There’s no question that a smart city extends beyond infrastructure and urban planning, writes Mpho Matsitse, executive: business and digital advisory at BCX.

For a smart city to work, it requires smart citizens and technology plays a pivotal role in enabling civic engagement. If a city wants to empower those who live in it, it requires initiatives that improve service delivery and technology is the solution to making e-government platforms a reality.

While there are many African cities leveraging technology in different ways to benefit their citizens, Rwanda’s booming IremboGov platform is a phenomenal example of GovTech digitalisation.

Since its 2015 launch, IremboGov has digitised over 100 public services from motor vehicle inspections to marriage certificates and everything in between. Today, Rwanda is fast-tracked to becoming a cashless society with the web and USSD platform, which has saved citizens untold time and money.

In South Africa, there are numerous e-government platforms which are providing universal access to citizens, businesses, and employees. The Gauteng Digital Platform has a job portal called e-recruitment where vacancies can be easily accessed.

The South African Revenue Service (SARS) has not only made the process of submitting a tax return through e-filing a step-by-step process, and refunds that are released immediately often reflect in less than seven days.

From city budgets to geographical and spatial information, tourism initiatives and tenders awarded, Cape Town’s open data portal provides publicly accessible information about the city. Access to city data is not only about transparency, it’s inclusive because it allows anyone in need of data to help grow the local economy – drawing investing and creating jobs.

A smart city is not simply data-driven but data-led. Evidence-based decision-making has helped Cape Town to thrive and according to The Smart City Playbook, was named as one of the top 22 smart cities in the world.

Sometimes smarting small can make a big difference and there are a number of different ways the government can use technology for better citizen engagement and empowerment. From digital town hall meetings to mobile apps that enable smart citizens to actively participate in decision-making processes, something as simple as a WhatsApp group set up by a ward counsellor can be effective.

Many governments across Africa are leveraging social media platforms to share updates, gather feedback, and connect with citizens. This real-time communication allows for quick responses to concerns and provides a platform for public discourse.

As part of its Joburg Smart City Strategy, the City of Johannesburg has embraced digital town hall meetings, utilising platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. These virtual gatherings enable citizens from various parts of the city to voice their opinions, ask questions, and interact with local officials without the need to be physically present. Recorded sessions are also made available afterwards, ensuring that the voices of all citizens are heard.

Mobile apps, in particular, have become a game-changer for civic engagement in Africa, putting the power to participate directly into the hands of citizens. These apps serve as a bridge between residents and local governments, offering features like reporting issues, tracking government initiatives, and receiving real-time updates on city matters.

UNICEF’s U-Report is a free, anonymous messaging platform where all the information provided is analysed in real-time, mapped, and displayed on a public dashboard. This ensures that any feedback that comes can be actioned by local and national decision-makers.

The World Bank has projected that nearly 70% of the world will live within cities by 2050. Will these cities be smart? South Africa has an impressive smart cities framework (the SCF) with a number of upcoming developments such as Lanseria Smart City in Gauteng, Nkosi City – which borders the Kruger National Park – and the African Coastal Smart City in the Eastern Cape in the works.

While the cities of the future may not contain flying cars just yet, the excitement around smart cities from provincial and local governments is palpable. As technology continues to evolve and civic engagement tools become more accessible, the vision of smart cities in Africa is slowly becoming a reality.

By embracing digital innovations, both small and large, and ensuring that they reach all segments of society, African cities will surely pave the way for a brighter, more connected, and sustainable future for all their smart citizens.