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'Smarter' Cities in North Africa

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Casablanca, Rabat, Fez, Marrakesh, and Tangier served as great movie titles and backdrops (or stereotypes, like in The Battle of Algiers) for entertainment set in North Africa. However, film shots of these cities appear stuck in "once upon a time, in a land far, far away called the Maghreb." Earlier this April, the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry finally paid his first visit to Algeria and Morocco two years into his tenure focusing mainly on security cooperation issues. Aside from the security focus, it is no surprise that Morocco will host the 2014 Global Entrepreneurship Summit and serving as a hub for other conferences, like the first International Summit on Smart Cities in North Africa this coming June around Casablanca, Morocco's most populous city.

Small Cities Are "Smarter" City Candidates

Morocco, like Tunisia, represents the urban-rural divide within the North African region. The urban-rural divide means that those Moroccans living in the largest cities enjoy a substantially better standard of living than those living in smaller cities. In fact, Moroccans in cities, like Rabat, consume 75 percent more than Moroccans outside of the urban centers, according to one-hundred living standard surveys. Since the goal is to make "smarter cities," then the conversation should borrow urban planning elements with technology measures that increase coverage more quickly. In this case, small cities are candidates for "smarter" cities. Given these dynamics, here are four areas that we hope that the summit will consider when incorporating technology solutions for smarter cities that can also address the urban-rural divide.

  • Design buildings with "greening" elements, like solar panels -- North African countries' geography serve them well;
    • Pilot-test ICT applications within the education and tourism sectors in smaller cities -- less issue with coverage;
  • Create compost and recycling centers in housing complexes; and
  • Expand library spaces to include ICT startups workspaces so that they have an easy testing ground because the applications and tools that they develop will feed into electronic learning tools.

Nonetheless, "Morocco is playing an important leadership role," said Kerry on his April 4th tour of North African countries. Since 2006, Morocco has been one of the few Arab countries to enjoy a free trade agreement with the U.S. (Jordan, Bahrain, and Oman make up the other Arab countries that have FTAs with the U.S.) Building from this effort to grow trade, is Morocco's hope to grow its urban development into the 21st century by leveraging the information communication and technology (ICT) sector.

Smart Cities Consider A Variety of Sectors

Focusing on ICT is not a new strategy. Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Tunisia each raced to establish ICT hubs -- some more successfully than others -- to generate employment and bridge the divide between urban and rural communities. But a strategy takes commitment, which is probably why Morocco signed on to the additional Trade Principles for Information & Communication Technology Sector to support ICT expansion. Such principles include: open networks, network access and use; not requiring suppliers to establish a local presence; allowing foreign ownership and connectivity improvements.

Aside from ICT culture, other trends factor into urban development in North Africa. For example, how do mid-sized cities access transportation, water, and other resources more efficiently without taxing the environment -- or local health? One of the Millennium Development Goals is to decrease slum-dwelling. Moving over 225 million out of slum-dwelling conditions is one MDG that the North Africa region has achieved relative success compared to other regions. According to The World Bank's 2013 Global Monitoring Report: Rural-Urban Dynamics and Millennium Development Goals: Larger poverty pockets exist in smaller cities and towns rather than in large cities, according to the report. Countries, like Morocco, illustrate this, and must consider these populations -- and hopefully, a summit focusing on "smart cities" will consider how poverty pockets will access any technology solutions that are recommended.

The World Bank and Microsoft serve as Partners for the International Smart Cities Summit, which will be held between June 9th-10th in Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco.

Innovation sounds great in theory, but incorporating innovation requires planning and data. That is why ISCS invited entrepreneurs from the Moroccan diaspora. Hicham Oudghiri will link the importance of public data with urban planning, said Nabil Ouchagour, who serves as the ISCS Advisory Board Member.

Smarter cities consider a variety of sectors because urban planning is not just creating "new" and imposing "modern," at the expense of cultural spaces, but preserving what works. There was a reason why hundreds of popular filmmakers and artists (Matisse) scoped out North Africa for inspiration: gardens and architecture.

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