Mon, Jan 08, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Wi-Fi but no water: While smart tech is great, the urban poor are still missing out

Schemes such as smart water meters only work if residents are connected to a water system, but some community-based organizations are in the process of developing initiatives established on grassroots-level contributions

By Sophie Davies  /  Thomson Reuters Foundation, BARCELONA, Spain

Illustration: Mountain People

In the picturesque Barcelona district of El Born, residents can get a better night’s sleep nowadays because garbage trucks pass only when bins in the street are full, thanks to high-tech sensors that detect when they need to be emptied.

Meanwhile, a few streets away, magnetic sensors under the road surface allow drivers to find out in advance if a parking space is free — saving them time and cutting back on vehicle emissions.

Other high-technology solutions for street lamps, traffic lights and parking meters have been deployed in Spain’s second-largest city in recent years.

One theater is even decked with a smart vertical garden on its outer wall, which collects its own rainwater via a solar-powered system on the roof.

As one of Europe’s richest cities, most of Barcelona’s inhabitants already have good access to municipal services and a high quality of life.

However, in poorer parts of the world, urban experts say efforts to improve cities with cutting-edge technology can run into challenges, particularly when applied in slums.

“A 24-hour smart water meter can only be possible if you’re connected to the water system in the first place,” said Ayona Datta, a reader in urban futures at King’s College London.

In developing countries, technology might be introduced across a city to make transport or water services more efficient, but will likely only work in its richer areas, she added.

The idea of giving the same thing to everyone in both middle-class and low-income neighborhoods can be problematic, she said.

“IT companies will sell [smart technology] as a package without any kind of customization at a grassroots level,” she said.

Smart technology installed like this is “giving the icing on the cake to people who are already connected,” Datta said.

In many cases, those who lack access to electricity or the Internet cannot benefit from high-tech infrastructure, she added.

“You really need to engage with the social context [and] social issues first,” she said.


In India, dozens of smart cities are planned as the South Asian nation seeks ways of coping with rapid growth in its urban population.

By 2050, India will have an additional 300 million urban residents, according to UN-Habitat, the UN agency that deals with cities.

However, one high-profile “smart city” strategy for Dholera, in Gujarat state, has sparked opposition.

It involves a new 920km metropolis on the edge of the ancient port city, set to run mostly on solar power and intended to become a global manufacturing hub.

Critics say it will displace subsistence farmers, is at risk of inundation due to it being built on a floodplain and will cost more than planned.

“A lot of smart city projects are real-estate projects,” University of Cape Town associate professor of urban planning Nancy Odendaal said.

“On the African continent this becomes particularly poignant as it is seen as the last frontier for property speculation and development,” she added.


In most of Africa, smart cities tend to be “top-down” projects to create satellite cities, like Konza Technopolis in Kenya and Eko Atlantic City in Nigeria, Odendaal said.

Dubbed “Africa’s Dubai,” Eko Atlantic is being built on Victoria Island next to Lagos. Developers say it will become a new financial headquarters for Nigeria and solve chronic housing shortages in Lagos.

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