Innovation for Africa through intelligent networks
By Dr Andrew Hutchison, International Consulting & Solution Sales at T-Systems in South Africa
Moving towards a knowledge-based economy will enable Africa to adapt to changing conditions while designing solutions that will enhance the competitiveness of the continent's emerging nations.
Furthermore, it is crucial for Africa to develop its own ICT skills and infrastructure, particularly in light of the fact that only 5.7% of all Africans have access to the Internet, says Dr Andrew Hutchison, International Consulting & Solution Sales at T-Systems in South Africa.
This highlights significant opportunity for growth and technology adoption on the African continent. Fortunately, African countries often don't have to deal with legacy system issues. Innovation can often be achieved through leap-frogging earlier versions of a technology and going directly to more mature stages: GSM mobile telephony, mobile Internet access, prepaid cellular and electricity payment and digital satellite television are all examples of how African countries circumvented the migration phases that American, European and other countries went through in moving from analogue and fixed-location services. Investing in available technology that offers intelligence, sustainability and cost-sensitive benefits is therefore a strong platform to build on.
So, how does one enable a knowledge-based economy on the African continent? For one, the implementation and provision of information that reaches beyond the normal delivery of data is crucial.
One relevant area of technology growth is that of so-called intelligent networks. These reach beyond the mere transfer of data to offer integrated, intelligent and interconnected functionality - therefore optimising management and the overall user experience.
Today, intelligent networks extend to include key growth points within the ICT realm. However, the energy, automotive and healthcare sectors in particular have a lot to gain.
In the case of energy, intelligent networks enable smart grids that allow energy suppliers to achieve a better balance of supply and demand. Smart meters connect power plants, decentralised energy producers, consumers and networks.
Furthermore, load rates and energy consumption control are based on data from the smart meters.
This is particularly beneficial not only for Africa but in all countries to ensure optimal power management and consumption.
In South Africa, for example, we currently have an estimated 4.3 million pre-paid users who could benefit from a smart grid system offering smart meter functionality to assist them in managing their power consumption better.
Choosing a city as a 'living showcase and test area' is a way of piloting new technologies and seeing how they perform. Deutsche Telekom, T-Systems' parent company, ran a competition in Germany to select an innovation city. This resulted in the selection of Friedrichshafen as the so-called "T-City", and this was one of the first cities in Germany where the benefits of installing smart meters in every house were observed.
Dubbed the "Intelligent Metering Infrastructure", T-Systems is demonstrating how power co-operation can function efficiently. The pilot project in co-operation with the local utilities company Technische Werke kicked off in March 2008 with the first newly-installed remote-read meters.
To determine the consumption data, the digital electricity and gas meters send their values to the central office in real-time every 15 minutes. T-Systems handles the reading out, transport, and preparation of this data. It is transmitted via DSL or GPRS.
With automatic readings taken every quarter of an hour, it is possible to plot a consumption curve per household throughout the entire day. It is, for example, determined via a home PC or even a mobile phone, how much electricity the household is currently using. Device profiles can even display the consumption of individual systems and expose 'energy gluttons'.
Healthcare and automotive
Healthcare in Africa also stands to enjoy numerous benefits from the intelligent network such as cost savings, and importantly, improved medical practice. For example, doctors have rapid access to consolidated content and information that provides them with an overall picture of patient's condition before an emergency operation.
In addition, the remote monitoring of chronically ill patients decreases doctor consultations while improving overall healthcare. The home as a point for collection and transmission of information is seen as an important area for future innovation. Especially with ageing populations, and the requirement to take pressure off hospitals, home monitoring - with the appropriate security, connectivity and medical devices, is a very attractive and interesting field for development.
In the automotive industry too, technology innovators such as T-Systems are creating digital connections between cars and the outside world that will allow users to send and receive e-mail and other information from their cars in the same way they use PCs or smartphones.
However, it is not only drivers that stand to benefit from the intelligent networks in the automotive industry. Fleet operators, for example, can view data that indicates the need for a trip to the garage and, importantly, they can monitor carbon emissions.
Already, T-Systems has been involved in technology that reduces road transport distances, delivering savings, optimisation and efficiency. Together with DHL in Germany, T-Systems created a network of parcel drop-off and collection points, enabling customers to collect at their convenience. The innovation in this solution was to change the whole parcel drop-off/collection model, and through this to provide more reliability and convenience for customers and a huge saving of distance travelled for the logistics company. In this case it was estimated that the new model cut out journeys made by customers by around 3.3 million km per year, and saved DHL an additional 600 000km through better logistics.
Many of these innovations are achieved through applying one or more technologies that is already available and creating business and process improvements with benefits in terms of time, convenience, the environment, cost, etc.
The African continent is undoubtedly a land of ICT opportunity and intelligent networks is one area that can lead the way forward. We have provided examples of applicability in energy, healthcare and automotive areas. Through approaches such as "open innovation", there is considerable opportunity for networks of innovators to contribute to the value chain around these and other innovation areas. Applying existing and emerging technologies, combined with local ingenuity and knowledge of the African environment, enables leading innovations to be achieved for Africa.