I am speaking at the Smart City Algiers Summit http://www.smartcityalgiers.com/ at the end of June. Along with Dr. Riad Hartani, I was asked about some of the thoughts on the Algiers Smart City project and their leapfrog tech approach.
Dr. Riad wrote previously about the “cascading technology trap” that cities find themselves in. In essence, the innovation and iteration speed of cities is much slower than the development of technology. By the time a technology has been assessed and approved — the next technology has come along. Or, a brand new technology is put in place at a stage where it is not yet ready for deployment.
Cities plan over the long term and expectation for mature technologies and validated business case. Modern technologies have a short lifespan relative to what cities seek. Often, the business case is not validated for wide-scale deployment. Validating the return on investment is a time-consuming activity. Moreover, the organizational structure of cities, the decision-making cycle, the process of evaluation and deployment is slow to assimilate complex modern technologies that cut across vertical silos around which city functions have developed.
The Cascading Technology Trap in Smart City Deployments, Riad Hartani & Frank Rayal
In what way can cities — especially those in the developing world — lean into “leapfrog” technologies, to be ahead of the iteration and learning curve?
Rather than waiting to be sold a solution by vendors or Internet giants, how does home grown local talent gain skills combined with the local context of a city or region?
The Algiers Smart City (ASC) project considers as fundamental that growth is based on leapfrog technologies and new, non-linear methodologies. How can this approach be transformed into reality in your opinion?
One has to go back to the main premise behind leapfrog technologies. They are technologies that are fairly new, disruptive, fast moving and in most cases, widely accessible given their open source and global collaborative nature.
They are also a direct consequence of the stage at which we are in terms of Internet evolution, where a few technology giants significantly dominate and aggressively pushing such technologies, to ensure more dominance versus legacy players.
In the Algiers project, a careful well thought through choice has been made to leverage these aspects. We believe it’s a wise approach, exploiting disruptions and narrow windows of opportunities. The other way to look at it would be to ask about alternative ways of achieving technology development goals. We don’t see any viable alternative, so it seems to be the best choice out there.
What elements will be key for the ASC, or another analogous projects, to be exported and replicated anywhere?
Smart city projects are all unique and all very specific to the context in which they are applied. Yet, we believe that the challenges the ASC project is going after, namely those of isolation, dependency and lack of confidence are common throughout the emerging world, to different extents.
As such, elements of the approach are repeatable and adaptable to other cities. In fact, efforts are under way to expose the model developed in Algiers — in particular when it comes to jump-starting, funding and growing high tech startups, as well as models of technology experimentation and partnerships with global technology players — to other cities, in Africa in particular.
The implementation of new technologies will surely bring new challenges in the regulatory field. To what degree is a country like Algeria ready for such changes?
The Algiers Smart City project has been initiated with one consideration in mind — that technologies are developing way faster than regulations, and this is one of the key challenges to overcome. The project has put together specific initiatives to address this challenge.
The best illustration of this is the launch of the large scale live Smart City experimental lab in Algiers, where new advanced technologies can be experimented with, within a relaxed regulatory framework. We believe that this is a very creative way, not only to understand how such technologies will be deployed, but also how regulators can see, learn and understand the consequences of deploying such technologies, and through that, adapt and evolve regulations on a broader scale.
Startups in Algiers have claimed that revenue is the priority issue to tackle, and not funding. How could the ASC contribute to build on sustainable revenue models in your view?
Funding is important, but its not necessarily the most important thing. Access to customers and customers’ revenue is the most important thing. That would drive funding. Not having a path to that not only will make funding difficult but also bring in a very low return on investment. As such, the Algiers Smart City strategy in linking startups to the demand side, and to customers with a goal of fast tracking funding is the right strategy.
In fact, this is the most important thing for startups and not only in Algiers, but everywhere. It is more of a need in Algiers and regions of the world where venture capital are still nascent. We don’t see any other option than working with startups in having them get access to revenue. Funding will follow. The recent startups launched within the Smart City project follow this model. Time will tell if this is the right approach, but as of now, all indications show that it’s an approach that is worth executing on.
What else is needed for entrepreneurs to succeed under the wave of new technological paradigms?
What is needed is risk, or more risk taking. Startups are about risk management. There is little risk taken in Algiers and a lot of the world when it comes to risk taking, early stage technology and business risk taking in particular. It is a difficult thing to do. It involves culture, society, ability and many other factors. Yet, without such risk taking, there is little chance of developing tech giants. Algiers has taken a very pragmatic approach in addressing this.
Basically, significantly help those taking risks, with the goal of increasing their chances of success. Why? Because risk taking levels will go up if risk is perceived as bringing returns on investments. It’s a natural phenomenon. Seeing risk rewarded, over time, will ensure there is more risk taking by newer generation. This takes time, years, tens of years. Yet, there is no way around it.
What’s your assessment on the progress made by the ASC by the time being?
It is very early stage in the process. I think the Algiers Smart City project’s main credit is in having clearly identified its strategic goals and executed on tactical goals based on that. It’s a thesis being laid out, and it’s a thesis being defended, not in theory but in practice. In the field.
Of course, one can draw an anti thesis to any thesis. In fact, that is what Algiers aimed at doing — developing a thesis, exposing it and listening to anti thesis, then carefully and proactively adapting. It’s all about adapting, and doing so smartly. Understanding that is in itself good progress. The rest will take years, and much longer to judge. It is a hard task at hand. Very hard in fact, but one begs the question: what else can be done?