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Ramaphosa's 4IR smart city pipe dream

Read time 5min 40sec

Admirable is one of the words used to describe President Cyril Ramaphosa’s vision of a new South African city driven by smart technologies.

During Thursday night’s State of the Nation Address, Ramaphosa relayed his smart city dream before the joint sitting of the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces, although no timeline or action plan was expressed.

The President said his dream is fuelled by conversations with some members of his executive as well as Chinese president Xi Jinping, who indicated that China is building a new Beijing.

“I dream of a South Africa where the first entirely new city built in the democratic era rises, with skyscrapers, schools, universities, hospitals and factories,” he stated. “This is a dream we can all share and participate in building. We have not built a new city in 25 years of democracy.”

He further said 70% of South Africans are going to be living in the urban areas by 2030, and the cities of Johannesburg, Tshwane, Cape Town and Ethekwini are running out of space to accommodate citizens.

Has the time not arrived for us to be bold and reach beyond ourselves and do what may seem impossible, he asked.

“Has the time not arrived to build a new smart city founded on the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? I would like to invite South Africans to begin imagining this prospect.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Plan of action

For Mark Walker, IDC associate VP for Sub-Saharan Africa, the President’s goal is admirable and absolutely critical for SA’s participation in the global economy or risk being left behind.

However, a single smart city will not be enough, he cautions. “Digitisation of the overall economy using cloud, mobile and artificial intelligence-based technologies such as the Internet of Things is what is needed.

“Furthermore, this will require clearly articulated planning, including development of key skills, provision of infrastructure and openness to external knowhow and capabilities. Finally, the will to drive this initiative socially, politically and economically is paramount to success as the effort and energy required are significant.”

Independent analyst Dr Charley Lewis says smart cities are certainly something SA needs to grapple with, but we need to recognise that we are not Singapore or Hong Kong.

This, according to him, means leveraging ICT technologies to address the key issues that beset the country, namely poverty, economic growth and development, and unemployment. “The opportunities are legion - smart power (yes, Eishkom!), smart transport and taxi management, smart anti-corruption measures, smart health, smart education.”

Arthur Goldstuck, World Wide Worx MD, points out the context of Ramaphosa’s vision was clearly one of dreaming rather than planning.

“While it may be an inspiring dream, South Africa right now needs details, not dreams. We have such pressing issues to address immediately, that it comes across as an attempt at distraction when the focus is on what is possible in the distant future rather than the precise detail of what will be done now to bring us closer to that vision.”

Goldstuck says the concept and vision of smart cities is important for South Africa and the rest of Africa; however, it can only come on the back of a firm commitment and a clear programme for deploying state resources where they are needed.

Break the silos

South Africa is often criticised for having fragmented smart city approaches, with the biggest challenge being the lack of a national government smart city strategic framework.

The move for South African cities towards smart city status is pretty much driven at provincial level, and some cities have taken steps to digitise and drive investment in using technology to improve civic life and service delivery.

Analysis from Frost & Sullivan shows SA and its cities remain highly constrained when viewed in the global context of ranking smart cities. Typically, Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, which are often investigated, have collectively ranked in the bottom 25% of over 100 cities across all continents, according to the research firm.

Commenting on what can be done to create consolidated smart city action, Walker maintains the technology is already available, so a focus should be on building global partnerships to develop the skills and infrastructure and capital needed to realise these ambitions. “Heavy investment to fund this will be a key component, so attractive regulatory, taxation, and labour policies are critical starting points.”

Lewis believes that imaginative and principled planning, along with innovative solutions, is required.

“We need to prioritise the development of digital skills, from primary school, through to university level, to ensure that young people are both empowered to engage with and benefit from digital technologies, and are able to develop and innovate the necessary digital solutions.

“Another issue is unblocking the logjam in ICT policy and regulation that has held the sector back for 10 years. The minister has much to do to update and realise the vision put forward by the ICT policy review panel. In particular, spectrum needs to be made available, but in a process that addresses the digital divide, reduces data prices, and increases Internet access, particularly for the poor and those in informal settlements and rural areas.

“Critically, we need to ensure that smart cities do not merely reproduce and exacerbate the geographies of apartheid, and thus worsen the digital divide. A smart Jozi without a smart Alex or a smart Diepsloot is a non-starter.”

Goldstuck says we’ve had enough lip-service, and now action needs to be seen to be taken, emphasising that implementation is everything.

“A great example is the government's strategy on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. It’s all talk, complete with a government appointed talkshop.

“We need action committees, not discussion committees. We also need a nuanced understanding of what 4IR represents, rather than the vague generalisations that suggest few in government truly understand what it will demand of government.

“Finally, we need to set ambitions above the bare minimum, low-hanging fruit that is implied in a goal like having every 10-year-old child able to read. That should be the starting point, not the end goal.”

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