Algeria is at the crossroads of its very own technological revolution. While there are several challenges to address – including the development of supporting infrastructure – there is clear momentum to create a much-needed innovation ecosystem. In particular, the country has a unique opportunity to shape a new model for smart cities that is adaptable to emerging markets.
The opportunity to transform Algiers into a smart city is there, due to the rise of technological disruptions that offer significant potential to leapfrog development stages. The Algiers Smart City project was established to leverage these opportunities and advance multiple aspects of the industry, such as technology transfer, talent mobilisation and cross-sector synergies, among others. This inclusive strategy will serve as a template for other developing smart cities around the world and help reposition Algeria as a regional tech leader.
Algiers is a city formed by centuries of traditions and cultures. “When we talk about putting in new infrastructure in a historic city, one of the biggest challenges is respecting its history,” Terri Chu, technology lead at Canadian artificial intelligence (AI) start-up MOAI Solutions and member of the Algiers Smart City Leapfrog Hack jury, told OBG. Abderrahman Ait Said, founder of the local start-up Ursinia and the leader of the Algeria team that came in second place at the 2018 Robotics World Championship in May, agreed that the Algiers Smart City project must fast-track the rollout of infrastructure as a key enabler of multi-dimensional industry development. However, adequate infrastructure is crucial for attracting investment.
“The efforts to develop and deploy smart city infrastructure will draw talent and investment into the cities, which will further drive innovation in a positive feedback loop,” Dean Sirovica, chair of the Oakland East Bay Silicon Valley IEEE Society chapter, told OBG. Though Ait Said considers infrastructure development a key area of focus, he also emphasises the importance of keeping the spirit, fabric and heritage of the city intact.
While infrastructure is a major subject to address in devising smart city solutions, it also presents an opportunity for creative design. Algiers is starting from a blank slate in terms of smart solutions, which is likely to spur innovation and invite new design and deployment patterns. In particular, it is looking to leverage so-called leapfrog technologies, which are new and disruptive technologies based on cooperative and open-source models with the potential to fast-track innovation.
“I am very excited about the Algiers Smart City project,” Chu told OBG. “When I look at a place like Algiers, I see opportunities to leverage leapfrog technologies without having to worry about existing infrastructure, which can act as an obstacle in many other places. In Toronto, for instance, it will be a very expensive process to switch everyone over to a common technology platform because of what is already out there.” Along the same lines, Riad Hartani, a strategic technology adviser to the Algiers Smart City project, explained, “One can leverage the lack of legacy technologies within a city to assist its successful transition into a smart one.” Hartani views the deployment of such technologies as the fundamental advantage and key to success of the Algiers Smart City project.
In other words, a perceived hurdle may turn out to be an advantage, as an underdeveloped landscape does not restrict which or how new technologies will be integrated into society. “The Algiers Smart City project is our approach to proactively centralise the technological ecosystem and speed up innovation,” Fatiha Slimani, head of the Algiers Smart City project, told OBG.
Internet of Things
Among the main pillars of the Algiers Smart City project are the internet of things (IoT), cloud computing and an analysis model framed around advances in AI. “We are on the cusp of several major technological innovations in the areas of ubiquitous connectivity, including IoT, smart transport and renewable energy,” Sirovica told OBG. “These will be transformational for the developing world, where there is further opportunity for deployment.”
Amine Bouabdallah, founder of Isiniaa, the first start-up incubated by local Fikra Tech, which focuses on advanced cloud and data solutions, points out Algiers’ early challenges in this regard. “Algiers has little experience in handling such advanced technologies, and we were initially hesitant about bringing them to the market,” he told OBG. “However, the very nature of these technologies – being based around open-source and collaborative communities – made it surprisingly tractable.” According to Bouabdallah, such successes have fostered a sense of confidence in the use of advanced technologies that had previously been lacking in Algiers and comparable ecosystems.
To tackle these challenges, the Algiers Smart City project has a very clear goal: to fast-track technological development by leveraging local talent. To do so, it aims to catalyse investment from leading global tech companies, such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. The project offers these firms various opportunities for investment in the wilaya (province), and it is seen as a driver of technological development that will boost technology transfer and help to close the technology gap. “Through innovative technology and investment strategic partnerships, Africa now has the possibility – and the responsibility – to bridge its infrastructure gap, which should be seen as a huge business opportunity,” Emery Rubagenga, CEO of Rwandan mining company ROKA Global Resources and founder of Ishango Consulting, told OBG. Data management and digitisation will benefit both government and economic operators by providing solutions to enhance their access to information, inform their decision-making, increase productivity and ultimately improve the quality of life for all citizens.
International investors can also help the local tech economy to flourish, particularly by nurturing and scaling tech start-ups. Algeria’s start-up scene remains in its early stages, due in part to the limited number of functional incubators and accelerators that have the required critical mass of start-ups, funding and entrepreneurs. Myriad initiatives exist, however, including the Sidi Abdellah technology park near Algiers, the Sylabs agency, private tech accelerator Haba Institute and, more recently, the first pan-African incubator, IncubMe, which was launched in April 2018.
Other initiatives include alternative coding schools, new angel and venture capital funds, and other developments aimed at strengthening the tech and business landscape. These efforts seem to be a step in the right direction, and with the right timing and execution, positive outcomes can be expected. “One position held by the Algiers Smart City project is that the existing incubation and acceleration models – not only in Algiers, but all around the world – have run into some obstacles,” Hartani told OBG. “These models are in fact shifting and evolving, which allows for new technology and acceleration models to emerge.”
A knowledge-based economy depends on the existence of funding structures, such as angel and venture capital investors, and private equity and sovereign funds, as well as a regulatory framework that enables start-ups and investors to test new business models and technologies within a more flexible – and thus less risky – environment. The Algiers Smart City team has been working to develop new funding models with both the public and the private sectors. It launched a new experimental lab and technology hub in April 2018, where start-ups and investors will be able to meet in a melting pot of creativity and innovation.
Amid the challenges faced by developing countries in a context of increasingly complex and costly technological advancements, the Algiers Smart City project aims to create a template for future initiatives of this kind. Most smart city projects launched in Africa and the Middle East focus on providing turnkey solutions to specific challenges. For example, Egypt is planning to build a completely new capital city to ease pressure on Cairo. The purpose of the Algiers Smart City project, however, is to support the emergence of a global ecosystem that builds on the heritage of the city, leverages leapfrog technologies and focuses on developing local talent. These targets are key to enhancing innovation across multiple sectors. By building up a wide structure of competitive and disruptive operators, Algeria aims to provide tailored solutions to local challenges, thus enhancing development in the long term. “The project will be the start of a new Algeria,” Ait Said told OBG. “Involving students, engineers and entrepreneurs is a good strategy – that’s where the skilled and innovative minds are. The key to success will be working hard and working together,” he added.
The Algiers Smart City project is looking to leverage opportune timing, as well as leapfrog technologies, in order to facilitate its success. The right choice of technologies, as well as their timely implementation, the acquisition and training of local talent, and the development of cross-sector synergies are all essential to transforming the city and the country.
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