This year, World Cities day is about ‘valuing our communities and cities’ – and many can agree that the message comes at such a critical time.  Cities form an important part of the global economy and serve as the engines of development for most nations and as economies rebuild, focusing on urban city sustainability will be crucial.

In fact, by 2050, it is estimated that 68% of the world’s population of 9.8 billion will live in urban areas and while much of the focus in previous years was on driving a notion for socio-economic development of cities, industry leaders from across various key sectors give a view of how the disruption faced this year may not only serve this purpose, but make for even better cities than what was envisioned before.

Building foundation: Connectivity

“The world has seen rapid development recently, led by digitisation – which has made our cities smarter and more attractive to global and local investors,” says Riaan Graham, Director Enterprise for CommScope, sub-Saharan Africa. “Technology has played a fundamental role in seeing us through the pandemic in a time where the buzz of our cities significantly slowed, authorities needed to communicate more directly with society and businesses needed to rapidly change their operating models.

“While accelerated by the pandemic, it is indicative that urban areas need to leverage innovative and sustainable infrastructure solutions that harness data, energy, space, budgets and time efficiently for the benefit of individuals and businesses now and into the future. This is the essence of a smart city, which is built on the foundation of pervasive, high-performance and reliable connectivity.”

While reliable connectivity will continue to play a significant role in various aspects of the development and function of our cities, especially for developing nations – technology has undoubtedly made it easier to manoeuvre the paradigm shift this year where lockdown has changed the urban environment as we know it. The rising norm of the work from home (WFH) culture is leaving corporate spaces empty or with the need to cut down on space. During stricter levels of lockdown these spaces and most parts of our cities were left abandoned and vulnerable. “This has called for the security segment to relook at safety which forms a crucial pillar to our cities and communities,” says Duran Vieira, CEO at Amecor.

Peace of mind through safety and efficiency

“Security governance for both public and private sector needs to adapt with society’s changes. For instance – city monitoring today is about much more than keeping criminals at bay, but also for governance such as ensuring social distancing protocol is observed. Unemployment is a leading cause of crime – and with 2.2 million people having lost their jobs this year, a portion of that population is anticipated to come to cities in search of opportunities where desperation is likely to also lead a fraction of them into crime,” continues Vieira.

One of the most crime affected industries is transport where South Africa is plagued by cargo truck hijackings. Cross-border truck congestion and slower freight clearance have also created secondary disruptions that leave cargo even more susceptible to theft and general violence – creating for losses that our financially strapped cities cannot afford.

Vieira indicates that during lockdown, we also saw increased crimes on warehouses and parked freight vehicles due to a lack of business activity where business spaces were a prime target for criminals. “This means that through technology, remote oversight is ever more important for businesses who are recovering from financial losses and simply cannot afford to lose their assets.”

Crime can hinder our progress into desirable cities as this will not only impact tourism, but also economic recovery strategies through business loss. As such, effort and efficiencies around this is critical.

Sustainability remains fundamental

In addition to efficiency, sustainability needs to always be part of the bigger smart city strategy and should be applied across sectors.

Says Jason McNeil, CEO at Interwaste; “While there is a lot to still be confirmed about the future of our cities, what is certain is that, taking care of our environment needs to be a far larger priority in city strategies. More people simply means more waste. Many of the world’s developed and emerging nations, alike, are finding that their landfills are already over-capacitated, and therefore to continue to maintain healthy air and mitigate ground contamination by increasing  quality levels, they are having to look at implementing drastic changes wherever possible to divert waste from landfill. It has now become essential for the industry to embrace rapid growth, innovation, and sustainable solutions – finding solutions that not only address clean cities for public health and environment but building sustainable cities.

“This means exploring recycling streams and other avenues of revenue generation from waste, through the circular economy model, legislation promulgations that need to be adhered to by the industry as well as new technologies for waste treatment and recovery.”

With the economy currently under immense pressure and the unemployment rate on a rapid increase, it is becoming essential to develop and invest in alternative waste solutions to create job opportunities in the country while building cleaner and more sustainable environment. On the other side of the spectrum, it is important to ensure our cities are inclusive and attending to long standing challenges in our society.

Growing together

E-commerce is also a key function for socio-economic development, not just in terms of the broader smart city concept but very importantly for the economic recovery journey where entrepreneurship is key to propel job creation. Yaron Assabi, Founder and CEO of Digital Mall and Digital Solutions Group (DSG) explains that one of the most important lessons learnt during lockdown is the power of technology in e-commerce.

“In the South African environment where tech skills are lacking, small businesses should be guided through the e-commerce journey and be provided with digital platforms to create for a more competitive and inclusive e-commerce landscape. The future of the smart city looks at a far more digitally operating environment – so digital e-commerce platforms that are driven by leading technology, a sense of community and efficient customer experience offering, are key to future success.

“Today’s smart city is an enabling platform that looks at not only developing and enhancing our way of life, but also bridging the gap between our high and low income communities by allowing shared access to resources, building better secure environment and driving sustainability to provide a better quality of life for all. Smart city projects aren’t just technically complex; there are multiple stakeholders—each with their own needs and agendas – and as such, we need to be smart in how we tackle the challenges and capitalise on the opportunities that a smart city encapsulates,”  concludes Graham.

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