BY PETER WANYONYI
There’s a reason Africa, most parts of Asia and South America are called the Third World – they are piss-poor, backward, badly-run and generally quite hopeless. Good, positive stories of progress and development are hard to come by in the Third World.
In economics, in military affairs, infrastructure, human rights, social progress and in technology invention and usage, Third World countries generally lag far, far behind the rest of the world. Parts of Africa are so backward that they effectively are still in the Stone Age. And you could go to places in South America that are so remote and so untouched by modern civilisation that they have tribes that are still uncontacted: people living much as they did when the Incas and the Aztecs ran things in that neck of the woods.
But there are certain aspects of the modern economy in which the Third World has caught up with the First World at astonishing speed: technology, in particular mobile and internet technology. Kenya, for example, has some of the world’s fastest internet connection speeds, well ahead of First World countries like Germany and Australia. On a list of the countries with the top 50 fastest average internet connection speeds around the world, Kenya is 23rd, the highest-ranked Third World country and well ahead of tech giant Israel and money-laden Qatar, among many others. New Zealand ranks a lowly 34th, which must surely be the broadband equivalent of living in the Bronze Age. Just about.
Technology is pointless, though, if it doesn’t help improve national outcomes. Technology has been applied to development in diverse but integrated ways in the West, and in Kenya we have totally integrated mobile technology into our commercial and economic models, so much so that we have the most effective mobile money ecosystem in the world. But our use of mobile money is generally haphazard and unplanned, having taken off and succeeded so much because largely of pent-up demand for both banking and telecom services.
How to extend this success into other sectors has become a challenge that we are nowhere near to solving. But there exists a new initiative on the technology horizon that Kenya can take advantage of given our IT-friendly outlook and the availability of reasonably good technology access in the country: smart cities.
A smart city is not like the moribund and now-dead “Konza techno-city” development that has been rotting away in government planning departments for five years – instead, it is a an urban development that integrates information systems in the delivery and improvement of services. Because smart cities are geared towards the use of technology in and to ease service delivery, they are different from the likes of Konza, which are planned as purpose-built cities that come up as technology hubs, and thus require billions of dollars in investment – land, buildings, homes, and the like. A smart city, on the other hand, can be a pre-existing metropolis in which the ubiquity of internet access and the speed of broadband internet make it easy and cheaper to deliver most services online, and to integrate these services with each other. A city with the basics required to become a smart city already exists in Kenya – and is home to the largest economy in East and Central Africa: Nairobi.
Nairobi has vast but dispersed and disconnected infrastructure. To turn it into a smart city would require the interconnection of the physical, IT, social and business infrastructure facilities in the city. This would ensure that data about the city is available in real time, facilitating a massive positive impact on the liveability of the city by interconnecting waste, water, healthcare, urban, traffic and other management systems within the city. Such an endeavour would generate extensive benefits as a result of the sheer volume and quality of data made accessible, the innovations occasioned by this data, the improved planning, maintenance, environmental impact management, asset lifetime extensions and utilisation and operating cost savings as a result of sharing data easily and consistently. It would be expected to also spur innovation, improve international reputation and credibility, and foster economic growth as new business opportunities are created through companies leveraging technologies and data made available as part of the smart city programme.
Kenya, of course, is not Estonia – our adoption of technology is driven largely by personal convenience rather than a desire to subscribe to government services. But the government of Nairobi can take advantage of our extensive mobile connectivity to begin planning and delivering targeted smart city initiatives that move us towards a smart city one step at a time.
In subsequent issues, this column will explore some of the initiatives that the new County Government of Nairobi could and should consider, and the methodologies to employ, in working towards making Nairobi a Smart City.