Using technology to boost the city’s potential

BY: Enoch Darfah Frimpong

According to the International Monetary Fund, Ghana is one of the world’s fastest growing economies driven by an emerging oil and gas industry, a growing base of consumers and significant foreign investment.

Accra is also one of Africa’s fastest emerging cities - according to Mastercard’s African Cities Growth Index, Accra is ranked Africa’s top city in terms of economic potential over the next five years.

Accra’s economic growth has also fueled a population explosion, with the city expanding by over 1 million people - a 35 per cent  increase - in the last decade. The same trend can be observed in most of Ghana’s cities and across Africa with the United Nations estimating that Africa’s urban population will triple by 2050.

Ghana’s population is already mostly urban, with over 50 per cent  of the population living in cities. Continued demographic growth is placing increasing strain on city systems from transportation to water, sanitation, health, public safety and energy. For example, there are already an estimated 10,000 vehicles on the roads of Accra and traffic delays are an everyday reality for its four million residents.

Traffic jams have a negative effect across many other areas such as business, emergency response, the environment, education and healthcare.

So what can be done to address these challenges? The government of Ghana recently launched the National Urban Policy Framework and Action Plan aimed at improving urban infrastructure and raising revenue from Ghana’s cities to reduce poverty and tackle urban challenges.

Smarter technologies can help facilitate and accelerate the implementation of the action plan. This week, IBM launched a study based on the opinions of experts from the public and private sectors and civil society. Entitled ‘A Vision for Smarter Growth: an IBM Smarter Cities Report on Accra, Ghana’ the report highlights how Accra can leverage technology to transform its key urban systems, especially in areas that are essential to Accra’s urban future such as transportation, energy and city services.

For example, the report highlights several areas where technology can help in the area of revenue collection – a key focus area of the National Urban Policy Framework and Action Plan.

In the future, mobile payment systems could help make the process of paying taxes easier for Accra’s residents. Hosting city services in the cloud will translate  into more transparent and cost-effective municipal service delivery and an online platform for cataloguing property values could lead to a substantial increase in property tax revenues. 

Big Data analytics could also help city authorities to more easily identify cases of tax under payment or fraud. Implementing these types of initiatives will help Accra raise the revenue required to make critical investments in services that citizens care about such as healthcare and education while enhancing the quality of service delivery. 

The report also lists a number of areas where technology can help alleviate the strain on Accra’s road systems. Smart and networked traffic lights could help to ease the flow of vehicles through the city.

Cameras and social media technologies could help city authorities monitor the road network in real-time. By using Big Data technologies to analyse mobile phone data, city officials could gain a clearer view on how people move around within the city and how the existing transportation systems could be enhanced. Systematically addressing Accra’s traffic issues will lead to a city that is more livable and economically competitive. 

Technology can also help address energy challenges in Accra, which such as many African cities, suffer from regular power outages. For example, smart meters can help monitor and manage electricity distribution and smart grids can help energy providers anticipate and isolate problems limiting impact on lives and business. By building a smarter energy system, Accra can help lay the groundwork for future investment and economic growth. 

IBM recognises that cities are all unique and Accra’s challenges cannot be solved by simply implementing off-the-shelf solutions. Cities must become smarter in their own ways, given their level of development, culture and available resources. What is required is dialogue with the people who understand Accra the best – the people who live there.

In addition to working alongside leaders in Accra, IBM is actively engaged in dialogue with cities across Africa to help public and private sectors address urban challenges and opportunities.

In 2012, an IBM team was deployed in Nairobi, Kenya to advise on technology solutions to resolve Nairobi's traffic challenges; while another team spent a month in the city of Tshwane, South Africa developing a crowdsourcing solution to improve the city’s water management system and enable citizens to report water leaks.

IBM’s new Africa Research Lab is also developing pilot solutions to optimise traffic management, public safety and government services.

Our experience in Africa and beyond has demonstrated that technology has the huge potential to transform leading cities like Accra. But technology alone is not a solution. To become a smarter city, Accra needs a combination of governance, technology, partnerships and education. The pieces of the puzzle are all available – achieving progress will be contingent on stakeholders demonstrating the will and leadership required to put them together.

Article by Joe Mensah

The writer is  Country General Manager, IBM Ghana