Smart cities come in all shapes and sizes. There is not one definition of smart. Think about the terms “street smart” and “book smart.” When I think about the initiatives or reforms that we’re seeing across cities, I’ve started categorizing them along these lines. New initiatives like sensor-based parking and traffic optimization fall into street smart, while streamlining of back office processes and applications tend to be more book smart. And as we know, it takes all kinds.
The hype of smart cities, however, has focused on the sexy new kid on the block. Everything sensor-based and “intelligent” has gotten top billing from vendors. However, many cities need to start cracking the books first.
Here are a few ways to start:
Rationalization of back office applications. Sprawling or at least siloed IT infrastructure and business apps can be upgraded and consolidated. Several CIOs I’ve spoken with have mentioned that this is a big challenge. Department heads don’t want to give up control over their domain, as they see it. Big cities find themselves with multiple enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems running across different departments in a city: Parks and Recreation licenses ERP from one vendor; Public Works subscribes to ERP services from another; Transportation manages their fleet with yet another.
There seems to be a renewed interest in Africa. Is it that those who follow emerging markets have tired of China and India? Is it the recent events in North Africa that have sparked interest and hope for the region? Or could it be that, as McKinsey Global Institute put it, at least some African countries “have turned a corner and are now on the path to sustainable growth and poverty alleviation?”
From a technology perspective, it is also likely that finally with recent developments in both undersea cable and satellite links, the Internet has arrived in a way that makes Africa a viable market for ICT. And by that I mean not just for low-cost, bottom-of-the-pyramid solutions and not just South Africa, both of which have long been on the radar of some technology vendors for some time.
I’ve been studying Africa on-and-off for over 20 years now. In 1989 I took a one-way ticket to Bujumbura, Burundi (yes, I did have to look it up on a map first), traveled to Bukavu, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), where I spent the summer, and eventually settled in Bossangoa, Central African Republic, where I was a high school math teacher for two years. At that time there were no telephones in my city although it was the largest in the region, and only limited lines into and out of Bangui, the capital. I spoke to my parents three times in two years, which is very hard to imagine in these days of Skype and Facebook. Needless to say much has changed in Africa as well.