Opinion: How to build a 'smart city' in a fragile and conflict-affected context

Sabuwar Kofa Gate in Kano City, Nigeria. Photo by: Cepit / CC BY-SA

With an estimated 66 percent of the world’s population projected to reside in urban areas by 2050, the concentration of people and assets in vulnerable, disaster-prone and conflict-affected areas presents a particular development challenge. Addressing complex challenges such as climate change in conflict-affected urban contexts necessitates new thinking about how to mitigate risk through strengthened capacity of institutions, taking into account the localized and dynamic context in which conflict and fragility occurs.

At the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, at the end of 2016, the world pronounced the important role of cities in promoting transformative economic growth. Less emphasized in policy discourse has been the contributory role and opportunities for urban areas in fragile and conflict-affected areas. And yet, a significant proportion of expected growth over the coming decades is expected to take place in such spaces. By 2050, 56 percent of the global population in fragile and conflict-affected states will be living in cities, an increase of more than 20 percent compared to 2000. More so, in the past 40 years, the urban population in lower income and fragile countries has increased by a staggering 326 percent.

A look inside Kano

What does a “smart city” look like in urban areas of northern Nigeria — where communities tackle not only traditional urban development challenges of poor infrastructure service delivery and limited formal sector employment opportunities, but also grapple with frequent habitudes of inter-communal clashes, violent extremism and corrupt elitism?

Kano — a city within Kano state in northern Nigeria — is both the north’s commercial hub and the country’s second largest city. With roughly 43.5 percent of the state’s population classified as living in an urban area, Kano has been an important center of trade and commerce, particularly for leather, textile, agro-processing and plastic manufacturing. Yet Kano’s economy has been in decline over the past decade. Unemployment is estimated at 25 percent. Drivers of this decline are due in part to failing and insufficient infrastructure, but also due to a number of persistent and compounding risks, such as extreme weather variation, flooding, disease epidemics, drought and community clashes.

The Boko Haram insurgency — which has intermittently targeted Kano and devastated much of the north-east of the country, including the city of Maiduguri in Borno state — has challenged the ability of local authorities to ensure security within urban confines, exacerbating an already fragile situation. There is evidence to suggest that the insurgency grew out of decreasing social resilience, resulting from loss of livelihoods linked to environmental degradation, and the shrinking of Lake Chad in particular. This highlights the importance of building economic, social and environmental resilience to foster stability and growth.

In this complex picture of environmental, political and social pressures, what opportunities does Kano have to develop into a “smart city?” And more broadly, what tools or approaches can we use to drive sustainable urban growth in this context?

In fragile contexts, conflict-induced migration presents a further strain to building “smart cities.” In Kano, Nigeria, for instance, economic and conflicted induced migration is estimated at roughly 3 percent per annum. More acutely, the population of Maiduguri in Borno state, where the Boko Haram insurgency is concentrated, has witnessed an increase of approximately 50 percent in the past two years.

Fragile cities also struggle to provide adequate security and protection for its inhabitants, particularly for women, urban poor, migrant communities and other marginalized groups. Such groups are often disproportionately affected by conflict, displacement and urban violence, while marginalization is frequently cited as a driver of conflict and violence.

Rapid population growth, along with complex institutional and governance arrangements, makes urban infrastructure investment a formidable challenge. There is a dearth of public investment, as municipal governments lack the capacity and capital (from a low tax base) required for strategic planning of major infrastructure investment.

Private sector investment is also prohibitively risky in fragile urban areas, due to the weakness of rule of law, an insufficient regulatory framework and the presence of political instability threatening long-term sunk costs. Conflict further perpetuates factors inhibiting long-term investment — destroying existing infrastructure, undermining macroeconomic stability, distorting labor markets and promoting rent-seeking behavior.

The limited ability to plan, procure and finance sustainable urban services has knock-on effects for overall progress toward sustainable development. It’s also challenging for donors and development partners, who as a result of immediate conflict, prioritize shorter term humanitarian assistance and basic services provision over longer term resilience and disaster-risk planning. Yet, capacity development of institutions in fragile environments is essential to building legitimate governance and social resilience, and to avoid perpetuating weakened capacity when nonstate actors are providing urban services in lieu.

Pathways to a ‘smart city’ for fragile urban areas

We need to test new “conflict sensitive” approaches to developing smart cities that can tackle the unique and compounding challenges described above. Ultimately, for a city to be able to anticipate, endure and rebound from crisis situations — whether environmental, political or social — we’ll need to build stronger institutions at the municipal level and support the participative development of long-term urban and spatial plans that are flexible and adaptable to rapidly changing contexts. In our urban strategies, we need to emphasize the physical and social resilience of infrastructure, while also derisking long-term investments required to realize inclusive and better managed urban services.

This presents an opportunity to shift the focus from humanitarian response to long-term sustainable development, which can support stability in fragile areas. The World Humanitarian Summit, held last year in Istanbul, Turkey, espoused this through the commitment to transcend the humanitarian-development divide to deliver coherent and complementary assistance.

The private sector has an equally important role to play, although attracting private partners to commit to projects in risky and challenging locations is not easy. It will require paying careful attention to identifying and implementing strategies to manage, mitigate and share risk, and create new financing instruments.

Additionally, bottom-up, community-driven approaches, such as Shack/Slum Dwellers International, have been successful in collectively negotiating with municipal authorities for improved infrastructure services in fragile areas and improved municipal governance processes. These types of community-based initiatives should be tested and adapted to different urban areas.

While the New Urban Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals have set the global agenda for sustainable cities over the coming years, we haven’t narrowed our focus on the critical need for tailored “smart city” approaches in fragile areas such as northern Nigeria. Given the growing importance of urban areas within conflict-affected areas across the globe, now more than ever we need to develop a clear, sustainable urban pathway. This is urgently required if we want to realistically move from commitment to action in creating more efficient, resilient and “smart” cities.

Over six weeks, Devex and our partners will explore what it takes to build a successful smart city, how climate resilient and environmentally friendly infrastructure and technologies are being implemented, and how actors in the global development community are working together toward common goals and engaging local communities in an inclusive way. Join us as we examine what it takes to create our smart cities of the future by tagging #SmartCities and @Devex.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Talia Smith

    Talia Smith is a manager in the infrastructure and climate change team at Adam Smith International, with a background in climate change and environmental policy. She is currently a program manager for the DfID-funded Infrastructure and Cities for Economic Development program, which supports DfID in the design of urban and infrastructure technical assistance programs to deliver inclusive and resilient economic growth.