African cities are among the youngest and fastest growing in the world. While numbers vary, Lagos alone is said to welcome 4000 new persons every day, who are looking for better living conditions in the metropolis. Like everywhere else, this demographic increase puts enormous pressure on the infrastructure, housing and job opportunities available, not to mention on the public services and the development of the informal market. At the same time, this presents an opportunity to do things differently, to tap into Africa’s innovation and creativity, and link it with potential technology offerings, by bringing people together to discuss solutions and ways forward. This was the approach ASToN (African Smart Towns Network) programme took between 2019 and 2022. The stimulus (the framework) provided, assembled the cities on an experimental learning journey. These are some of the lessons learned on this journey together.
PROVIDING CITIES A FRAMEWORK TO DRIVE DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION THAT UNLOCKS MOMENTUM AND RESOURCES FOR THEIR TEAMS
While digital transformation was at the core of ASToN, as the programme got started, it quickly became evident that some challenges were cross-cutting, to varying degrees, among the cities, in the follow respects. Building digital capacities inside a municipality takes time, especially where faced with limited human resources. Also, all of the cities were confronted with the make-or-buy dilemma, besides the initial big investment that most digital projects require. Additionally, introducing digital and tech in city administrations often clashed with traditional ways of working, especially where tasks were manual, and it implied potentially losing jobs for some city employees.
The digital maturity of both institutions and the territory was variable across the network, with some cities like Niamey (Niger) or Bizerte (Tunisia) kick-starting their first digital projects vs others like Kigali or Kampala, where smart city frameworks and strategies were already in place. Despite this variety, in working with peers, both locally and internationally, it soon became clear that this gave cities the necessary momentum to drive the process, establish powerful relationships, and find the necessary skills and resources to get to work.
Agnes Khawa from Kampala Capital City Authority, Uganda and member of ASToN shared her experience: “... Kampala has been able to come up with a digital mobility solution, also known as KlaConnect. With this ..., citizens will be able to improve their mobility experience through viewing real time traffic information, incidents, road closures and diversions and receive feedback from the city authority. We have also been able to bring together various stakeholders in a local action group, comprising members from the public sector, private sector, politicians and also citizens.”
By working with both an international group of peers and a local stakeholder group, cities like Kampala were able to escape the make-or-buy dilemma. The local authority in collaboration with private partners who were part of the local group, designed a solution that they owned fully. Furthermore, working with other stakeholders ensures that the municipality follows through with the project and stays committed throughout the process. This is done through a mix of political will, team engagement and continuing relations with the other members of the network. Importantly, in the case of cities like Niamey (Niger) or Bamako (Mali), where decentralisation is ongoing, being part of a peer group of cities empowers municipalities to work with national bodies and build lasting partnerships with them.
TESTING SMALL AND FAILING FAST: EXPERIMENTATION AS A TOOL FOR CITIES
The Experimentation phase of the Kampala project was designed to allow local authorities to learn non-linear ways of working, as with the Agile method, and to use it to test parts of their local action plan. The City’s teams made assumptions about their project, which they then sought to validate or invalidate through experimentation, so that they could incorporate these learnings into their action plans. The ASToN approach was to support local authorities in embracing uncertainty and designing projects that would allow them to act on evidence, adapt or pivot, and place learning (about their solutions, their users and other stakeholders) at the heart of their project. The Experimentation phase was not mandatory, and cities only accessed it if they wanted to and were ready for it.
When it joined ASToN, the city Sèmè-Podji, in Benin, aimed to develop a solution for the digitalisation of its land register. The local team was concerned with the rising number of conflicts and trials linked to land ownership, due to the manual land management system of the city. Farid Salako, Municipal Councillor recounted, “Our solution was tested in one neighbourhood of the city, on a 50ha area. Very quickly, the local team organised encounters and exchanges in the neighbourhood, with the citizens and the “wise man” of the community to explain the project to them. We also used the local radio and public criers. We are proud to say this worked and we were able to collect 80% of the data from the neighbourhood”. Farid added that this process worked so well that the citizens started organising themselves to provide the data. As a local authority, he said, this approach was a way to learn about the importance of testing something small before scaling up and of communicating well with the citizens. One of the reasons why this worked so well in the case of Sèmè-Podji was because the Municipality was clear about the “why” or vision of the project. This allowed them, on the one hand, to communicate about it efficiently to the citizens, and on the other, to deal with the uncertainty of the “how”. When the normal data collection process did not initially work, they were able to add a communication layer to their experimentation, using the tools most relevant for the locals, in order to achieve their results.
Focusing on the principles of experimentation, rather than on the methods, allowed cities to test their ideas in their own way. For ASToN, the lesson was that working through cycles of test-learn-iterate was often not just an unfamiliar and uncomfortable premise for public officials, but also went against the grain of both the mechanisms and regulations of municipal authorities. For example, when the Municipality of Bizerte was looking to source a partner to develop a minimum-viable-product (MVP) for their solution, they found that existing procurement processes required them to provide a detailed, long-term, fixed scope of work, which left limited space to iterate the product based on learnings. In short, a fixed experimentation method would have been ill-adapted or irrelevant for local authorities, and would not have supported them in actually testing their assumptions.
ASToN: supporting 11 African cities in their effort to make digital transition
ASToN (African Smart Towns Network) represents a network of 11 cities in 11 African countries, focusing on advancing their digital transition to become more inclusive and resilient. Convinced that digital tools can be a means to change, the cities embarked on a three-year learning journey to build sustainable solutions for their citizens.
The programme gave local authorities in each of the 11 cities a framework to test and build a roadmap for digital transformation. This included an experimentation phase where each local team tried possible solutions, collecting data and insights to identify successful – and unsuccessful – approaches, and to gain a better understanding of how to scale up their ideas and improve their work.
In this way, ASToN acted as a catalyst for lasting change, providing a foundation for cities to continue learning and improving their own digital solutions. ASToN’s total budget was2 995 000€ for 3 years. It was financed by AFD and used URBACT European Programme methods and tools.
DESIGNING AN ADAPTIVE LEARNING JOURNEY AND BUILDING SUSTAINABLE RELATIONS
One of the main assumptions of ASToN’s core team was that cities would advance faster in their digital transition journeys by being part of a group of peers, rather than by doing it alone. This necessitated designing a process that would be flexible enough to take into consideration cities’ specific challenges yet stimulating enough for them to continue coming back for more. The team did not know whether it would work. When Covid-19 hit, it was even less sure a project like this would be feasible. But how to bring people from such diverse cultural contexts together and promote meaningful exchange? This would be the common challenge for learning across such a rich network and from experienced practitioners.
By testing, learning and iterating, a programme journey was designed that was adaptive and responsive to the needs of cities. It offered a regular rhythm and balance, bringing in technical expertise and city experience. These are the key ingredients of the method:
- Action-oriented journey. A three-year programme of events, workshops and guides for delivering local action plans, involving industry experts and investors, as well as opportunities for cities to showcase their work.
- Peer learning. Regular interactions with a network of city practitioners from across Africa, for learning and support.
- Implementation and financial support. Bespoke coaching and support from experts in developing a local action plan. Also, a budget for project implementation.
As implementation progressed and needs changed, redundant structures were relinquished. This was because the focus had moved to aspects such as finalising experimentation, searching for funding, and administrative closure. Similarly, it became evident early on that to build a community, the programme needed to be taken to the people, and barriers to engagement needed to be removed. This flexibility, together with a quarterly rhythm, allowed cities to go silent for a while and then catch up, which all of them did.
… AND WHAT ABOUT SMART CITIES IN ALL OF THIS?
At the beginning of the ASToN programme, as the core team was drafting the baseline and the methods and tools roadmap, numerous elected representatives and civil servants from participating cities were interviewed. All of them were asked, “What does “smart city” mean to you and your government?”. Their answers were clustered into three main categories: ‘citizen engagement’, ‘provision of services’, and ‘sustainable urban growth’. Every city had their own vision of what a smart city would entail for them, and the programme overseers soon realised that they did not need to align behind one definition, because the various aspects could be addressed throughout the programme. The team also realised that the common denominator among the responses was not technology. Of course, hardware and software can make a big difference when used smartly, but more importantly making smart, informed decisions, such as those made by officials from Sèmè Podji, Kampala and Bizerte can have a greater impact than sensors and AI.