Debating the smart city concept and its role in South Africa

September 3rd, 2015, Published in Articles: EE Publishers, Articles: PositionIT


The Internet of Things and Big Data have popularised the smart city vision, and smart cities are increasingly being seen as the solution to addressing the challenges of rapid urbanisation. However, the smart city concept also conjures up images of data being used as a big brother governance tool, rampant corporatisation of the smart city vision, as well as privacy infringements.


Prof. Judy Backhouse (Wits University), Neil Hoorn (City of Cape Town), Dr. Bonolo Mathibela (IBM), and Ling Ten (University College London).












In line with its objective of building strategic intelligence between government and its civil society and business partners to facilitate a dynamic urban region in Gauteng, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) held a smart city symposium and exhibition on 26 August 2015, at the Digital Innovation Zone in Braamfontein Johannesburg. The event formed part of the Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival 2015.

The first session at the symposium focused on issues arising from the smart city debate. Prof. Judy Backhouse (Wits University) spoke about the different definitions of “smart” and addressed some of the debates regarding smart cities. Are they about improved infrastructure-based services using ICT? Are they about business-led development? Are they about social learning, inclusion and community development?

Backhouse spoke about how information systems contribute to developing smart cities by means of automated services, informated living and being digitally connected. However, she reminded the audience that for this to be possible, access to ICT devices, networks and e-skills is essential. She also warned the audience against assuming that everyone is digitally connected. In South Africa, she said, most people have access to a cellphone but not computers, and that the majority don’t have internet connectivity at home. Backhouse also asked whether “smart” means “better” pointing out that in the US there are homeless people who are connected.

Dr. Bonolo Mathibela from IBM spoke about the interplay of government services in the smart city concept citing examples of work carried out by her company with regard to mapping the Ebola outbreak, data driven public transport networks and intelligent waste management services. She said that with the power of big data analysis and cloud computing, the smart city goal is well within reach.


Looking at the new GCRO GIS viewer.













Data is fuel for smart city projects, and Neil Hoorn from the City of Cape Town’s Open Data Portal spoke about the city’s decision to develop an open data policy aligned to broader smart city goals. He explained the journey leading to the city’s open data portal which was launched in January this year and stated that the challenges identified include the need for further understanding of the portal’s open data users, quality assurance and response times, approval times, and the need to set-up a core group of interested stakeholders for external input and perspective.

Ling Ten from University College London spoke about connected citizens and the role of wearable technologies in the smart city debate. She spoke about Thingful a search engine for the Internet of Things and WearOn technology which makes wearable data easier to collect. Ten informed the audience that people often abandon wearable technology after a few months and that wearable devices need to seamlessly push data to online platforms. She also spoke about connected wearable, social wearable and smart citizens, and the need for citizen engagement.

The second half of the symposium looked at the role that cities and organisations can play in ensuring a balanced approach to smart city development with Dhanashen Naidoo from the Gauteng Provincial Government  presenting on the Gauteng Provincial Government’s move from e-Government to e-Governance. He outlined the five pillars needed to ensure effective implementation of the province’s e-Governance plan, namely:

  • Provide a broadband network and enhance and increase citizen access channels.
  • Create an enabling common platform.
  • Establish a GCR e-governance structure to drive priorities, policies, standards and regulation.
  • Promote usage of e-Governance services for citizens, businesses and government entities.
  • Stimulate ICT economy by facilitating incubation and innovation as well as encouraging public private partnerships.

Next up was Aubrey Mochela, the General Manger of ICT at City Power, who discussed how smart technology creates value and how interoperability as well as vertical and horizontal integration are key to creating this value. He spoke about the City of Johannesburg’s Smart City Programme, its implementation framework and guiding principles. He identified specific challenges as being the establishment of good processes and practices, the development of smart infrastructure, the need to adopt a living lab approach, and the implementation of priority areas.

Broadband is essential to enabling the smart city programme, and this was emphasised by Mochela who stated that the digital divide in Johannesburg needs to be eradicated. However, he also acknowledged that sourcing the funding to make this happen was a continuing challenge.

In addition, Mochela spoke about City Power’s smart grid and smart metering programme. He conducted a live demonstration of how smart meters are being used by the utility to manage load limiting in order to avoid load shedding customers at times when the power demand outstrips the  supply.

The last speaker at the symposium was Lydia Ntlhophi from Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality who detailed how implementation of broadband was key to the successful implementation of a smart city programme. She outlined how the metro was working to make smart city services  available to its citizens by  extending WiFi services to public areas such as libraries, clinics, and parks, as well as at City of Ekurhuleni offices throughout the area.  She explained that the adoption rate had been slow to date but that they were working on a marketing programme to address this.

Once the symposium was over the delegates were free to wander around the exhibition which highlighted key work that GCRO has been carrying out in the realm of data visualisation, infographics, mapping, and GIS. These included displays featuring examples from GCRO’s popular Map of the Month series, Wits Digital Arts interactive visualisations and other interactive platforms such as an eye tracking user system.

Following the cocktail party, a number of new websites, including the GCRO’s revamped online presence and a new GIS website were launched together with the GCRO’s new graphic identity.  Chris Wray from GCRO spoke about the organisation’s new five year plan and detailed some of the its new smart city applications. He added that the new GCRO website will ensure that GCRO’s outputs are accessible and available to government, employers and the public at large.

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