By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Smart city defined
“A smart city is a destination where hard and soft infrastructures are integrated with technology and securely connected together.” And what does the Lagos State government hope to achieve when it refers to the concept? In remarks made in May 2017, Governor Ambode explained his understanding of the concept this way: “In the emerging knowledge era, ICT has taken centre stage, and as the city of the future, Lagos must take advantage and indeed leverage on the tools of ICT in moving towards a Smart City.”
So, what are the steps already taken by the government towards this objective? In June 2016, the Lagos State government signed a memorandum of understanding with Dubai Holdings LLC, owners of Smart City Dubai LLC, “to develop sustainable, smart, globally connected knowledge-based communities that drive a knowledge economy.” To be located in Ibeju-Lekki on the outskirts of Lagos, “a Smart-City Lagos will be the pride of all Lagosians, just as we have Smart City Dubai, Smart-City Malta and Smart-City Kochi (India).”
To assess its potential, it would help to examine the evolution of smart cities elsewhere. Investments and jobs have been touted as potential gains. That has been the case for Smart City Dubai, certainly. But there are many advantages Dubai has that Lagos does not as yet have. Apart from looking to successful cities like New York and drawing up plans and implementing them, a crucial factor for Smart City Dubai’s success has been the authorities’ collaboration with the private sector, especially global technology companies. Today, just about five years after the Dubai Smart City project was launched in 2013, Dubai is at the forefront of research in artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and so on.
The city of Dubai has also taken on ambitious events and projects to motivate it towards its ambitions, like the Expo 2020 (which it won hosting rights to the same year the smart city project was initiated), Hyperloop Dubai, Oasis Eco Resort and so on. Other initiatives are: Happiness Metre, Smart District Guidelines, Smart Dubai Index, Dubai Data, Smart Dubai Platform, Dubai Blockchain, and so on. Although the Dubai example is perhaps a long shot, the promoters of Smart City Lagos are right to aim that high.
Local capital looking to profit from tech play
So, what could realistically be expected to happen in regard of Smart City Lagos over the short- and medium-term? And what are the opportunities to watch out for over these time horizons? In assessing the opportunity, a potential investor, and indeed the government, could choose to focus on Smart City Lagos or Lagos as a smart city. In any case, the state authorities seem to be aiming for both.
In May 2017, they started the installation of free wifi infrastructure across the city. The state government has also started training its staff to align them with its smart city vision. For instance, staff in the Lagos central business districts (CBDs) had their training session in January 2018.
The real opportunity lies in Lagos, the smart city. True, the advantages that a smart city in the mould of Dubai Smart City provides, which in addition to flawless infrastructure, include a clustering of talent in a particular area, such that tech companies could easily conduct all their operations in one location, with all the logistical and operational benefits that engenders.
Currently, there are two other major smart city developments in the city apart from Smart City Lagos, which are already at advanced stages, and probably more relevant for a foreign firm looking to make the move to Lagos momentarily. Eko Atlantic City is a new city being created from a sand-filled area of the Atlantic Ocean bordering the highbrow Victoria Island area of Lagos. A totally private initiative, but with considerable government support, firms could easily set up shop and find accommodation for their staff in a secure and efficiently run enclave, without any of the difficulties typically associated with the main city.
The other major development is the Lekki Free Trade Zone (LFTZ), where a deep sea port is being built. Promoted by The Tolaram Group, a Singaporean conglomerate, and the Lagos State government, the Lekki Deep Seaport, the first phase of which is expected to start operations in 2020, would be able to handle 2.5 million TEUs and subsequently almost double that to 4.5 million TEUs when the second phase is completed. And although the broader LFTZ is currently dominated by manufacturing firms and the like, an IT hardware manufacturer could easily set up shop there as well.
The Lagos Smart City, under the aegis of the state government, should not be confused with other self-acclaimed smart city projects by private sector players that are ongoing across the city. The idea is more or less the same: a cluster of office and residential buildings dedicated to the ICT business. One being promoted by Chams Plc, “SmartCity Innovation Hub,” located in the Lekki-Epe corridor of Lagos, would, when completed, “provide a conducive cocoon in terms of physical and ICT infrastructure, energy, regulatory and fiscal policies for the optimum and most profitable operation and development of technology products and/or service companies.”
The key attraction of the concept remains the proximity advantages of having many ICT companies in one location where they are able to operate under world-class conditions and standards to enable them to compete favourably with their contemporaries anywhere in the world.
Another smart city project, also located in the Lekki-Epe corridor, is the $300 million Imperial International Business City (IIBC), initiated by one of the royal families in Lagos. They boast it would be the first eco-friendly smart business city in Africa and is expected to be completed by 2021. Put together with that of the state government, the potential investor is spoilt for choice. They are all trying to address the typical first concern for tech startups and indeed bigger firms of finding a conducive and cost-efficient environment to operate.
But Lagos offers much more than that. It is a market of more than 20 million people. If all these people are able to use the internet for free, they could easily serve as the target of the services of these firms.
The author, Dr Rafiq Raji, is an adjunct researcher of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, a trilateral platform for government, business and academia to promote knowledge and expertise on Africa, established by Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Business Federation. This article was specifically written for the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/smart-lagos-2-status-prospects-opportunities/