Bureaucracy, a lack of public-private union and a skills deficiency are holding back SA from realising smart city objectives.
However, a bit of political will and a commitment to infrastructure investment – coupled with a long-term urban plan – could get the country there sooner than later.
This is according to ICT experts and comes in the wake of Johannesburg executive mayor Parks Tau's State of the City address last week, in which he laid out ambitious short-term plans to make the city "smarter".
However, the familiar promise to "dissolve the digital divide" in SA is clouded by scepticism due to an unpromising track record and uninspiring outlook when it comes to SA's readiness.
The IESE Cities in Motion Annual Smartest Cities Index 2014 ranks Johannesburg 130 out of 135 in terms of smart city status, while Durban ranks 124th and Cape Town 117th.
Reshaad Sha, chief strategy officer at Dark Fibre Africa, notes government has, in the past, committed to establishing forward-thinking smarter cities across the country, with particular focus given to Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. "There are significant benefits to be had from SA investing in smart cities around the country, but to achieve these benefits, the right infrastructure needs to be put in place to harness advanced technologies that will improve education, traffic management, billing, city resource and asset management, crime control and public safety."
Six basics SA has to get right to achieve smart city goals, according to Dark Fibre Africa:
1. Long-term urban planning
2. Utilities management
5. Service delivery
6. Stakeholder management
At the top of the list, says Sha, is connectivity infrastructure. But climbing rankings in a smart city index is not the ultimate aim – the improvement of the lives of citizens in SA's cities is, he notes.
Road to realisation
FTTH Africa CEO Juanita Clark says, if government actively engaged with the private sector and leveraged the skill and existing infrastructure in SA, the country could "get there soon".
"There are thousands of kilometres of existing infrastructure ready to be used [and] government has a responsibility to deliver services to all its citizens and ensure the digital divide does not become another type of social exclusion."
The private sector also has a role to play, says Clark, "but we will only achieve nirvana if we properly define the roles and responsibilities and then collaborate".
Jeff Fletcher, head of research and innovation at Internet Solutions, believes SA is basically stuck at zero when it comes to how far its cities have come to achieving smart city status. "The most active is the City of Tshwane, but its focus has been on deploying WiFi rather than using it to collect data."
A coherent plan that starts with basic, useful systems that solve immediate problems at hand, rather than a grand vision, is what SA needs to get right, he adds. "Small, useful projects are incredible learning exercises, at reasonable costs and with clear returns, and reduce risk in misjudged infrastructure investments. Having the ability to effectively measure and manage consumer electricity usage would probably be more useful than managing available parking spaces in Johannesburg."
Several cities have plans to become smart, including the City of Cape Town's five-year strategy, while the City of Johannesburg aims to be smart by 2040, with the City of Tshwane following 15 years later.
ICT expert Adrian Schofield reckons cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town, Tshwane and eThekwini could take five to 10 years to become smart, "if they put their minds to it and have the political will to sustain implementation".
Credit where due
Sha says the fact that South African cities are even being considered as part of smart city indices such as the IESE Cities in Motion Index is a recognition of some success. SA and Egypt are the only African countries on the index.
"We should also consider the impact of the state of the global economy on South Africa and how it drives our behaviour. Short-term behaviour such as employee wage strikes could adversely affect South Africa's long-term plans."
Schofield notes there is progress in some areas towards the core broadband network, "but we still have a long way to go in order to break away from the need to go to a government office to get service".
At the end of the day, says Clark, the most fundamental principle is to acknowledge telecoms infrastructure as the fourth utility after water, electricity and sanitation. "The main technology underpinning smart city readiness is its telecommunications network."