Steps towards smart cities

Many energetic and tech-savvy people, mostly, youth, are now engaged in non- productive, rather self-destructive, internet-based misdemeanors. We can create a better situation where such talents can be utilized wisely and for the greater good. In a well-regulated atmosphere, when properly trained and guided, some of these youth, at the very least, would have turned out, not only adept in the use of modern technology, but also effective social entrepreneurs. Innovation and new ways of doing things, would have been the modus operandi of the industry. In the process, they would have simplified people’s lives; and most importantly, would have contributed to solving city life puzzles. They would have responded to the needs of the netizens by coming up with marketable business ideas and mutually benefitable economic transactions.

In a slowly, but certainly changing cities and towns that are prematurely turning to smart cities, such IT-related proficiency is the new way of doing businesses and prototypes.  It is true that a single Somali city can neither earn, nor claim the definition of a smart city, in which technology is the central pillar of all city administration undertakings. But, to be fair, some have already taken great strides towards this direction, albeit unseasonably.

Mobile money payment system, for instance, has been in use for over a decade, meaning people could buy goods and services through electronic payments; school fees, hospital and utility bills have long been cleared using mobile technology. Diaspora members can send family bills back home at the comfort of their living rooms and workstations. Lately and to a lesser extent, some government taxes can now be settled using online platforms. Internet-based taxi and bus operators is about to revolutionize a business model that had been functioning in the same way for ages.  Grocery can now be ordered and delivered at your doorsteps; and ATM machines are increasingly available in designated areas in major towns. Nevertheless, progress in this front alone, would name make cities smarter.

This paradigm shift is, interestingly, happening at a time when city residents are still struggling in getting reliable garbage collection services, let alone tarmacked and well-maintained roads and provision of other basic urban services. Unregulated and uneven development, some might call it. Urban development experts dubbed this phenomenon as uncontrolled, unguided, and unplanned exponential urbanization. Unlike other African cities being built or planned as smart cities, Somali cities are taking this shape by default not by design. The common denominator of all these so called “smart cities” is the wish to solve poverty and economic stagnation problems through tech-based solutions.

You might probably be reading this note from your smartphone, but now discussion is centered around smart cities. Smart cities, generally, embrace technology to provide social services, develop infrastructure, improve transportation and city connectivity; and normally solve city problems with innovative and technology-based techniques. This is partially happening in our country, but within the framework of unregulated and not coordinated business environment. To make best use of these positive developments, some huge challenges waiting ahead need to be addressed. These include, of course among other important factors: clarity on policy frameworks, availability of affordable energy, reliable internet connectivity; efficient infrastructure system, getting and retaining qualified workers with the right camaraderie that can respond to the demands of a very competitive market, that often brims with 21st century skills.

As they say, if there is a will, there is a way. If our youth, who are now engaged in shallow, plethora tribal discourse on social platforms is seriously fed up with a mere tokenism; and ready to face world market competition, then they could be an important building block for making our cities smarter; and by extension contributing to achieving sustainable development. This is if and only if, all stakeholders; and chiefly, policy makers, are also equally prepared for the tests and trials waiting ahead and the next level of competition.

Abdirahman Adan Mohamoud