Smart’s not enough. We need functional.


Accra is in tears today. Last night a heavy rain storm descended on the city, flooding it to a depth of metres in some places. A crowd of people took refuge in a petrol station in the centre of town near Nkrumah Circle, not realising that the tanks below them were overflowing due to the flooding. When the streets were full of a mix of petrol and water, someone 300 metres away lit a flame, setting light to the floodwater and, seconds later, to the petrol station and everyone in it. At least a hundred people have died.

At the Smart City Event in Amsterdam, no one is aware of this news. We have spent the day in a professionally networked, well-fed bubble, listening to presentations on public safety, water management and inclusive cities. One presenter from Accra was supposed to speak about African smart cities, but his session was cancelled, possibly because he had more pressing issues to attend to.

Smartness is being hailed, at this event, but also amongst city governments and corporations worldwide, as the holy grail of urban development. Smart is efficient, smart is safe, smart manages crowds and informs emergency services in real time. Smart ensures water flows only where it is meant to. Smart is being promoted as the answer to urban development in lower-income countries by the private sector, who (as is generally true in the smart city conversation) equate surveillance with safety.

I am waiting for the avalanche of commentary from well-meaning technical experts about how if Accra was just Smarter, better connected, had more real-time information, it could have mitigated a catastrophe like the one in Accra last night. Well, there’s more technology already. There’s a hashtag – the mark of any contemporary disaster (#Accrafloods).

Accra is not dumb. The city has a largely informal social and material infrastructure teeming with just-in-time solutions to gaps in service provision. You can ride-share a private car or minibus to almost anywhere, get someone to hack your phone or computer, hitch a lift on someone’s motorbike. Life in Accra is full of hacks, all of which happen on an analogue basis. It doesn’t require Uber, sharing platforms or twitter, it’s how life is there. But a disaster like last night’s floods is beyond the just-in-time, hacking approach.

So here’s the problem, and Smart can’t answer it. Three things:

First, drainage. Accra has what one commentator on Twitter has referred to as a ‘gutter system, not a drainage system’. And its gutters are filled with plastic waste, mainly from the plastic bags that hold the drinking water most people have access to. If you want clean water it comes in a small plastic bag. And Accra’s three million people want clean water. Moreover, the water courses in Accra are full of buildings because the city is expanding, people need places to live, and there isn’t enough housing. So this is first of all an infrastructural problem: a bad drainage system that is blocked with plastic and with informal houses and businesses.

Second, emergency response. Accra (and Ghana more broadly) has a lack of emergency services. This is not to disrespect the committed public servants who do this work, but the country doesn’t have a meaningful public ambulance service or an effective enough emergency response system for a flash-flooding problem that kills people at the same time pretty much every year. If you are in an accident in Accra, nothing really happens. If you are injured you have to get yourself to hospital, usually using a taxi. A colleague bled to death of treatable injuries by the side of the road after a car crash a couple of years ago. During last night’s crisis (again, according to Twitter) the city government may have issued emergency numbers with the wrong number of digits in them, so they were unusable.

Third, there is a lack of infrastructure for information flows. People have mobile phones, but there are power cuts lasting up to 48 hours with some regularity, meaning that people’s ability to communicate is seriously curtailed. Last night there was no electricity, no street lighting, no emergency services on the spot when the petrol station started to leak. So the person 300 meters away, who couldn’t see the petrol in the dark, had no idea they shouldn’t strike a match and set fire to the entire neighbourhood and everyone in it.

Today’s conference in the safety of Amsterdam made me reflect that these are not problems that can be solved by Smart. Smart needs infrastructure, it needs governance, it needs stability, it needs someone to hire consultants and corporations to put it in place. And the bottom-up, hacker version of Smart needs hackers who have access to hardware and electricity, and infrastructure and resources to scale what they come up with.

Last night’s disaster is not amenable to Solutionism. It requires a solution of the old-school kind: structural change. Inequality, lack of regulation and corruption caused people to build informally in the wrong places. The flooding always hits the migrant neighbourhoods, the poor neighbourhoods. Nima, Kaneshie, the places where the least privileged live or trade. A lack of clean water (which requires massive public-sector infrastructure commitment) means people drink water out of plastic bags, and a lack of effective waste management (again a public-sector issue) means plastic waste clogs the gutters and causes flash flooding.

No amount of information could have saved most of the victims of last night’s floods because there was nowhere safe to go. It didn’t matter if a neighbourhood a mile away was safe if you were stuck on the roof of your car or trapped by the waters inside a petrol station that was about to explode.

More importantly, no one was really accountable. As always happens in Accra, people helped each other. The Big Society is a reality there – people get each other out of danger, drive each other to the hospital, share information in the street, comfort each other when things get bad. But they don’t – ever – rely on the government, city or national, for help because it’s still, despite significant democratisation and a greatly increased degree of accountability, not there for them on the scale that they need it.

So what kind of Solution does Accra need? Certainly not a digital one. The people of Accra need to hack their own government, their representatives, their parliament, and that happens in analogue. Civic pressure can help – people are mobilising for infrastructural change to get a reliable electricity service (#Dumsormuststop), but they are marching in the streets, not just tweeting. Activists are making a nuisance of themselves, making demands.   Who can solve it? Government. How? Pressure and equal representation.

Ghana also needs investment in its infrastructure, but this too needs to come from structural change. It’s a middle-income country now, it has oil wealth flowing – political pressure is needed to get money spent on the kind aof infrastructure and services that can keep people safe from flooding: homes for slum dwellers, legal space for businesses, emergency services, public ambulances, public hospitals. It’s not a lack of smartness that turns rainfall into large-scale disaster. It’s inequality, corruption and lack of accountability. And those problems only have an analogue solution.

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