The Continent

Pandemics Beg The Need for Tech-Forward African Cities


May 20, 2020

There’s one prediction that evokes the fear of what would happen in the next possible pandemic: by 2050, almost three-quarters of the world’s population will live in cities.

Burgeoning urbanisation is progress, but infrastructural challenges have made the coronavirus outbreak a thing of worry and strife.

The current pandemic has placed the livability of urban centres in the spotlight. Smart cities are a lifeline in the battle against such outbreaks, but the current situation in Africa shows its so-called mega-cities are far from technologically adaptable.

Eased But Not Easy

From Johannesburg to Lagos, Cairo to Nairobi and Accra to Kigali, more of Africa’s best-known cities are easing their coronavirus lockdowns to reduce the economic impacts of the crisis, hardly because the situation is any better.

Well, getting back out, reopening businesses and keeping the infection curve flat all at the same time is easier said than done. Also, is shutting down cities the only option in the event of future pandemics?

Africa is currently undergoing an urban growth. Back in 2014, the continent, alongside Asia, was the least urbanised on the planet. Now, it is projected to reach a population of 2.4 billion within a few decades, favouring urban development over rural.

Based on forecasts, 6 of the world’s mega-cities will be in Africa by 2030—Luanda, Dar es Salaam, Kinshasa, Cairo, Lagos and Johannesburg.

Most of these cities were not spared in the coronavirus crisis, from shutdowns to an increase in confirmed cases. The most severe outbreaks have been noticed in dense settings and closely-knit social networks. As core urban densities are among the world’s highest, African cities have the potential to be the virus’s deadly incubator.

Lagos, Africa’s most populated city, is where Sub-Saharan Africa had its first confirmed case. Till date, it remains the Covid-19 epicentre of Nigeria, despite being advertised as the country’s bed of innovation.

Even as the mega-city’s government relaxes movement restrictions, it remains a huge challenge to navigate through its 1,171 km² landmass without stirring a Covid-19 related ruckus.

Not Smart Enough

While the best way to stop a pandemic is to not let it start, the adaptability of cities plays a huge role in stopping contagions from becoming the very bane of existence and safety.

For example, the University of Newcastle has been using a couple of smart city technologies to keep an eye on the effectiveness of the United Kingdom’s social distancing measures.

The team at the Newcastle University Urban Observatory have analysed over 1.8 billion pieces of observational data collected over the last few years, including that from the U.K’s national lockdown.

The data is mainly being connected from pedestrian censors that monitor footwork in two directions hourly. The team has used current data in comparison to that obtained in 2019.

Such smart city technologies go a long way in helping urban settlements to deal with pandemics, and even slow their spread to rural areas. But beyond drones becoming town criers, healthtech startups devising solutions and a university turning to 3D printing to address PPE deficit, Africa’s smart city game is far from perfect.

In as much as digital interventions like contact tracing are happening in Africa’s most developed cities, there are gaps that need to be effectively plugged in defence against future outbreaks. Resources remains finite, so there’s need to pull them efficiently for sustainable living despite global outbreaks.

Cape Town, the “most advanced city in Africa”, is now the epicenter of coronavirus infections in the continent. Despite having one of the region’s most developed infrastructural provisions, the Covid-19 crisis has challenged the city, spotlighting the need for a more robust development.

Mega Solve

The largest cities in Africa have exponentially grown over the decades to become homes to tens of millions of people. These people are spread between overcrowded settlements and offshoots of similarly unplanned sprawls, including satellite towns.

These cities have experienced outbreaks, and they have worked with national agencies to set up capable public health systems before Covid-19 entered.

Big problems can be solved with big solutions, at the middle of which there needs to be digital innovations, reliable data, adequate infrastructure and human-centric initiatives.

African cities presently are presented with the avenue to reassess how technology can be used to address challenges like climate change, urbanisation and population growth.

One of the most important things a dangerous pandemic has in positive offing is a paradigm shift that offers an opportunity to leapfrog into a new era of digitisation.

About 99 percent of Africa’s city infrastructure are technologically inefficient, but there is room and need to make them more flexible to respond quicker and better to crises.

An ideal attribute of a smart city is one that balances environmental impacts and economic growth. With the right data, this is quite possible. Smart infrastructure can become all-sensing to become a system of adaptable features that improve the quality of human life—even during pandemics.

Stress Tests

The United Kingdom does not stand alone when it comes to harnessing the power of smart city technology to fight Covid-19. South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, as well as its Ministry of Science and ICT, have been using the Smart City Data Hub.

With this system, the two governmental departments do contact tracing by monitoring and analysing data collected from cameras and other sensors.

The technology allows the country to identify who a confirmed coronavirus patient has recently come into contact with. Since March 16th when the use began, South Korea’s cases have doubled, showing that the nation is doing something right with the technology.

Though contact tracing initiatives have been embraced in Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya, we are yet to see the real results. Directives for it remain vastly vague, stirring questions regarding the government’s sweet tooth for citizens’ data.

Africa’s municipalities were not built with highly transmissible diseases in mind, an oversight that the Covid-19 death toll is now making quite clear. Being that the continent’s economy majorly lives and dies on what happens in the cities, smart plans need all the more attention going forward.

Ambitious smart city plans like Eko Atlantic in Lagos in Nigeria, Waterfall City (South Africa), Rwanda’s Vision City, Egypt’s New Cairo, and Kenya’s Konza Technological City are already on ground. Nonetheless, the Covid-19 pandemic offers a chance to focus attention on what can and should be changed.

Going Forward

In the middle of this pandemic, some cities’s plans need to be reevaluated in the way they are built, maintained and lived in. Some have already begun by closing roads to cars to create more room for cyclists and socially-distanced pedestrians.

Building additional hospitals and homeless shelters is much needed, especially in Africa’s well-documented slums. Public amenities are just a start, as all spheres of the communities need some sorts of tech-hinged developments.

Fixing what’s needed and putting new ones in place would take time. But the pandemic has shown that it does not matter how long it takes—things just need to kick off. Pandemic-proof cities are built overtime, not in one day.

Adaptable cities are able to repurpose old buildings to solve new problems, probably turning abandoned houses to new and effective isolation/quarantine centers. They use technology to connect people and services and empower dwellers to solve problems.

Transparent, quick and accurate decisions will be able to calm communities and help them get through this pandemic situation.

At the end of the day, smart-city platforms and solutions will help African governments to effectively but responsibly reduce the spread of infections by leveraging data and AI-based sensors.

Photo by Emmanuel Zua via Unsplash

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