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How we can plan for smart cities of the future

Monday August 4 2014

By BITANGE NDEMO
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The Upper Hill landscape has changed significantly over the past ten years. Where there were old colonial timber bungalows, there are skyscrapers. The colonial land adjudication here factored in the low population density and provided for appropriate infrastructure.

Today we are using the same demarcations to develop high-rise buildings with access gates in the same spot where those for the bungalows were. My question to the city fathers is: Is it too difficult to apply the concept of smart cities to redevelop our city?

A 2009 study at the University of Amsterdam by Caragliu and others defined "smart cities" as investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) infrastructure, fuelling sustainable economic development and a high quality of life, with wise management of natural resources through participatory action and engagement.

READ: Smart Cities in Europe, by Caragliu et al. (external link)

The concept of smart cities, therefore, is a strategic device that encompasses modern urban production factors in a common framework and highlights the growing importance of ICTs, social and environmental capital in describing the competitiveness of cities.

GATED MENTALITY

Several other studies concur that for a city to develop a sustainable living, it must build into its planning the following smart components: governance, mobility, economy, environment, people and attitude towards living.

Sustainable Living Framework. GRAPHICS |
Sustainable Living Framework. GRAPHICS | BITANGE NDEMO

It can therefore be argued that none of the components stated above have been considered in the redevelopment of Upper Hill. Smart people should have thought about integrated infrastructure development, mixed use development to minimize use of motor vehicles, redesigning of the road network beyond existing infrastructure to fit into the high-density population that is coming up, walkability of the new development, as well as the scarcity of land and using it sparingly. 

Upper Hill looks like no other urban development globally. Its gated mentality denies it modern city development with shops, restaurants and other amenities that create a smart city. It is simply a hodgepodge of higgledy-piggledy that will give us more problems in the future than good.

We have resigned ourselves to a mediocre environment polluted by greedy transportation owners who see no reason to service their vehicles and ensure environmentally acceptable emission levels. This perhaps explains the high incidences of cancer and respiratory diseases that are draining our national health-care budget. 

BURNING VALUABLE FUEL

The Business Daily article of July 29, 2014, notes that respiratory ailments take a toll on household spending. Victor Juma, citing a Resolution Health study, says flu, coughs and tuberculosis ate up 19 per cent of the Sh1.6 billion the company spent on medical bills last year. 

Inadequate public health education on personal and community responsibility all add up to the rising medical challenge, said Peter Nduati of Resolution Health, an insurance company.

Focus on preventive health care will free up more resources into other key sectors of the economy. An IBM study on smart cities for Nairobi showed that traffic jams as a result of poor planning leading up to burning up valuable fuel, cost as much as Sh50 to 100 million per day, a resource that should be used in the productive sectors of the economy. It costs even more when man-hours lost in the traffic jams are factored in. 

The term smart economy is becoming common. A report, Building Ireland’s Smart Economy: 2009-2014, defines it as "combining the successful elements of the enterprise economy and the innovation or ‘ideas’ economy while promoting a high-quality environment, improving energy security and promoting social cohesion. The most successful economies of the future will be those that can achieve this combination of attributes."

The pace at which we are urbanizing is, for sure, going to be a big challenge in the days to come. Urban population by conservative UN estimates will more than double by 2050, accounting for 70 per cent of the world’s population.

PUBLIC PARTICIPATION

Undeniably, transportation systems will be impacted, swelling congestion, threatening safety, delaying commuters, and damaging the environment. Planners must therefore look to solving current and anticipated challenges, through mobility solutions for integrated city management, greater operational efficiency and smart information.

In terms of smart governance, the focus here is more about the future of public services, largely about greater efficiency, participation and leadership, mobile working and continuous improvement through innovation. In the past, we have been more reactive to issues of governance. Citizens today demand services through many channels including social media. 

The penetration of mobile phones comes with greater opportunity for service providers to leverage the mobile platform to deliver some of the services. There is nothing that stops Kenya from being the next generation country since we have the ICT infrastructure in place and the benefits of the youth.

Our individual decisions lead to collective benefits when we choose smart living, where we all understand being resource-efficient as a basis of sustaining our daily lives and practices. In this I hope that we shall seek to conserve energy, water, waste and biodiversity. We must look for simpler ways of protecting the environment, save money and make our homes safer to live in.

Solid waste, for example, is a major problem not just for Nairobi but the entire country, yet from solid waste we can generate energy. But for this to happen, we must individually be responsible for our waste and seek to dispose of it in a prudent manner.

WASTING YOUR OWN MONEY

This is not just a story for Upper Hill. It is our story and about our lack of planning and enforcement of the law. While Google Earth shows Beirut as a much calmer and organized city, even after some bombing, Kisii Town, viewed aerially and at its best, looks like a tornado swept through it and left some buildings standing. This is largely due to planning. It will require more "smarter cities" consultants than Beirut would need. Several other towns in Kenya viewed aerially look worse than Mogadishu. Poverty aside, we can at least plan.

As for Upper Hill, we all have a stake in it because if you are stuck there in a jam, it is your money that you are wasting. There is need to press for greater public participation in planning. It is imperative that we have the general plan and how it will eventually look when built up. For now we are just expanding roads that should have been expanded 10 years ago but cannot withstand the traffic for the next 10 years. 

The entire place needs re-planning to create new access roads befitting the high-density population that is building up. It beats logic to build skyscrapers along the roads that were meant for single household bungalows. Land is a finite resource that is already expensive, therefore we need every aspect of infrastructure well thought about for years to come.

As former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Dr Ndemo is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi's Business School, Lower Kabete campus. He is a former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communication. Twitter:@bantigito