Business Report

Booming Lagos, Smart City

An African mega-city bets on technology and its native entrepreneurs to meet the many challenges of its population boom. 

For Lagos, Nigeria, Africa’s biggest city, any push to become a smart city will have to adapt to constant—and often unplanned—growth.

Its challenges are epic. The United Nations predicts that Lagos’s population—which the U.N. estimates at 12.6 million today, though other estimates are as high as 22 million—will almost double between now and 2030, greatly adding to demands on already strained services.

Can this city, where the poorest live in fetid floating slums, absorb another 12 million souls? “Keeping up with the state’s growing appetite for services and resources is a Herculean and continuous process,” acknowledges Lagos state governor Babatunde Raji Fashola. “The need to deploy innovative approaches that address civic challenges in Lagos state has never been greater, and technology is the key to the future.”

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As Lagos lays out its vision for becoming a smarter city, international IT companies are vying for its business, betting that technology and data will be the keys to its evolution. Mobile phones, extraordinarily popular on the African continent, are expected to lead the way.

Uyi Stewart, chief scientist of IBM’s Africa Research Lab, calls the city “one of Africa’s economic and demographic powerhouses” but argues that it won’t successfully manage its growth without IT, including mobile and cloud technology, social media, and business analytics. IBM launched a new innovation center in Lagos earlier this year, part of a broader investment in Africa.  

Last year a six-person IBM team spent a month working with government agencies to analyze the city’s transportation systems. Lagos traffic jams are epic. The drive to the airport from Victoria Island, home to the city’s embassies, top hotels, and biggest businesses, takes only 45 minutes at night, but someone with an 11 a.m. flight will need to leave before 6 a.m. when the traffic locks. One area of IBM’s focus was the expansion of transportation services using the city’s myriad waterways, which already carry more than 170,000 commuters a day but could carry many more if transport systems were optimized on the basis of cloud computing, analytics, and mobile data. Analytics technology applied to data stored in the cloud could predict water traffic, streamlining traffic flow. That would then feed into cell-phone updates for commuters about the best times to travel and how long their trip is likely to take.

The project was part of IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge initiative, a three-year, 100-city, $50 million competitive grant. One private-sector initiative is IBM’s work with Virtual Streets, a Nigerian startup, using cognitive computing systems to provide location-based services to people in Nigerian cities. Using data from geographic information systems, traffic cameras, and phones from subscribers, Virtual Streets gives subscribers real-time traffic data paid for by location-based ads for local businesses. 

“There is already ample data available in Lagos,” says IBM’s Stewart. “Cell phones, social media, traffic cameras, global positioning systems, banks, and retail stores are all producing terabytes of big data loaded with potential insight about how the city works and how its citizens move around within it.” The challenge is figuring out how to actually use all that information.  

The Eko Atlantic project is key to the city’s regeneration. It is a planned district being constructed on land reclaimed from the Atlantic Ocean. Upon completion, the new island will house 250,000 residents and a daily flow of 100,000 commuters. Sand reclamation and the building of a seawall, sometimes referred to as the Great Wall of Lagos, are set to be completed by 2018. All infrastructure work is to be done by 2020, according to David Frame, managing director of South Energyx Nigeria Limited, the developers and city planners of Eko Atlantic.

Lagos has a strong technology startup scene that should help the city as it evolves. Its CcHUB, where technologists, social entrepreneurs, and investors gather to create solutions to Nigeria’s social problems, compares well with similar spaces in other parts of Africa and in Europe.

Still, basic challenges remain. Electricity is not delivered consistently, and for every paying customer, there are countless others who illegally piggyback on utilities. Vandalism and theft of critical network infrastructure are endemic. Moreover, while mobile-phone penetration in Lagos is high, smartphones have been slow to take hold. Hitendra Naik, director of innovation for Intel Sub-­Saharan and South Africa, says one promising development is local initiatives that have helped companies lay down new fiber-optic lines in return for connecting or subsidizing rates to local schools. Another popular initiative uses data capture and analysis to let people submit applications for a vehicle license electronically, then walk into a bank to print it off—a quicker and simpler alternative to chaotic queues at government offices with a waiting time of weeks or even months.

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