Are smart cities the best urban development models for cities in developing countries? Can Namibia afford to create a smart city, if the National Broadband policy has not been implemented nor is there equitable internet access and quality in Windhoek?

Smart cities have been key drivers of inequality and environmental degradation. More urban designs are catering to the “rich”, whilst ignoring the poor and marginalised residents. Cugurullo, an Assistant Professor in Smart and Sustainable Urbanism, further outlines the real reason for smart cities, when he said: “Smart cities are philosophical ideas, whose real objective is to “replicate traditional capitalist strategies of urbanisation”.

The question we should ask is, could Cugurullo’s statement be true?

Are smart cities really “smart”?

There are examples of smart cities that have created wider inequality gaps and destroyed the ecological environment of a city. These cities include Abu Dhabi, Rio De Janeiro, Manchester, Detroit, and Ordos. What all these cities have in common is the fact that their urban development agenda was placed in the hands of greedy multinational companies and developers whose short-term, pro-economic, and capitalist’ interests had disastrous impacts on the residences and the environment.

The multinational companies, who are usually the biggest funders for smart city initiatives, make money and ship it out of the country.  Projects that aim to improve the lives of the residents and reduce energy waste pollution, for example, are sidelined, because they do not produce the short-term profits required.

Furthermore, the smart solutions, which the multinationals invest in, are mostly applied to office buildings where they operate from or have an interest in, whilst ignoring residential areas.  Governments of these cities lower taxes to attract foreign investment and lower environmental requirements to make it easier for multinationals and developers to promote their economic agenda.

As we speak, cities like Ordos are now termed ghost towns because the so-called smart city initiatives lead to deurbanization. Given the effects that smart city models have on cities, would the City of Windhoek still want to initiate such a model? Who will benefit from this model, if there are already huge disparities between the rich and poor in Windhoek? With climate change issues gaining prominence, for example, perhaps the City of Windhoek should consider building a resilient city, not a smart city.

Lessons from the past

Perhaps the city could garner insights into how countries like Denmark and the Netherlands use network governance and citizen participation to improve their urban development agenda. Countries that involve their residents in the planning and design of their suburbs receive more buy-in and collaboration from their residents. A good example of this is in Copenhagen. Urban developers in Copenhagen actively involve their residents in the design of their suburbs. They even consider facilities that accommodate foreign nationals, like Muslim women, who have immigrated there for a better life.

The City of Windhoek, through its several network governance structures, is trying to be a caring city; however, it is faced with some challenges. The recent challenge was the theft of the 400 trees and 100 flower boxes that were donated by First National Bank (FNB) to the City of Windhoek on Arbor Day. Although FNB had great intentions in donating, greenways and parks are needed on that side of the city. Was it the right time to plant the trees? Did FNB and the City of Windhoek engage the people from that area, whether donating those trees was what that community needed at this time?

 

Yes, at first glance, the theft of the trees was insidious and portrayed ungratefulness. I am sure comments like, “You see black people do not know how to handle beautiful things” were made. However, the theft is just a symptom. Through citizen participation and network governance structures, perhaps the root of the problem can be addressed. Otherwise, the City of Windhoek and its partners’ good work will continue to be overshadowed. Today is stealing trees, tomorrow?

 

Morna Ikosa is a seasoned communications & stakeholder engagement consultant. With an affinity for sustainable development & certified in preventing and responding to sexual harassment, workplace bullying, and violence.

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