FILE PHOTO: The headquarters of Siemens AG is seen before the company's annual news conference in Munich
JOHANNESBURG - Egypt's remarkable pyramids have earned their place in history. At 139 metres high, the Great Pyramid of Giza was the tallest man-made structure built in its time, and continues to marvel the world some 4000 years after construction.

One can only imagine the kind of brilliance and innovative thinking behind it. What we do know is that even way back then, the people of Africa had it right.

They collectively immersed themselves in a creative vision, cutting-edge ingenuity, tireless efforts and countless hours of sweat.

Today, the Great Pyramid is regarded as one of the most impressive architectural feats in history, and stands as the sole survivor of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

This is what we want for Africa and our people. Not a pyramid exactly, but a revolutionised smart city that will withstand the test of time. A city that resolves our lifelong challenges in infrastructure, energy, population, traffic, health, safety and unemployment.

This concept, however, requires more than the installation of pipes and drainage. It necessitates quantum-age thinking coupled with detailed information, sustainable plans, and ingenuity in digital transformation.

Much has been said about digital transformation and ambitious ideas often sound great on paper, but can it be accomplished given the continent's current financial and infrastructural challenges.

Many organisations recognise that digital transformation is crucial for future success, but are unsure where to start, what investments to make, and which technologies to implement.

They may also lack capital and the required skills. The pace of change is so fast in the digital age that they need to take action to safeguard their competitiveness, and the best way to do it is to collaborate with partners that provide the technical know-how, particularly as urbanisation accelerates at an unprecedented rate in Africa.

By 2050, an estimated 1.4billion people will be living in an African city.

In Nigeria alone, 189million people will have moved to a city, while Johannesburg will be home to 6.5million inhabitants, and Nairobi to 14.2million. This is more than we could have ever imagined, and Africa needs to start making room for them.

Most people enter cities for work opportunities as unemployment escalates. However, economies are not adequately equipped to handle the growing demand and are struggling to cope. This has taken a toll on transportation networks, housing, water and electricity supplies.

Knowledge on urbanisation, therefore, must go hand-in-hand with digital transformation. According to an April 2018 report by the Centre for Strategic Insights and International Studies, sub-Saharan Africa is undergoing an immense demographical shift and is regarded as the fastest urbanising region. During this shift, urban centres were expected to play a critical role in sustaining economic growth.

Data is key

The first step in leaping Africa into the future is extracting crucial information about each city, which will not only inform strategies and decisions, but also open a number of doors. This data will give greater insight into what makes each city tick, what works and what doesn’t, and most importantly, it will enable us to determine what is possible in the future.

The kind of information needed will be intricate and incorporate all sectors of the city - from water and energy to air quality, lighting, transport, unemployment, security and economic growth. This data will enable smart decision-making, help us connect the dots and ensure that past failures do not repeat themselves.

Let’s look at the City of Joburg for a second.

We know our infrastructure facilities and energy supplies are inadequate to accommodate our new inhabitants.

If we had to take one smart step in the right direction, it would result in a domino effect that gives rise to extraordinary developments, while amplifying benefits to residents.

For example, decentralising energy systems and investing in a variety of microgrids that are designed to provide uninterrupted power would ensure a steady and affordable electricity supply for a growing demand.

Technology could then be used to transform waste into energy at landfill sites, and that space in turn could be utilised for urban farming and other developments, while the generated energy could power city infrastructure, like buildings and electric cars.

Another thought would be to look at digitising townships surrounding cities so that people can benefit from new job opportunities.

Children would be able to access learning material online, and those finishing school would be able to apply for jobs and tertiary education or explore their entrepreneurship skills through e-commerce, app development and crowd funded activities. Our peri-urban communities will play a crucial role in growing the country’s economy from the confines of their own home and town.

Imagine the possibilities of using blockchain to crowd-fund a microgrid that works to literally light-up a township economy. I’ve always believed that having a reliable and affordable energy supply is a catalyst for socio-economic growth.

Amazing right, now imagine what we could do if we break down and analyse the considerable amounts of data from each city in Africa. Understanding it will equate to smarter ways of living in future on a grand scale.

Connecting worlds

However, such a transformation can't be achieved by data and software alone. It requires a combination of digital expertise and domain know-how, an inherent understanding of hardware - of how things are built, how they work, and the markets they serve - in order to leverage digital technologies and optimise operations.

This is where Siemens comes in. It is uniquely positioned to help society unlock its full potential for digital transformation. It knows how to connect the physical and virtual worlds, thanks to its domain intellect, broad installed base, digital portfolio and heightened cybersecurity set-up. It shapes and accelerates digitalisation by mastering disruptive technologies like the digital twin and artificial intelligence.

Digitalisation of the industrial world is the single biggest transformation of our time, so we can’t afford to mess it up. We need to embrace the right partners, acquire the appropriate skill set and apply data smartly.

The foundation of a uniquely African smart city lies in data, but its backbone will be ingenuity. It will be created by smart people and inspired by local understanding.

Tomorrow’s cities can be healthier, safer and more efficient with Africa’s young tech-savvy minds. And as they make good on our targets and leap Africa into the future one pyramid at a time, let’s remember that beneath the chaotic nature of a present day African city lie incredible data patterns, weaved into the very fabric of our society.

Sabine Dall’Omo is the chief executive of Siemens Southern and Eastern Africa.

- BUSINESS REPORT