For the second edition of the Smart Cities Innovation Awards, the French newspaper Le Monde thought big. Last month, a European award was granted to The Endless Home project designed by architect Eric Cassard and, today, Nigerian startup Wecyclers won the International Grand Prize at Singapore. With its smart waste collection initiative that can be replicated to other developing countries, Wecyclers fit perfectly into the new smart city paradigm. Indeed the Wecyclers projects ambitions to make waste collection a source of economic development and public health improvement in Nigeria. The country has been experiencing a serious waste treatment crisis: in Lagos, the city where Wecyclers' cofounder and MIT alumni Bilikiss Adebiyi was born, only 40% of waste materials are collected and 13% recycled. This means that everyday 10,000 tonnes of litter are piling up in the city streets which leads to a number of health issues and the rapid spread of diseases for the population living in slums near those open landfill sites. This situation is not specific to Nigeria as many African countries are also experiencing it. According to UN reports, only 10% of garbage disposal are collected throughout the African continent and what's left is generally burnt or littered.
From IBM to Wecyclers
Worried about the situation, Bilikiss Adebiyi left her job at IBM in 2011 to become cofounder of Wecyclers. Her main challenge was to bring people together to tackle waste collection issues. In order to do that, she had to adapt to local specificities in terms of infrastructures and ecosystem. "Beyond population empowerment through active participation in the collect and sorting of waste, we realised that there was a real need for large-scale recycling in Nigeria. The country was still in early stage in this area compared to what other emerging states has done in terms of recycled materials management." Bilikiss explains.
"Smart City concepts should not be seen only as "big cities" prerogatives" Louis Treussard
Wecyclers relies on a tripartite organization. A fleet of low-cost cargo-bikes goes door-to-door to collect waste material all over the city, and then brings them to a waste sorting unit. Recycled materials are then used as raw material for local entrepreneurs. While living conditions improves dramatically, this initiative also help economical development. Louis Treussard, L'Atelier BNP Paribas' CEO, explains that this project is offering a good example of what the Smart City concept is about: "to make technological solutions and frugal economy promises converge into an ecosystem of different empowered and involved stakeholders." Louis Treussard thinks that Smart City concepts should not be seen only as "big cities" prerogatives and that 'expensive' technologies that everyone is talking about right now such as Artificial Intelligence can't solve everything. Simpler solutions with strong intermediaries may be as efficient.
Basic mobiles and SMS help to turn waste into incomes
Indeed everyone benefits from this project: of course, the planet with its ecological purpose, but also potential local entrepreneurs, and most-of-all the citizens themselves. Wecyclers had to change people's way of thinking in order to implement its system. Nigerians don't necessarilly "connect the dots" when it comes to unproper waste management and the deterioration of their living standards and their health. They had be somewhat educated to this matter. To do so, the startup designed an incentive mechanism through mobile gamification and rewards. Mobile's indeed a good choice as it is a driver to economical growth in the African market: Africa's the fastest-growing mobile market in the world and the 2nd largest market. Wecyclers uses this technology to send recommendations to citizens via SMS. Every kilogramme of collected waste material, its users is granted "points" that can be turned into rewards, which are usually consumer products.
To Louis Treussard, the next smart cities need to be less connected and more communicative, more open to all stata of its population, including those affected by the digital gap. The Smart City concepts should have a more "human-centric" vision. "Today the digital ecosystem proves that there is value in tangible actions and DIY economy. Technologies can be used in a smarter way by employing collective common sense and adapting to specific local needs to answer more effectively and humbly urban challenges". According to Louis Treussard, frugal economy and technological innovations reinforce one another in that they both answer their own specific problematics: "In order to improve urban environment, we'll need to find the right balance between the two, based on a proper knowledge of ecosystems and solutions scability accordingly.
Recycling: an environmental & economical matter
A shift in people's way of thinking
This shift in people's way of thinking appears as fundamental to impulse a form of global citizen's consciousness. This allows them to be agents of change and to find a role in their region's environmental, economical, and social development. In some way, Wecyclers is a source of empowerment for the population. According to Louis Treussard, "a city must be the antechamber of a "flat" world, taking into account the exogenous data that play on a certain number of phenomena. The challenge is to see the construction site of the city as a structural and interdependent transformation in which everyone can take part. Technology is nothing but the product of collective human intelligence. Its major power is to give access and thus to enable all to act in conscience. As an actor in the city, citizens, entrepreneurs and communities find their freedom and therefore the sense of their responsibility. But to do this, we must come out of technological Manichaeism, the same one that builds oppositions between man and technology, between developed and developing countries, and more broadly between the city and the territory. We must come out of a magical thought to find, together with our own sensibilities and our particularisms, agnostic solutions that can be extended and applied to the borderless world that is now our own."
Emerging countries are perfect smart city labs
Technology is nothing but the product of collective human intelligence.
While the majority of Le Monde Smart Cities Innovation Awards candidates still came from the American continent (46.5%), the weight of Asia is also significant (38%). It is thus naturally, and in a desire for globalization, that "Le Monde" chose Singapore to host its first international awards ceremony. The city, a true concentration of experimentation and innovation, is the global laboratory of "smart cities" which relies in particular on the autonomous car to transform its public transport. But the field of urban transformations can not be reduced to mobility alone. The intelligence of cities, at least the one that must be understood behind the name "smart city", is a global movement that invests in various fields such as water treatment, energy resources management, cultural action or housing, by involving the citizen actively and centrally. It therefore leads cities to become hubs of communication and solidarity based on the rational use of data and the virtues of the sharing economy in order to build an open and participatory society, benefiting above all the individuals who inhabit. The challenge of smart cities is to imagine global and local solutions to the social, economic and political problems that citizens face in their daily lives. In this sense, the smart city must engage.