The idea of smart cities is wonderful and promises to address many of South Africans’ issues with government’s service delivery failures – if implemented properly.
However, who takes responsibility for creating smart cities? Is it a government-led initiative, or citizen and private sector led? Who takes the leadership role in making them a reality?
At first glance, smart cities seem to be the responsibility of government, with the goals of their development being to improve municipal policy efficiency, reduce waste and inconvenience for residents, and improve the socioeconomic wellbeing of residents.
Doubt and trust
In the South African landscape, however, there is a lot of doubt whether government can manage the establishment and maintenance of smart cities, as it struggles to get basic service delivery right. Just think of the lack of electricity, water and sanitation provision, as well as the maintenance of road infrastructure (potholes) and the trust of our government to fix these problems.
The key to running a smart city – based on the internet of things (IoT) and the internet of everything (IoE) – is connectivity and power. Power is key to keeping all the various devices up and running and connected to the smart city network. With the Eskom debacle and attendant load shedding, together with inefficient and non-existent government ICT systems and data analytics capabilities, it does not seem possible.
To imagine a functional South African smart city within the next 30-40 years is a stretch and is definitely not possible within the government’s expected 25 years, as planned for with the smart city earmarked for construction next to the Lanseria airport in Johannesburg.
PPPs a must
From a fibre network operator (FNO) perspective, Evotel is confident that there is the capability in South Africa to provide the network infrastructure that will be needed to carry the data involved with the running of a smart city. However, what needs to be addressed is who will be responsible for the cost of implementing and maintaining the network infrastructure. Will this be another service provided by the government to only be recovered from already underserviced citizens and through an additional tax of some kind, or will it be through a public/private partnership (PPP)?
In South Africa, it’s clear that he establishment of smart cities must involve the private sector. A lot of work must still be done in terms of defining the terms of these new PPPs and the policies that will govern the initiatives to ensure that smart cities become a reality in South Africa.
Government is aware that the framework concerning PPPs need to be updated and we will hopefully see positive changes as per national treasury’s 2022 budget review (Annexure E_100222 – treasury.gov.za, PDF) regarding its 2019 PPP framework review that has now been completed.
More than just government service delivery
The benefits for citizens of a smart city go much further than efficient government service delivery in terms of smart public safety and security, smart education and schooling, smart forestry and environmental affairs, and smart public transport solutions. People in smart cities will also benefit from other commercial activities offered by the private sector, some of which are already available across various cities and smaller towns and without the smart city-defined network infrastructure. These include ride-hailing services such as Uber, Bolt and Lyft, as well as online shopping and delivery services by many retailers (Takealot, Checkers’ Sixty60, Woolworths’ Woolies Dash, etc).
Taking it a step further and closer to the smart city idea, from a safety and security perspective your Internet-connected CCTV cameras and home security system will be able to relay data to your security provider and possibly the police in real time for immediate action to be taken. With added data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, the security system could determine various other aspects relating to a possible crime or incident. For instance, it could track the movement of people or objects and identify specific directions suspects are moving in or escape routes they might follow. Combined with relevant big data, the system could determine a possible escape route and allow the suspect to be captures.
Both the government and the private sector need to be involved to make these smart cities a reality
In future, big data, AI and analytics could possibly even help in determining the severity of an incident. Depending on the analysis, for instance, if shots were fired, somebody is hurt and how severe the injuries are, the system could automatically make certain decisions and initiate certain actions. It could, for instance, automatically inform the closest hospital or ambulance and necessary policing services to respond to the scene immediately depending on the outcome of the analysis of all the data.
From a consumer perspective, in a smart city environment, your fridge will be able to do your shopping itself. If you have a smart, connected fridge, it will determine when you require fresh milk or if any of your regular grocery items have run out and automatically place an order with your chosen supermarket and have it delivered to your house. With analytics built in, your fridge will even search the Internet and order from the supermarket that is offering the best deal.
There is a whole new world that is possible with the establishment of smart cities, but both the government and the private sector need to be involved to make these smart cities a reality. I also won’t hold my breath for how long it will take to see a fully fledged and effective South African smart city that serves the government and commercial needs equally to see the light of day. But I do know that the fibre network can be ready soon!
- The author, Bradley Bekker, is GM at Evotel
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