Wesley Diphoko, Head of the Independent Digital Lab (02 June 2017)
JOHANNESBURG - Water has emerged as the major challenge for the Western Cape this year. So devastating has the drought been that City of Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille has started making announcements about what would happen on Day 0 (a day when taps will be turned off and residents will be required to queue for water).

The year also presented us with what can be described as one of the best South African technology solutions - the Geasy and the Dropula. The technology, which was co-created by Thinus Booysen, an Associate Professor at the Stellenbosch University’s Electrical and Electronic Engineering Department, enables unique and granular presentation of data usage.

It generates notifications for exceptions which enables users to take preventative action. It also creates awareness of possible water wasting and empowers users to prevent or reduce the wasting of water as well as allowing online presence for some water meters that are currently operating in an off-line standalone mode.

Reports claim that Hector Peterson Secondary School in Wallacedene has managed to save R52000 a month through the use of the technology. Therein lies an innovation model and lesson. It demonstrates what it takes to create a great technology solution.

The first lesson relates to Booysen the innovator. He has all the credentials of working for Facebook or Google in San Francisco. And besides being an associate professor, he is also a member of the Institution of Engineering Technology, a Chartered Engineer (CEng) at the Engineering Council (UK), and a Professional Engineer (PrEng) with the Engineering Council (SA).

He has more than 10 years’ international industry experience in the aerospace and automotive industries with companies that include SunSpace, Rolls-Royce, Boeing, BMW, and Jaguar Land Rover. He has been with Stellenbosch University from 2009 and his research is on the Internet of Things, with a focus on Smart Water and Electricity metering and Intelligent Transport Systems (specifically its application in the informal public transport industry in sub-Saharan Africa). He is also a founder of Bridgiot, and co-creator of Geasy and Count Dropula.

Even though he has so much experience, he has chosen to solve a major societal challenge using his understanding of technology. Lesson here, innovators should focus on developing technology solutions that solve major challenges in society.

Process

The second lesson relates to the importance of university in solving societal challenges. The Stellenbosch University played a critical role in the creation of the water technology. Academic institutions are critical in the innovation process. Every successful innovation hub has an academic institution that is behind its creations.

The third lesson relates to the fact that for technology to be truly useful in society, it has to solve a real challenge. Booysen chose to solve the water challenge at least the information part of the challenge. Knowing how much water is used makes a huge difference as seen in the schools that are using the technology.

The fourth lesson relates to the commercialisation of research from universities. Booysen’s technology could have just died as a research paper in university archives and not been implemented. But he chose to move it from research to commercial product. This is a necessary part of creating an innovation nation.

Research conducted in universities needs to be transformed into economic value. This is how Google was formed at Stanford University by two students who were determined to solve the information challenge.

The last lesson relates to pain that needs to be felt by the innovator in order to create. Booysen could have not created the technology solution if he was not based in South Africa and in the Western Cape in particular where drought is mostly experienced. The lesson is simply that experiencing a challenge and feeling the pain is a necessary part of developing a necessary solution.

This is one of the lessons outlined in the book about Xi Jinping and the Governance of China II. The book highlights the fact that in China, government officials are expected to stay in communities where challenges are experienced and they never leave until the challenge is solved.

This is one of the approaches that may need to be considered by African government leaders and technologist if current challenges are to be solved. Government officials and technologists may need to spend some of their time in areas where challenges are mostly experienced, such as townships.

This approach in 2018 may lead to more solutions and technology products that solve local challenges instead of solutions that are imported elsewhere.

As we move towards 2018 African technology leaders need to think about how technology can be used to solve major challenges in 2018.

Knowing how much water is used is one step in the right direction. However, more is required in terms of solving the availability of water challenge and this will be required more in 2018.

Based on all the reasons outlined here, The Infonomist believes that the water technology developed by Dr Thinus Booysen should be considered the 2017 South African Technology of the Year for creating a technology solution that seeks to solve a major challenge in society through technology.

This is the last column for 2017, but the next one will be published at the beginning of January.

Wesley Diphoko is the founder of Kaya Labs.

- BUSINESS REPORT