a high quality of life to its residents while also generating overall economic growth. Therefore, a major advantage of smart cities is their ability to facilitate an increased delivery of services to citizens with less infrastructure and cost.

As the population within cities continues to grow, it becomes necessary for these urban areas to accommodate the increasing population by making more efficient use of their infrastructure and assets. Smart city applications can enable these improvements, advance city operations and improve the quality of life among residents.

Smart city applications enable cities to find and create new value from their existing infrastructure. The improvements facilitate new revenue streams and operational efficiencies, helping governments and citizens save money.


Over the past decade, more than half a dozen African countries have been trying to position themselves on the smart cities map. There is currently an extensive list of cities that are being built or planned on the continent, including Eko Atlantic City in Nigeria, HOPE City in Ghana and Kigali Innovation City in Rwanda, all promising to resolve the problems of poverty and the economic standstill in their respective countries by attracting innovative technologies.