Nelson Mandela University: ‘Smart cities’ for all requires putting yourself in every citizen’s shoes

Smart cities could have great impact, but involving every citizen, at every level, is key to ensuring that ‘smart’ means nobody is left behind, according to research by a Nelson Mandela University academic.

“Cities in South Africa are classified as ‘smart’, but who gains value from the initiatives, who are the stakeholders and are smart city initiatives designed with all users in mind? I set out to research this,” said Dr Anthea van der Hoogen of the university’s Computing Sciences Department.

Van der Hoogen received her doctorate in July 2021 for her dissertation titled “A Value Alignment Smart City Stakeholder (VASCS) Model”, in which she used this model in Gqeberha and East London to establish the success factors of their smart city initiatives.

Her on-the-ground approach involved putting herself in the position of a citizen, worker and student to see how the ‘smart’ aspect of these cities should function.

She also interviewed a range of experts who told her that smart city solutions did not need to be Tesla-scale or mega solar solution-based – they could involve small solutions that helped a community to survive.

“While the Internet of Things (IoT), cloud, mobile and web applications, WiFi hotspots and Internet are key smart city initiatives, so are initiatives such as using recycled material to build community halls and schools. This adds to communities learning to use what they have at their disposal.”

Pandemic focus

The Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 threw a curveball at Van der Hoogen, whose approach had been to experience cities first-hand, and to engage with a wide range of communities. Her data collection method changed to online interviews, which sped up the process.

“I did, however, miss out on meeting users and citizens who don’t have online access, and with whom I would have engaged in person to see how the smart city does or doesn’t play out in their lives – and how Covid-19 affected them.”

An example of the pandemic’s impact was the shutting down in Nelson Mandela Bay of the ReTrade recycling initiative in the Walmer Heights community, where citizens help to keep their environment clean by taking recyclable items to a recycling site and trading them for goods, including food and toiletries.

“Covid-19 exposed how many people are instantly excluded from smart city initiatives in a crisis; how many people do not have connectivity and access to data and how the digital and physical divide impacts decision-making,” Van der Hoogen explained.

“For other citizens, the pandemic has accelerated digitalisation, as those with the capacity to do so harnessed the ability to work and learn remotely. This has certain benefits, such as travel and accommodation cost savings, which also contribute to our collective responsibility towards our environments and carbon footprint.”

Next level living

Van der Hoogen’s research revealed how certain applications could be designed for a specific function, but the users then took it to a different level.

“For example, East London introduced an app where the community could report power outages – but they started using it to report every single problem,” she said.

In terms of successful smart city initiatives, there are several from the automotive industries, where artificial intelligence and smart solutions are part of the workplace; another example is Nelson Mandela University’s solar farm initiative.

The evidence from her interviews indicated that technologies related to IoT sensors, cloud solutions and fibre optic internet in smart cities, if ubiquitous, are important for bridging the digital divide across different communities. They also provide important access to data for the health sector, to improve security for citizens, to improve access to traffic information and to engage with citizens.

“The practical contribution of my study is the potential use of the VASCS model by practitioners, city management, researchers and other stakeholders, who can use the model and template for planning and evaluating smart city initiatives,” said Van der Hoogen.

“The model can be used to classify digital activities according to a smart city’s success factors while evaluating the value created by these activities. Smart cities can have a great impact but they have to be steered by stakeholder involvement and involve all the stakeholders at every level.”