Exploring the smart city concept and its implications on the local government sector

Migration and population expansion have accelerated the rise of urban population in cities across the world, including Southern Africa. Africa has experienced substantial urbanisation over the past few decades, and this trend is anticipated to continue.

It is projected that nearly 70 percent of the world will live within cities by 2050. This rapid urban population growth has necessitated the need for sustainable city concepts that can properly manage dynamics such as transport, accommodation, waste management, power supply and other logistics. One such proposal for sustainable urban environments is the concept of a "smart city". Globally, smart city strategies have been adopted to manage urban challenges through the use of technologically driven solutions. In both the 2019 and 2020 State of the Nation Addresses, President Cyril Ramaphosa emphasised the role that smart cities and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) could play in managing the challenges of urbanisation in South Africa. The smart city vision, which is presented as a solution to South African challenges, is one of high-speed rail, glossy new buildings and cities, and fast technology.

This article presents key findings of the study into the smart city concept and its implications for the South African local government sector commissioned by the Local Government Sector Education and Training Authority (LGSETA). Among other objectives, the study sought to:

  • Develop a concept document on the smart city in the context of smart people, smart economy, smart living, smart governance, smart environment, including smart mobility with a focus on local government in South Africa;
  • Identify and analyse the skills needs necessary for the successful implementation of the smart city concept in the South African local government sector;
  • Identify and broadly unpack the strategic role-players in the implementation of the smart city concept within local government; and
  • Propose the best model for a smart city, taking into account regional and international trends. 

Research findings were based on a review of the literature as well as in-depth interviews conducted with national and international stakeholders.

Key findings
Readiness of South Africa for smart city development
In terms of challenges, it was found that a high inequality rate, high levels of crime, governance challenges, legislative limitations, and resource challenges (e.g., unreliable power supply from Eskom) inhibit the successful implementation of smart cities in South Africa. For instance, being a society with high inequalities, there is a danger that smart cities will further the digital and economic divide by only including the middle and upper classes while disenfranchising the poor. On opportunities, any country can be ready for a smart city if there is political will and a proper governance structure on how the city will work. In South Africa, the President has already introduced an agenda for smart city development, with key flagship projects such as the Mooikloof Mega-City, Durban Aerotropolis, and Lanseria smart city. This has set a positive tone, now requiring political will from provincial and local governments to work on the implementation and support of these projects. Overall, despite the direction of any discussion on readiness, South Africa does not really have a choice on whether or not to proceed with smart cities. This is because the global competitive landscape makes this obligatory for cities to innovate if skilled labour and investment are to be attracted. Additionally, the way in which cities are currently being run is not efficient in the area of resource utilisation and sustainability.

Strategic role players in smart city development
The success of smart cities was found to be enhanced by bringing together key role players from the public and private sectors. Strategic role players important for smart city implementation include all governance spheres, international technology companies, private companies and investors, and the community or citizenry.

  • National government – sets the national strategic agenda for smart city development, identifies projects and avails budgets.
  • Provincial government – sets the provincial agenda for smart city development, identifies potential smart projects for the province and allocates budgets towards their development.
  • Local government – is the implementer of smart projects. Municipalities create favourable environments for investment into smart cities. They form partnerships with relevant stakeholders and seek community buy-in on smart projects.
  • International big technology companies – these work as anchor tenants in most smart city projects and help attract smaller investors.
  • Private companies and investors – they invest in specific aspects of the smart city by purchasing property, for example. Investors are the lifeblood of any smart project.
  • Community or citizenry – the success of smart cities also requires buy-in from community members surrounding the proposed project.

Skills needs for smart cities in South Africa
The classification of skills found the following skills to be necessary for smart city success:

  • Governance skills (data governance, ICT governance, digital literacy, community engagement)
  • Physical infrastructure development skills (architecture designs, structural engineering, and electrical engineering)
  • ICT skills (all 4IR skills AI, robotics, cloud computing, big data science, quantum computing, cybersecurity, 3D printing, etc.)
  • Legal skills (skills of digital policy developers, ensuring the building of seamless processing for property acquisition and investment within the smart city)
  • General skills (skills in areas that do not necessarily fit the above classifications such as scientists and researchers, healthcare skills, smart policing, and others)

Pre-conditions for smart city development in South Africa
The following are the pre-conditions for smart city development in South Africa:

  • Governance landscape – A friendly governance landscape will need to be built as a first step in developing the smart city. It is necessary to enhance trust in the government by users of the smart city.
  • Political and administrative will – There is a need for buy-in, not only from politicians across all spheres of government but also from city managers and their staff within municipalities. The political and administrative buy-in will make politicians more likely to support the allocation of resources to smart cities, and city managers to support smart projects.
  • Strategic landscape – A strategy for smart city development has to be developed from the national level, cascading in terms of focus to the local level. The strategy needs to clearly articulate broad goals and a roadmap for achieving them.
  • Resource availability – Key resources needed in a smart city include reliable existing infrastructure for the city to leverage on, financial investment, reliable energy supply, reliable connectivity, and an affordable source of supply for electronics, which will be required in abundance in the city.
  • Digital readiness – From government human resources as well as potential service providers and users of the city, there is a need for proper training and awareness campaigns regarding how the infrastructure will be used.
  • Data sharing – The success of the smart city in terms of security, sustainability and general management will highly depend on data sharing. Users will need to be aware and ready for this. On the other hand, cybersecurity will be key in securing the data.
  • Community buy-in – All spheres of government will need to cooperate in the development of the city strategy and its implementation. Partnerships with large international players to support specific city projects will also provide the city’s best chances of success.

Proposed model for smart city development in South Africa
A phased approach to smart city development, with controls at each phase and relevant skills put together to ensure success, was proposed. Under this approach, the six smart city components were separated into four implementation phases based on the understanding that some pre-conditions will need to be met before other smart city aspects can materialise.

 Figure 1: Proposed phased approach to smart city development 

Smart city.jpg

Phase 1: Smart governance initiatives should be targeted for development. Smart governance forms the backbone of any smart city project since it builds the environment for would-be partners, investors, and residents to thrive.

Phase 2: Smart people. This component is a key building block for smart city development since it helps enhance human resource preparedness to supply much-needed skills for the rest of the project.

Phase 3: Smart economy - materialises as a consequence of the proper implementation of smart governance and smart people. Here, an environment for the creation of economic opportunities through supporting entrepreneurial innovation and attracting the best-skilled professionals worldwide is created. The resultant economy provides opportunities for residents, surrounding communities, and the country at large while promoting investment and sustainable growth.

Phase 4: Focuses on the implementation of the remaining three components namely, smart mobility, smart environment, and smart living in no particular order. Once the city’s backbone has been established, and while economic activity is beginning to pick up, smart projects in these three areas are likely to succeed better.

Implications for the local government sector
The following implications for smart city development relate to the local government sector:

  • To secure their support and buy-in of smart initiatives, municipalities must upskill their political and municipal leadership and personnel in digital awareness in line with the suggested model for smart city development.
  • Municipalities should urgently look into utilising e-governance systems (if not already using them) for service provision in areas such as space rentals, managing of municipal bills, and others.
  • Municipalities should invest in open governance structures that promote public trust in their operations. To enable residents to have on-demand access to important public city data such as real-time pollution levels, crime statistics, traffic, and municipal financial management, open data portals should be built.
  • Related to transparency, any smart projects developed in municipalities should be preceded by community forums that allow community members to influence new policies while listening to their misgivings. This helps promote citizen buy-in, which enhances overall success.
  • Municipalities should audit their current abilities to establish their extent of meeting suggested pre-conditions for smart city development. For any limitations identified, efforts should be immediately taken to begin addressing those conditions.


This article is part of a series reporting on research commissioned by the Local Government Sector Education & Training Authority (LGSETA) (Contact: matodzir@lgseta.org.za)