The recent announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa about developing a “smart city” in South Africa has created quite a stir and has triggered a lot of conversation. Unfortunately, it seems not many people are thrilled about the idea.
Much of the negativity stems not from the concept of the smart city itself, but from the state of the country and the challenges that South Africans face. As one person put it: “How smart will the president’s smart city be during load shedding?”
The issue, it seems, is not that South Africans don’t support the president’s idea of a smart city or of technological advancement in general; it’s simply that they’re wary of promises of a futuristic hi-tech utopia when we have bigger problems at home, such as load shedding, youth unemployment, rampant poverty, crime and a whole host of other things.
People want to get the basics right before moving forward. It doesn’t make sense to buy a 65-inch ultra high-definition LED television when your home has huge gaping holes in the roof.
But I won’t go to the extent of saying that there’s no place for smart cities in South Africa. On the contrary, I believe that, like in so many cities around the world, technology can provide effective solutions for many of the problems South African cities and their residents face.
The part I’m sceptical about is the idea of a new, standalone smart city, one that’s set up separately from existing cities. This, in my opinion, is a disaster waiting to happen, for a number of reasons.
First, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a “smart” city; rather, ordinary cities that have found smart solutions to their problems. In any case, how would you define a smart city? How smart is smart? How long is a piece of string?
Secondly, the age-old saying that “necessity is the mother of all invention” applies to smart cities as it does to everything else. There has to be a need, a problem that needs solving, before we can implement technology as a solution.
There’s a simple logic that applies to any technology investment: if it solves a problem, it will be useful and if it doesn’t, then it will be a waste of money.
No one goes to a store and buys a piece of technology, only to decide later what to do with it. We start by identifying a need or a problem and then invest in the technology as a solution.
This may seem like simple logic, but it’s shocking how many governments and businesses fail to apply it, leading to massive investments in tech that no one uses.
The playbook is all too familiar: someone at the higher levels of the organisation catches on to a technology buzzword and decide that it will be good to implement it in their organisation.
This is followed by discussions around the latest tech innovations, smart technologies, Fourth Industrial Revolution and artificial intelligence.
People cite case studies of companies and governments who experienced massive success with these new and groundbreaking technologies.
This creates a sense of #Fomo or “fear of missing out” and everybody wants to be seen as the driver of innovation and progress.
Typically, budgets are set aside, teams are set up, consultants are brought on board and the transformation projects kick off.
Unfortunately, most such projects end in dismal failure. Why?
They start with the technology and then try to work out the “best fit” for that tech in their organisations. This approach is a recipe for disaster.
The correct approach would be to start with the problems and bring the technology to solve those problems.
Each city has its own challenges: Singapore has the challenge of limited usable space, leading to issues relating to food production, fresh water availability and housing.
Istanbul has the challenge of massive numbers of tourists. Delhi has to deal with dangerously high levels of air pollution. South African cities undoubtedly have their own, unique problems.
Once the problems have been identified, it’s time to move to the next major focus area: people - those who will drive change by finding the solutions to the problems.
This raises a huge lingering question around the president’s vision: do we have the people with requisite skills to drive the concept of smart cities?
If we’re lacking in any way, then before we can take another step, we will need to develop our people. We can’t rely on technology vendors or foreign governments to solve our problems. We need South Africans to solve South Africa’s problems.
So, rather than dreaming of a non-existent, imaginary smart city with who knows what technology, it’ll be more pragmatic if we outline the major developmental and socio- economic problems that plague people in our current cities, and then find smart solutions to these problems.
In this way, we can eventually make every South African city into a smart city.
* Bilal Kathrada is an educational technologist, speaker, author, newspaper columnist and entrepreneur. He is the founder of CompuKids, a start-up that teaches children Computer Science skills. Bilal blogs at www.bilalkat.com.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.