Smart Cities Paper Series

The smart city approach has been recognised for its wide-ranging principles and flexibility that allow cities to tailor approaches to the local and national challenges facing them. Countries considered to be smart have adapted the smart agenda to respond to local challenges (Mosco, 2019). Similarly, South African cities need to interpret the smart city concept to respond to their local challenges, in particular service delivery, poverty, inequality and poor technology.


Globally, smart city strategies have been adopted to manage urban challenges through the use of technologically driven solutions. In both the 2019 and 2020 State of the Nation Addresses (SONAs), President Ramaphosa emphasised the role that smart cities and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) could play in managing the challenges of urbanisation in South Africa. The smart city vision, which is presented as the solution to South African challenges, is one of high-speed rail, glossy new buildings and cities, and fast technology. This tech-obsessed approach has led many South Africans to question the value of the smart city in comparison to the country’s pressing challenges, such as the housing crisis, water shortages and the widening poverty gap (Marrian, 2020; Areff, 2019; Horber, 2019). Compounding the scepticism about smart cities is the fact that South African cities have different approaches to engaging with the smart city concept. Therefore, before examining smart city issues and projects, it is essential to understand the role of smart cities in a South African context, given that cities, literature, legislation and policy have not defined this understanding.


The SACN has been interrogating the future of cities and their transition to smart cities from 2013, when formal conversations began with the City of Johannesburg (CoJ) about the role that cities should play in becoming smart. Since the President’s 2019 SONA, interest in smart cities has been growing, with different organisations and institutions developing projects and responses to the need for a smart city agenda.1 Yet despite the significant strides made, most smart city responses have been achieved in silos, leaving unanswered the question “What is the South African smart city agenda?”. The SACN’s contribution to the conversation has been to shift the focus away from international definitions of smart cities, having observed that the least explored discourses are about how smart cities can benefit South African cities (Backhouse et al., 2020).


This paper series attempts to use practical examples and experiences to work towards an understanding of what a smart city means for South African cities through smart governance. Smart governance, a key characteristic of smart cities, is the central theme of this paper series, as it allows us to explore how the smart city approach can benefit South African cities. This collection of papers and case studies form part of a larger research programme on innovation at the South African Cities Network (SACN). Its aim is to begin conversations within South African cities about the role and definition of a smart city, and how the concept can be used to respond to urban challenges