African countries want to turn their poor, overcrowded urban centers into “smart cities”
Vision City, Rwanda’s largest housing project, sits on a hill overlooking the rest of Kigali. Its rows of whitewashed villas and townhouses stand out against the green landscape and shacks made of scrap metal and mud, in the slum in the valley below. Outside the main office, a mayor visiting from Ghana listens to his tour guide, an energetic young Rwandese official, detail the plans. There will be free wifi in the town square, solar-powered street lamps, a 36-meter antenna, powered by the sun to beam 4G LTE to residents, and motion censors that trigger the electricity when one walks into one of these homes.
If all goes to plan, the rest of Kigali and more of the country will look like this idyllic, tech-enabled district within the next two decades. Rwanda is on a campaign to transform its capital city of rolling hills and low-rise buildings into a so-called smart city (video) where urban living has been optimized. Already, officials like to stress how much technology is part of daily life in Rwanda, from the president’s active Twitter presence to the fact that registering a marriage, death, or birth—things that would normally require multiple forms and trips to a government office—are increasingly done online. Speeding tickets can be paid through mobile money
The concept of the smart city first emerged in the early to mid 2000s as governments sought to digitize and become more efficient. (Some argue that it emerged earlier in the 1980s). Now, the term connotes the use of big data and technology in urban planning. It’s bandied about by large technology companies like IBM and Cisco, city officials, and property developers—the global market for smart city services could reach as much as $225.5 billion in 10 years, from an estimated $93.5 billion this year.