College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Dr Antonio Blanco-Montero at his graduation (left) and on site with UKZN Engineering students.

African Cities of the Future Explored in Doctoral Research

Dr Antonio Blanco-Montero – a Spanish national resident in South Africa since 2014 – has been awarded a PhD in Civil Engineering from UKZN for his thesis which focused on the development of an integrated model for urban sustainable resilience through smart city projects in the southern African context.

Blanco-Montero was supervised by SARChI Chair for Waste and Climate Change Professor Cristina Trois, Dr Claudia Loggia and Dr Vittorio Tramontin.

‘Antonio sought to identify sustainable ways for long-term implementation of up-to-date technologies in southern African cities for an effective leapfrog that can bring them up to current standards without losing local references,’ said Trois. ‘His original contribution identified gaps in the methodological approach in transitioning from a typical southern African city to a sustainably resilient one through smart initiatives, using the case study of the Umgeni River catchment in Durban.

‘I am particularly proud as Antonio is the first PhD graduate under the flagship programme “African City of the Future”.’

Blanco-Montero was an experienced professional architect when he arrived in South Africa. ‘I felt I needed to get back into academia and get in touch with avant-garde thinking and cutting-edge approaches to problem-solving,’ he said, referring to his decision to register for a PhD at UKZN.

‘I also wanted to understand a social environment that was completely new to me. South Africa has very little in common with the European realities that I was used to. I thought the best way to immerse myself fully in this new world was through a PhD. And if I had any doubt about kicking it off, Professor Cristina Trois pushed me into the unknown with her cheering and positive spirit, and it all started.’

Blanco-Montero’s research aimed to determine the capabilities of southern Africa’s urban environments to embrace policy-making, projects and initiatives on smart cities that tackled specific regional issues, specifically related to social and environmental matters.

His critical analysis of historical and recent theories and findings on Smart City concepts and models examined two components: ‘Firstly, the understanding of the meaning of “smartness” by extracting a taxonomy of the concept “Smart City” from the scientific literature; and secondly, the identification of the main features, barriers and challenges of urban environments in the southern African context through the review of recent reports published by international organisations working actively in the African continent.’

Blanco-Montero said countries in southern Africa showed similarities in the urban realm. His research identified sustainable ways for ‘an effective leapfrog that would bring southern Africa up to nowadays standards without losing local references.

‘It is important to strengthen the link between common features for a better understanding of the region and a better rating on the feasibility of future projects,’ he said.

‘Africa is considered the last frontier of development. Looking at the future of African cities may be key to understanding urban synergies that have an impact on future generations. I find the sub-Saharan region interesting, particularly southern Africa due to its common history and lack of urban heritage as we know it in the Mediterranean basin,’ said Blanco-Montero.

The research undertaken acknowledged the reality of the southern African urban realm as it is.

‘During the process, I have found that many narratives of development overlook localities due to the ambition to catch up and become a modern society,’ said Blanco-Montero. ‘Top-down imported solutions clash with the social fabric, leading to an inefficient use of resources.’

‘The unveiling and understanding of the needs of African people in urban environments today is as important for development as the knowledge of the latest technologies available. There are opportunities of leapfrogging for southern Africa to achieve sustainable cities.

‘I think my research underlines the need for inclusion in our cities, by considering all members of society as key actors in the planning of sustainably resilient cities in southern Africa.’

Whilst Blanco-Montero would like to stay in the Higher Education academic and research space in South Africa, red tape regarding the employment of foreign nationals poses a challenge. He is therefore looking at either pursuing an academic career elsewhere, or engaging with organisations with a strong research component, in both cases focused on urban issues in developing countries, ideally in sub-Saharan Africa.

He paid tribute to his parents: ‘When looking at the Global North from southern Africa, it is easy to be misled by the high rate of college graduates in Europe. In reality, we are only one generation apart. My father, similar to the majority of people of his age, is a first-generation graduate in the family, much the same as about 80% of South African university students.

‘He understood the power of education to provide a better life for the next generation as well as making an impact on the evolution of society.

‘I also have a very supportive mother, who understood that I had to leave my comfort zone to experience personal and professional growth.’

Blanco-Montero thanked his life partner, Ms Khayakazi Matangana, who he said played a crucial role during the difficulties of finishing a thesis during COVID-19 ‘I know that I would be still struggling in front of the computer if it wasn’t for her support.’

After nine years as a resident in South Africa, Blanco-Mantero offered his impression of the country: ‘I see South Africa as one of the most beautiful places in the world. I have experienced extreme events, good and bad. In the early stages of my research, I realised that my thesis could contribute to help this place to be where it deserves: a world reference where nature encounters cities in exemplary ways; and where a plural society finds and defines places for understanding. My wish is for South Africa to become that place.’

Words: Sally Frost

Photographs: Rajesh Jantilal and Supplied