File image: Wesley Diphoko, Head of the Independent Digital Lab. (IOL).
File image: Wesley Diphoko, Head of the Independent Digital Lab. (IOL).

OPINION: Smart city dream: President’s digital vision

By Wesley Diphoko Time of article published Jun 28, 2019

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JOHANNESBURG - When President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his State of the Nation address on June 20, he did what no other South African president has ever done. He mentioned the term “smart city” and by doing that he outlined a digital strategy for South Africa that will propel the economy to new heights.

He indicated clearly that technology will be the foundation upon which the future South Africa will be built. For many South Africans the smart city concept is a foreign concept and this may have been the reason behind some remarks by some that the president is just dreaming.

What is a smart city and what will it mean for its residents?

A smart city is a technology-powered city that has its physical objects such as buildings, bridges, buses and other amenities integrated with sensors to source data and communicate this data for better decision making for planning and management of the city.

It is a city that uses mainly the internet of things and in the process sources, analyses and visualises data to assess everything that happens within the city.

A smart city knows everything that happens within a city, how much water is used, and it can react immediately when there’s a need.

Residents of a smart city are always informed of its developments, government officials are also informed and can act on an informed basis. New smart cities are in a better position to be smart, as everything can be built with smart sensors integrated. Traditional cities can also be turned into being smart by integrating sensors into existing infrastructure.

Data (information) is the key component of a smart city, the ability to collect it via sensors is what enables a city to be smart.

Think of a smart city as being rather like a smartphone. To create a smart city will be like moving from a feature (dumb) phone to a smartphone. From a phone that just allows calling and messaging to a smartphone that can assess your heart rate, guide you when you’re lost and allows you to buy goods and services.

The smart city will allow its residents to have access to a broad range of services such as health, transport and other government services.

A resident in a smart city will be able to access health services from home via telemedicine, when necessary. They will have remote access to doctors as medical practitioners will have access to medical records online and communicate with patients via a screen. Only patients who really need to see a doctor will visit a health facility. Even there the residents of a smart city will not need to wait in long queues as they will have the ability to collect medicine from ATM-like medical dispensers.

As a resident of a smart city your doctors will know about your imminent heart attack before you even know and arrange for necessary health support.

Health authorities in a smart city will see the spread of a disease as it spreads and have the ability to save those unaffected ahead of time. News reports will alert residents about where specific health threats are occurring and warn you about visiting such places or recommend a health guideline to follow.

Residents of a smart city will commute via autonomous buses, and there will be less use of cars but bicycles for short commutes.

In a smart city, traffic congestion will be a thing of the past as people will have unlimited choices to travel, including flying bikes for quick travel.

Transport operators will have less of a need to hire drivers as public transport will drive itself. Previous drivers will be operators of drones that occupy air travel spaces delivering online purchases.

Sensing and monitoring public activity will be the order of the day. Conducting autonomous transportation of buses and other vehicles will be required to know when to change traffic lights to enable movement of cycles and pedestrians.

Underground robots will rule the world and they will sort out rubbish collected by themselves from the ground and recycling it for alternative use.

A resident of a smart city will have no reason to complain about access to service delivery as government services will be accessible from screens at homes, mobile phones and public spaces.

Applying for a passport will be a matter of pressing a button and you are good to go as every government service will be digitised.

Chances are there will be few government offices to provide services as all of these will be accessible from digital devices.

Everything will be connected and embedded with sensors. This will enable things like buses and buildings to talk to each other.

Your calendar will enable public transport to come to your house for your hospital visit. Before you even arrive, the hospital building will be aware of your visit and will know when you enter the building and arrange everything to your needs.

At the end of your consultation the medicine dispenser will know what the doctor has recommended and issue exactly the recommended medicine specifically for you.

All of this will be possible, because the government would have embraced data. The government will not just store data, but will use it for planning and better service delivery. Sensors will form part of the fabric of society as part of data collection and to enable real time decisions.

Some may welcome such a future, but some will welcome it with caution and they should.

A smart city will expose society to new risks such as cyber attacks and crime. It may also lead to the violation of privacy for its residents.

The process of planning and building a smart city will require proper consultation and education. Societal consensus will be key to take care of data access.

All of these things will be necessary if the smart city will succeed and enable economic development.

South Africa should go ahead and build the first African smart city and generate revenue by licensing its smart city platform to other African countries.

This, however, will only be possible if South African tech companies in collaboration with government build the smart city platform. This approach will ensure that as South Africa builds its smart cities it also develops the local technology eco-system which is critical for economic development.

The smart city dream by the president should not be dismissed as just a dream, it should be seen as the digital vision and catalyst that will enable South Africa to be relevant during the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Wesley Diphoko is the editor-in-chief of The Infonomist. He serves as the chairperson of the IEEE Open Data Initiative. Follow him on Twitter via: @WesleyDiphoko


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