Thursday, 4 June 2015

Cape Town as a leading Digital City - reinventing the wheel?

I received an invite to a workshop the other day that stated that
“The City of Cape Town’s leadership believes that technology can be a powerful tool in changing the ways in which information is accessed, services are delivered, and citizens engage with government. The Executive Mayor, Patricia de Lille, is committed to making the City of Cape Town the first truly digital city in our region and the leading digital city in the African continent.”
It went on to say that
“A Digital City Work Group has recently been established … in the City of Cape Town. One of the first deliverables of this group is the development of a Digital City Strategy and an Agenda for delivery….. On .… we are having a workshop to kick off the development of this policy. The workshop will be facilitated by McKinsey.”
I did accept the invite to attend the workshop. Later in the day I received an email from someone who had worked with me previously and is still involved in the City of Cape Town regarding this invite. This person was essentially saying that the city was reinventing the wheel and that Mckinsey was hijacking an already existing agenda. The mail stated that
“I had a discussion with <a very senior city person> a few weeks ago and he had no idea the City ever had a Smart City Strategy or indeed that they had been one of the Top20 in the Intelligent Community Forum ratings!”
And this got me thinking…


Yes it is true that the City of Cape Town had a very successful Smart City strategy in the early 2000s – long before the idea of Smart City strategies became “trendy”. A key concept of the Cape Town Smart City Strategy was the existence of a linkage between economic development and ICT, and the ICT organisation distinguished itself in delivering practical projects that demonstrated this linkage.  The strategy and its projects was a huge success at the time, winning several international awards - Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Access to Learning Award (Berlin, 2003), 21st-Century Achievement Award from the Computerworld Honors Programme (Washington DC, 2004) and African ICT Achievers Award (2002, 2003) - and becoming a global best practice for public sector organisations. Former Communications Cabinet Minister Ivy Matsepe-Cassaburri called the Smart City strategy
“a visionary transformation strategy, which positioned Cape Town to become one of our most technologically advanced cities and a frontrunner in South Africa’s National IT Strategy”.
Teresa Peters, Executive Director of Bridges.org (an international NGO) stated in 2003 that
“the City of Cape Town is an example of a local government committed to putting ICT to work for social and economic development, and driving the changes necessary to ensure ICT is used effectively. Cape Town’s leaders have recognised that ICT is a powerful tool for transforming the way that people do business, communicate with each other and access information, and, if used effectively, it can help the city achieve its goals”. 
In January 2008, The City of Cape Town became the first African City to be listed as one of the top 21 Intelligent Communities by the New York based think tank ICF ( Intelligent Community Forum).

The key objectives for the Smart City strategy included:
  • The use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) to improve the efficiency of the administration of the city. 
  • The use of ICT to better communicate with and deliver services to citizens and businesses. This includes providing information about services and enabling easier access to them; enabling information and financial transactions, and fostering democracy. 
  • The use of ICT to bring about social and economic development.
This was represented graphically by the diagram below:
Source: N Sooful 2006
This diagram represents the different objectives of the strategy, the various target audiences to be impacted upon by each objective with the ultimate target/ customer being the citizens and business, and the underlying core capabilities (foundation) that was needed to achieve these objectives

So the question is “what happened?” Why is it that senior people in the organisation apparently do not know that the City had a Smart City Strategy? Why is it that the City is now talking about coming up with a digital agenda that considers government, digital inclusion (citizens) and the economy underpinned by a digital infrastructure (core/ strategic infrastructure)? – or as the person who emailed me stated “reinventing the wheel”?

In reflecting on these questions and the issues, I am of the opinion that this is because of the decisions and approaches taken by the non-strategic and very narrowly focused City Executive Management Team at the time. Some of us used to call them the “C team” i.e. not the best “A team”, not even the “B team” but the “C team”.  At a time when the Smart City advocates were saying the following:
Brainstorm Conference Presentation (N Sooful, 2005)
They were saying that ICT must follow, not lead. It is important to note that Cape Town’s Smart City strategy was actually successful at a time when ICT usage was in its infancy in South Africa. When Cape Town was the first municipality in the country to give its councillors computers in their homes, the only technology that existed for them to connect back to municipality and the internet was 56k dial up modems. When Smart Cape was deployed, there was no ADSL and no 3G – and a 64K link from the only service provider (Telkom) cost approximately R6000 per month. By around 2005, things were starting to change and more and more people were starting to use technology. The slide above understood this trend and was positioning Cape Town for the next phase of the Smart City strategy which was an outward focus (on citizens and the economy). As history has shown, the period from 2006 onwards (the last 10 years) has shown an unprecedented increase in the use of technology by citizens and businesses – which created massive disruptions in the world economy. Cape Town’s Smart City strategy was aimed at preparing the economy of city for this massive shift and ensure that the Cape Town emerged as an African leader in this move toward a digital economy (or a knowledge and information economy as it was called at that time).

The original broadband business case for Cape Town was built on this basis. It was built on the basis of the economic impact of the network. It aimed to build a strategic infrastructure that would position Cape Town for the future. Unfortunately this was fought by the non-strategic elements within the EMT. They successfully delayed the project by over 2 years, and whittled the business case down to just being about improving government efficiency rather than transforming the economy. By the time the project was agreed to in 2007, it was two years too late to really have the transformational impact that it could have.  This pattern continued with all aspects relating to the Smart City Strategy. In late 2008, with the help of a large global consulting company (which shall remain nameless), the focus was shifted from ICT being an enabler of the economy to an internal focus. The ICT organisation has continued making great strides and has implemented some really good projects. However, they have been straight-jacketed by these non-strategic elements to be more inwardly focussed.  It is interesting that the same thing has happened in the Western Cape broadband strategy, with the decision to move away from building a single strategic infrastructure connecting government, businesses and citizens to connecting provincial government (via SITA) . Because of the way that project was conceptualised, it will still have a profound impact on the Western Cape – but not as much as it could have had if the original intent had been adhered to.

The reason for what happened in Cape Town is simple. Bureaucrats do not want to transform economies. They want to do what is tried, tested and safe. They like to hide behind rules and the “way things work around here”. They like an ICT organisation that is there to support them doing things the way it was done – only a little better. They don’t like radical big change. They certainly do not see themselves as changing the way that the economy works, and they certainly are not going to try to do things differently – as that contains risk.  As more and more “safe” bureaucrats (not leaders) were added to the EMT, the organisation looked more and more inward, and all outwardly looking, strategic or visionary initiatives were systematically eroded – which is why people seemingly do not even know about them.

The Mayor must have recognised this when she took office as most of the people that I am taking about have since been replaced. It is refreshing to see that the Mayor is talking about becoming a leading Digital City in Africa and about an integrated approach incorporating government, citizens and businesses. An important part of the success of the previous strategy was that Cape Town had its own strategy, rooted in its own realities. I remember saying to countless global companies like IBM, Microsoft, Accenture, PWC, CISCO, SAP, etc. “Please don’t tell me about your strategy. Let me tell you about our strategy and then we can have a discussion on how you can add value to our strategy”. This is extremely important. We can learn from global companies, cities and initiatives, but we need to develop our own unique African agenda rooted in our own realities. This is how we become leading. It is not about doing tried and tested things – it is about doing things differently. That is the challenge. If this is what this process that the City is embarking upon with the Digital Cities agenda is all about, then I think that it is a good thing and I will support it.