Innovating smart cities in Africa, the tabula rasa of ICT

We talked with Fred McBagonluri (Dean of Engineering at Ashesi University), the general chair of 4S4D 2017, 1st EAI Conference on Smart Cities and Smart Solutions for Sustainable Development (May 17-18, 2017, Accra, Ghana). He is an expert on renewable energy and sustainable systems design, digital manufacturing and advanced material systems, and is sure to give a lot of insight on ways in which developing regions – and Africa especially – could skip a lot of growing pains and take up ICT approaches that have been tried and true in the west.
Since this will be the first edition of the 4S4D conference, could you introduce its central topic and why it’s important? What is 4S4D’s vision?
Africa offers a nearly clean technology slate to re-imagine its future and the future of the developed world.  This future will be informed by Africa’s teeming youth population, internal and external migration across the sub-region, and the needs of its emerging middle class.  There are opportunities to rethink urbanization, transportation, communication networks, agriculture, energy, healthcare, services, and even bureaucracies. Recent advances in telecommunication technologies, especially cellphones leapfrogged the infrastructural challenges and bureaucratic constraints that previously pervaded the telecom sectors in Africa. Years of waiting for landlines have been comfortably replaced by urban youth porting multiple cellphone to access multiple networks wherever they may be.  The objective of this conference is to begin to harness emerging knowledge bases, best practices or re-imagined new paradigms in smart technologies to address the attendant pressing social and business needs that are poised to positively shift Africa economic development.
What have been the recent smart solutions for sustainable development? What are the biggest challenges that this area is currently facing?
Major implementation of smart city technologies includes: Barcelona irrigation in Parc del Centre de Poblenou system that provides real time information on water needs to garden crews. Barcelona has also implemented a smart traffic light system that digests real-time traffic information to streamline traffic flow. Samsung recently launch a smart school initiative in two districts in Ghana (Bole and Edina Eguafo Abrem.  This initiative aims to support teachers with access to online education materials. The challenges in this space are mostly around access to the underlying ICT infrastructure and reliability of such networks in places of interest.
What do you think will be the necessary action to tackle these challenges?
The development of the Internet is still in its infancy in the developing world especially in Africa.  Significant investments in terms of fibre optics networks, improved bandwidth, network reliability, cost and access are still the critical elements precluding the development of smart cities.  Internet penetration is still very limited and often concentrated in urban centers.  Farmers in remote areas and even fishermen at sea are not readily accessible.  The proliferation of smartphones is beginning to shift the needle, however, drop rates are still significant in most parts of the region.
What are your expectations for 4S4D 2017?
The expectations from 4S4D is to begin the dialog on how to leverage recent advances in smart city technologies and related technological adjacencies, tested used cases/pilots, and gained insights to drive advancement in a technological pristine environment such as one that Africa offers.
4S4D 2017 is still accepting papers! Find out more.