'Smart city' initiatives being pioneered in Africa and the Middle East can assist smart cities development globally, say experts

Out-Law Analysis | 17 Feb 2016 | 2:26 pm | 8 min. read

FOCUS: Governments, local authorities and businesses in Europe and the US can look to Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world for inspiration on how technology can be used to underpin the 'smart cities' of tomorrow.

Smart cities will be founded on the basis of integrating 'intelligent' devices into systems in order to find solutions to city-wide problems, improve daily living in cities and manage resources more efficiently. The ability of connected devices to link with city infrastructure is set to change the way people live, work and move around urban environments. From smarter transport systems, to innovative health care and more intelligent use of energy, the 'smart city' concept is broad and is being explored by policy makers, municipalities and entrepreneurs across the world.

Progressive policy makers are already pioneering smart city projects in cities across Europe and the US. For example, the Royal Borough of Greenwich has received funding from the EU's Horizon 2020 programme and is working in partnership with Lisbon and Milan, among other European cities, to demonstrate how new smart city technologies, including smart parking bays, electric vehicles and renewable energy technologies, can improve the lives of local residents. 

However, some of the most innovative and transformative initiatives are being undertaken in communities which have had almost no historic investment in infrastructure and are amongst the poorest and least developed in the world, quashing the assumption that the 'smart' revolution is at its most active in, and is of most relevance to, developed economies.

Looking to the Middle East, Africa and other developing countries can provide inspiration to those keen to move forward smart city proposals in the advanced economies of the developed world.

The challenge of creating smart cities in the developed world

One of the biggest challenges facing policy makers in the US, UK, and Europe more generally is working out how to deploy new 'smart' systems, boasting all the advantages associated with the latest digital and data sharing technologies, when there is already complex legacy infrastructure in place.

Legacy infrastructure may either need to be removed and replaced in its entirety or integrated with new smarter systems designed to make things work better. There can therefore be great cost and complexity associated with retro-fitting cities to make them the smart cities of tomorrow.

Take London as an example. The city's population is growing and placing a strain on existing public services, including the city's public transport systems. Authorities face an ongoing challenge in managing congestion and increasing capacity.

Technology such as the Oyster card contactless payment system on the London tube network has been deployed successfully and is an example of how technology can help reduce ticket queues and smooth the flow of passengers. The next stage would be to fully integrate the city's transport system with a single payment system and communication and data sharing systems common to all.

Innovators in mature economies can also come up against complex regulatory, compliance and legal frameworks which may not be able to adapt with the speed necessary to accommodate the new technologies and concepts that are being developed. Public trust issues on matters such as data protection, privacy and security can also present a barrier to the development of connected smart city innovations. Innovators will further want to consider how intellectual property rights are affected by the development of open systems and collaboration.

Dubai's smart city vision

In the Middle East, some smart cities are being progressed apace. Dubai is one such city.

Authorities in the city, led by ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, are behind the Dubai Plan 2021 which includes plans to develop Dubai into a "smart, integrated and connected city". The plan has a strong environmental focus, with the aim of ensuring sustainable use of resources and using renewable energy sources.

The Dubai Plan 2021 followed an earlier smart city strategy for Dubai that was outlined in March 2014 which set the goal of Dubai becoming the world's smartest city. Plans to use data and mobile technologies were central to the plans in the strategy, from creating help-to-park apps to deploying smart meters to allow for energy and water consumption to be monitored in real time. Attaching solar panels to buildings and connecting those sources of power to the energy grid was also a major part of the plans.

New legislation has been passed and the Dubai Smart City Establishment has been created to help deliver on the smart city vision by 2018.

Dubai has grown from being a relatively small desert outpost to being a major global hub for business, financial services and transport over the last quarter of a century. It is renowned as a city with modern infrastructure and facilities and has capacity to grow further. With that grounding, the city is better positioned than other world cities to grow into a truly smart city, as Amr Salem of Cisco previously pointed out.

"What many people don’t realise is that the starting point for Dubai is much easier," Salem said. "Most of Dubai is already smart… The infrastructure here is much more advanced than many cities that call themselves smart."

The topic of smart cities will also figure heavily in the Arab Future Cities Summit in Qatar this April. The new city of Lusail is being developed as a smart city. The project is a joint venture between Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company and the Parsons Corporation.

Our colleague Richard Ford is one of the lawyers involved in drafting new planning legislation in the Middle East to facilitate the development of smart cities in the region as part of an integrated masterplanning approach. He has said that setting the right land use framework and requirements for smart cities, as well as getting the framework right for the technology systems which need to be installed, is vital.

From an ICT law perspective, the ICT support requirements are numerous. Whilst a common starting point is usually the upgrade or deployment of new broadband network to support local smart initiatives, such projects involve multiple considerations including the anticipation of mid- to long-term future network usage. Accounting for future capacity needs is a core element that will dictate the project's success.

In the Middle East, we have assisted several authorities in rolling out new broadband networks to support the roll out of new and smart services, including drafting and advising on relevant terms for physical infrastructure access and wholesale offers. Alongside these issues, during the implementation of specific projects, like new e-health systems, the focus is necessarily on data management and on anticipating data flows and traffic. Securing access to and storage of the data is a key driver of projects, especially where parts of the project are outsourced to others. 

A lack of existing infrastructure can help spur smart city initiatives

In many of the world's least developed countries there has been a historic lack of investment in infrastructure, leaving many communities without a functioning electricity or water supply or public transport system. These issues have historically impeded economic development and resulted in extreme social needs amongst the poorest communities.

However, in some cases the social and economic needs that result from a crippling lack of infrastructure are driving an unprecedented spate of innovation centred on the ability of digital and mobile technologies to deliver innovative new services. 

These innovations serve to highlight the potential of mobile connectivity to smart city stakeholders across the world.

For example, in Kenya the iCow app offers a range of information and services to cow farmers to help them boost the volume of milk their herds produce and therefore increase the potential income they can raise. Among the features the app offers is the chance for farmers to track each member of their herd individually and develop customised immunisation plans.

In Ghana, the Hei-Julor service lets mobile users alert friends, family, police and a private security company when there are intruders in their home. In Zimbabwe, the concept of the connected home is being harnessed by Econet. The telecoms company's offering includes a mobile-based remote health monitoring system. The Yoza mobile app in Uganda is a platform that connects people with dirty laundry to mobile washerwomen.

Opportunities are also being explored in the energy market. M-Kopa in Kenya has developed a business selling solar power kit to help citizens cut down on what they spend on energy, whether kerosene, batteries or simply in charging their mobile phones, or providing them with a source of affordable electricity where previously none existed at all. 

More than the physical product, the innovation pioneered by companies like M-Kopa is really in the way that the company has used mobile technology to make a much needed product affordable and therefore accessible to millions. The potential of such innovations is huge: approximately 600 new customers join M-Kopa every day. The company is set to double in 2016 and expects to sell its millionth system by the end of 2017. It is already exploring the potential for collecting data from its devices. It has received a clear vote of confidence from investors, raising $19m in late-2015.

Energy provision is also at the centre of another initiative devised by researchers in South Africa. The iShack has been created with the aim of providing proper shelter to people living in some of the country's poorest communities but in a way that harnesses solar power to provide electricity to those living in the structures.

The electricity generated can power three lights, a mobile phone charger and an outdoor motion detector spotlight to help deter intruders and reduce the risk of crime. The iShack's design also helps to regulate temperature inside the building and enables inhabitants to harvest rainwater. The scheme has been backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The core principles behind these innovations are aligned with those being developed in cities such as London and New York, namely harnessing the power of connected devices to improve people's quality of life and solve real social problems.

Smart city initiatives in the developing world are not solely confined to Africa. Recent media reports highlight efforts being taken in India to encourage innovation in smart cities. One recent suggestion called for more to be made of railway stations in India's cities. The stations could become transport hubs and provide for better integration between different forms of transport, from buses to taxis, to auto-rickshaws and links to airports, one businessman said.

The Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor scheme is another example of the Indian government's commitment to smart cities. To address the challenge of rising population levels and poor existing infrastructure in existing cities, new settlements will be created, with the aim of expanding India's manufacturing and services base and "converging next generation technologies across infrastructure sectors".

The range of smart cities initiatives being piloted across the world illustrates that modern-day demands may, at their core, not be so different from one part of the world to another, despite the vastly different socio-economic contexts in which they arise.

While diverse challenges will present themselves to smart city innovators in the US, UK and elsewhere in Europe, policy makers, municipalities and entrepreneurs in developed economies can learn from the ambition, innovation and the often very practical challenges that have been overcome in pioneering innovative solutions to socio-economic and environmental problems in less developed parts of the world.

Diane Mullenex and Lindsay Edwards are experts in technology and commercial energy contracts relevant to smart city initiatives at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.