SEATTLE — Located in the Indian Ocean 500 miles off the coast of Madagascar, the country of Mauritius is barely 10 times the size of Washington DC. Despite its size, but the country is attempting something big: creating an environment for potential investors and new jobs with its Smart City Scheme. Mauritius has already found success in moving from an economy based primarily on sugar exports and tourism to one based on finance, business and banking outsourcing. The island nation now boasts one of the most successful economies on the continent. If this Smart City Scheme project proves successful, it could provide a blueprint for more African smart cities to follow their own path to prosperity.
Mauritius’ Vision of a Smart City
Many governments and corporations have planned and created smart cities all over the world. A smart city is defined as “a city that incorporates information and communication technologies (ICT) to enhance the quality and performance of urban services such as energy, transportation and utilities in order to reduce resource consumption, wastage and overall costs.” These cities are meticulously planned to ensure maximum efficiency and quality of life for residents.
For Mauritius, a smart city is described as a “concept of urban development focused on improving the quality of life of city dwellers by making the city more attractive, adaptable, efficient and resilient to change, using new technologies that rely on an ecosystem of objects and services.” For example, one of the African smart cities, Cap Tamarin, will contain 400,000 square meters of residential zones, as well as featuring a large park accessing one of Mauritius’ scenic beaches. The city will also include a “smart citizen advice office” and other public services such as a post office and a school. Additionally, researchers and up-and-coming businesses will have “innovation centers” available for their use.
Mauritius’ Smart City Scheme, launched in 2015, hopes to create working, living and leisure space that promotes environmental friendliness and generates its own resources. Additionally, the Smart City Scheme aims to provide enhanced connectivity, modern transportation services and reduced traffic congestion. The idea has gained traction with businesses and private investors; estimates state that the project has attracted more than $3 billion in private investments.
The Reasons Behind the Smart City Scheme
Mauritius tapped into the potential of smart cities to become more competitive as a nation. The Mauritius Smart City Scheme was implemented “not just for the sake for creating jobs,” explains Finance Minister Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo, “but mainly to prepare for the future as Mauritius aspires to become a major economic power in the region.” He continued, “The challenge is to reinvent the whole paradigm of Mauritius. So let’s reinvent the economy that was built on sugar, tourism, EPZ [export processing zones]and offshore. If we make it, we become one of the most developed countries in the region. If not, we stay a middle-income country.”
Praises and Criticisms of Smart Cities
This vision for African smart cities has already attracted investment to the continent. This investment has the potential to create a dynamic economy, provide new employment opportunities and deliver infrastructure for new businesses and foreign investments. However, an important question remains: will the smart cities help or hurt the 9.4 percent of households in Mauritius living below the poverty line?
Anjana Ahuja of the Financial Times wrote, “Without factoring in such civic intangibles as social justice and privacy, smart cities may end up being dumb places to live.” Referring to a proposed smart city near Mumbai, she stated, “its development threatens to displace around 40,000 residents, many of them farmers and fishermen with low levels of education. It is unclear where or how they would fit into a brand new Dholera.” A common criticism of smart cities is that they force people out of their modest homes.
Writer Ayona Datta offered other potential consequences of smart cities: “These new developments are largely privately owned, and sometimes even privately managed and governed. They run the risk of becoming enclaves of privilege, with private sector representatives already advocating the exclusion of the poor and marginalized through high prices and policing.” If these cities become tiny islands of wealth and perfect efficiency, it certainly will not bode well for low-income residents.
The Smart City Scheme has the strong potential to bring money and jobs to Mauritius, helping diversify its economy and provide more opportunities for workers. However, leaders should be aware of the potential dangers of smart cities and work diligently to provide the best opportunities for all Mauritius citizens regardless of status or wealth. Thus far, experts on poverty and inequality have not sounded any alarms about Mauritius’ project. The Smart City Scheme may be a real victory for Mauritius, its citizens and other African smart cities.
– Sarah Stanley
Photo: African Business Magazine