Economic View

On the contribution of smart cities to urban and economic development

What role are smart cities expected to play in the long-term economic evolution of Kenya?

JOHN TANUI: The long-term role of smart cities for a country with diverse demographic features, a substantial rural population and consistent urban migration is quite significant. According to the UN Development Programme, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. Urban spaces need to be planned efficiently to be able to provide high-quality services to residents, and this is where smart cities come into play. 
Smart city design includes ICT systems that control the effective and reliable delivery of services and other factors that impact quality of life. Consequently, ICT deployment will involve building up human capital beyond subsistence skills and into expanded and deepened technical capabilities. To that end, clustering is essential, and Konza Technology City is one example of a hub that focuses on skills related to engineering and IT. 
Additional factors will strengthen the urban centres of Kenya and beyond. The development of new infrastructure, such as the standard-gauge railway, will support the growth of cities as well as work to connect them. It is true that there is no single model for developing smart cities, but Kenya is open to studying best practices and adapting them to local needs.

In what ways can smart cities support the government in its “Big Four” agenda?

TANUI: The Big Four agenda relies on technology and innovation, and aims to support Silicon Savannah. The technology ecosystem will play a critical role in every aspect of research and development (R&D), and some of the initiatives that are part of the housing and health care components of the Big Four will be implemented through Konza Technology City. As a result, the city is expected to host many housing units, offer modern medical facilities and attract global firms. 

How can a dynamic innovation ecosystem be promoted in the country?

TANUI: Kenya has enjoyed a vibrant innovation scene for several years. The mobile money app M-Pesa and other successful start-ups have allowed Kenya to become synonymous with entrepreneurship and technology in Africa. Moreover, substantial efforts have been made to bring connectivity and power to more remote locations of the country, connecting rural residents with training institutions to encourage online learning and enabling health care providers to distribute basic medical services. To that end, initiatives such as the Kenya Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, which is modelled after South Korea’s Institute of Science and Technology, should help further support local innovation and R&D, and boost Kenya’s entrepreneurship culture. The Kenyan diaspora can also play a role in fostering links with their homeland and facilitating knowledge transfer. 

What are the main obstacles in translating investor interest into long-term commitments? 

TANUI: Most investments are dependent on one another, and so once major infrastructure is more visible, greater and more diversified financial commitments from investors will be seen on the ground. In Konza Technology City, a 40-km road network and the laying of fibre-optic and electricity cables in an underground tunnel are examples of works in progress that will show investors the seriousness of Kenya’s technological advancements. Projects such as these will be looked to as examples when it comes to developing smart cities in Africa.