Building Smart Cities in the Global South

Common discourses understand smart cities as they exist in the Global North, taking for granted the challenges practitioners face in building cities in the Global South, and the progress they have made in doing so. Our Urban Governance course on Resilient & Smart Cities aims to better contextualise smart city development to the growing cities around the world.

Urban vegetable growers in Quito, Ecuador. Source: FAO.

Since ancient times, people have been drawn to cities as centres of trade, culture, education, and new opportunities. Cities are the agglomeration of human productivity and potential, which is why today they are at the centre of innovation in sectors ranging from the economic, environmental, and technological, to social and scientific.

In the Global South, cities are growing at a historic rate. With this growth comes a pressure to build – expanding on manufacturing, housing, and transportation – adding exponentially to our cumulative carbon emissions.

How we build cities has a direct implication on our planet. But rather than shying away from the historic growth of cities around the world, this is an opportunity to build more sustainable cities. This is where the notion of smart cities comes in, where local governments tap into the potential found in digitalisation to design and build the sustainable cities of the future.

What Are Smart Cities?

Data is everywhere in our cities. Whether it is e-governance, transportation, or energy consumption rates, cities are stock-full of individual data points. Collecting, understanding, and utilising these various data sets can help practitioners make responsive and more accurate decisions regarding how and where they implement a new policy. The process of codifying and using available data digitally is what makes a city ‘smart’.

According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE): ‘A smart city is an innovative city that uses ICTs and other means to improve quality of life, the efficiency of urban operation and services, and competitiveness, while ensuring that it meets the needs of present and future generations with respect to economic, social, environmental as well as cultural aspects.’

However, the common understanding of how smart cities operate, and the challenges we face in implementing them, are rooted in a northern context. Common challenges in such contexts include privacy concerns, cybersecurity issues, legislation challenges, and inefficient data use. While many commonalities exist between the so-called Global North and South, the challenges they face are not necessarily the same. This, therefore, begs the question: What does the building of smart cities look like in the Global South? What is the set of challenges that they face, and how can we face them?

Smart Cities in the Global South

The majority of the world’s growing cities are in the Global South. The immense rate of growth of cities like Lagos means that they face greater socio-economic and environmental strains than cities in the north. While facing problems like air and water pollution, resource depletion, rising urban poverty and a shortage of housing, these cities must employ different tactics to grow sustainably.

There are also a plethora of unique contexts that need to be taken into account. Cities like Delhi and Dhaka, for instance, are experiencing a serious shortage of available land and a rapidly deteriorating urban environment. Latin American cities, like São Paulo and México City, experience continued growth amidst increasing inequity. In many African cities, urban growth is concentrated in unplanned informal settlements with a shortage of basic infrastructure and services. About 60% of African urban residents live in such settlements, making them particularly exposed to the effects of climate change.

One-size-fits-all policies implemented by governments have derived numerous risks in the Global South, with smart city solutions that often ignore the realities of poverty and inequality. These policies have only highlighted the need to contextualise smart city development.

Urban Governance: Resilient & Smart Cities

The Hague Academy has developed the Urban Governance course to explore what cities in need to do differently to achieve resilient, sustainable and smart urban development. We explore the models and approaches that can be adopted to plan for smart cities in local contexts across the world, importantly taking into account the challenges that growing cities face.

One type of challenge, for instance, is data scarcity. Local governments need reliable and robust data to work with – and data is often missing along with the capacity to collect it. Less wealthy nations also tackle baseline challenges, like persistent water shortages, that take away energy and capacity from investing in smart city technology.  Other challenges that add up include overpopulation, unstable government models, political unrest, and inefficient infrastructures.

Can smart cities in the Global South be planned considering the eradication of poverty, reducing inequality, addressing climate change emergencies, enhancing gender equality, and providing productive employment to drive economic growth? Is an inclusive, smart city possible in the Global South? We believe it is.

Interested? Learn more on the Urban Governance: Resilient & Smart Cities to see whether it is a fit for you!

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