AI offers answers to Africa’s rapid urbanisation
- The UN predicts 60 per cent of African populations will live in cities in 2050
- Experts say AI can enable sustainable management of this urban boom
- They advocate training and use of local expertise in the field of AI
Senegal is pioneering a solution to soaring urbanisation with its new ‘smart cities’, writes Fo-koffi Djamessi.
Streets swamped by muddy water with garbage floating by, roads impassable. As in previous years, Diamniadio Lake City has not escaped the series of floods that affect some cities in Senegal each rainy season.
But not for long. Indeed, this urban centre is preparing to test, thanks to artificial intelligence (AI), a new way of managing urban development.
“By taking the Digital Technologies Park of Diamniadio as a reference site, we have carried out modelling and worked on water runoff scenarios in order to channel them and solve these flood problems,” Bassirou Abdoul Ba, coordinator of the Digital Technologies Park, told Scidev.Net.
This park, covering 25 hectares, is the first experimental phase of the “smart city” under construction 35km from Dakar, the Senegalese capital.
“The introduction of AI in other cities will create opportunities that will retain young people and prevent migration to already highly populated areas,”
Aboubacar Sadick Ndiaye, expert in digital transformation and disruptive technologies
According to Abdoul Ba, the project aims to turn Diamniadio into a town where the management model is based on data storage, which would be used to control transport, street lighting, air quality, waste and wastewater treatment, and even provide care services.
In concrete terms, the inhabitants of the future city of Diamniadio can expect to live in connected homes, use paperless bus or train tickets and smart parking systems, access E-health services and live next to artificial rivers.
“From 2025, the first elements of this smart city will already be seen in the park with the installation of sensors for the monitoring of site security or maintenance; and later with smart shuttles, electric vehicles or automated waste management,” says Abdoul Ba.
Big dataLike Senegal, several countries such as Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria and Togo have initiated smart city projects in anticipation of rampant urbanisation in Sub-Saharan Africa.
According to a study published in June 2019 by the United Nations, the population of Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double by 2050 and more than 60 per cent of this population is expected to live in urban areas.
Jean Claude Koya, technical advisor at the ministry of planning and development in Côte d'Ivoire, believes that AI could help define sustainable social and environmental policies in response to this rapid urbanisation.
Citing his country as an example, Koya explains that Côte d'Ivoire has a supercomputer that will be used in cities to collect and process data in sectors such as agriculture, climatology and health.
“Analysing data will help achieve climate resilience and sustainable development goals in Ivorian cities,” he told Scidev.Net.
Aboubacar Sadikh Ndiaye, an expert in digital transformation and disruptive technologies who teaches at the Virtual University of Senegal, believes the introduction of AI in the management of African cities may help to stem the forecasted rush to urban areas.
He says the problem in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa is that most jobs are concentrated in a single city, which justifies the flow of people to this urban centre.
“The introduction of AI in other cities will create opportunities that will retain young people and prevent migration to already highly populated areas,” says Ndiaye.
African realitiesConvinced that AI can be a sustainable alternative to employment problems in Africa, Ndiaye believes that African governments would benefit from turning every city into a specialist technology hub.
“In the case of Senegal we can decide, for example, to make Saint Louis a centre of agri-tech, Mbour a centre of E-health etc. This would create a lot of jobs and prevent everyone from wanting to live in Dakar,” he adds.
Senegalese AI researcher Seydina Moussa Ndiaye suggests that African cities go through the stage of digitalisation before moving on to that of "smart city".
In the African context, he notes, a large majority of cities have not yet integrated digital with administrative management.
“How do we go from paper to a completely intelligent city without going through an experience of digitalisation of all procedures?” he asks.
African governments should already be integrating the digitisation of all administrative procedures or risk having “intelligent ghost cities” because of the lack of data to generate services, he warns.
In addition to the lack of digitalisation, Ndiaye points to the low level of connectivity as an obstacle to the emergence of smart cities on the continent.
He stresses the need for software developers to design applications that work without the internet. He proposes that channels such as the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) — a communications protocol used by GSM cellular telephones to communicate with the mobile network operator's computers — and “SMSing” are favoured first and foremost in the design of digital solutions.
CybersecurityNdiaye advocates for an improvement in the coverage rate and a reduction in the cost of internet access to encourage its use among the population. Apart from investing in technology, he advises, governments need to invest in cybersecurity. With smart cities, says Ndiaye, data will become a matter of public security and national sovereignty. “It is important to take this aspect into account at the grassroots level by educating people about data from now and, at the national level, by putting in place a cybersecurity policy,” he notes.
Ndiaye suggests that the focus should also be on research, innovation, training and showcasing local expertise.
“The best way African cities can protect the data of their inhabitants and boost their innovation sectors is by using local application,” the researcher says.