Tuesday, 20 June 2017

African Cities as a platform for Digital Transformation

The 21st century is the century of cities. More than ever, human life revolves around the city. The world is undergoing the largest wave of urbanization with more than half of the population currently living in the cities. Additionally, the digital revolution is leading us to a hyper-connected world and a sharing society. Digital disruption and the 4th industrial revolution is coming, and it is coming at a rapid pace. It is critical that the African economy be prepared for this massive shift. Failure to meaningfully rise to this challenge means that we will relegate ourselves to just being consumers of foreign technology and services. African cities have a crucial leadership role in accelerating Africa’s participation in the new digital economy. Building open and agile digital smart cities in Africa becomes increasingly more important as we look to the future.

Africa is also rapidly urbanising. At present, the African continent is 40 percent urbanised. There are currently 414 million urban dwellers – and only Asia has more city-based people. The continent’s largest cities all have populations of over a million people. Moreover, the continent is developing at an unprecedented rate: the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) predicts that Africa will be 50 percent urban by 2030 and 60 percent urban by 2050. Urban population growth in Africa is taking place at such a rate that – if there is not an adequate understanding of the situation, and if solutions are not developed quickly – the continent is heading towards a crisis of poverty, inequality and lack of resources for its city people.

The UN's 2010 State of African Cities report observes that “experience shows that across the world, urbanisation has been associated with improved human development, rising incomes and better living standards,” but warns that rapid urbanisation can be more of a burden than an opportunity for Africa.

The report states that “Socio-economic conditions in African cities are now the most unequal in the world”. This situation threatens stability, affecting not only the continuity of cities as socio-political human ecosystems but also entire nations. In many cases, there is in fact economic stagnation and contraction, yet city populations continue to expand and there are increasing demands on resources and increasing expectations of economic opportunity. The ever-quickening process of rapid urbanisation poses major challenges to African cities. There is no time to waste (with infrastructure planning for cities)”.

Local governments, traditionally the public sector’s weakest link in most countries, are the ground troops in refocusing to emphasise not just service delivery but the city’s leadership and enabling roles especially in tackling poverty, social exclusion, economic development, safety and the environment. The World Bank points out that managing such challenges in the face of local and global economic pressures has been difficult even in relatively well-run economies.

Cities have always managed to adapt to new challenges. Now it is the time to address the cities’ new digital ecosystem, to respond to the challenges faced by cities. New technologies allow the improvement of the citizens’ quality of life and a more efficient delivery of services by public administrations, in an environmentally sustainable way. Besides this, there is an opportunity to go beyond. The digital revolution should allow the City to be at the heart of a new digital ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship, expanding and transforming the information of citizens and organizations.

Cities must provide a digital infrastructure, a platform for digital services. This will allow not only the provision of today’s services, but the development of new services by any provider or entrepreneur supported on a common digital infrastructure of the city. The city may thus foster a flourishing, creative, innovative and entrepreneurial digital ecosystem that will lay foundations for future economic growth.

The city platform must be set up to facilitate synergies and ensure interoperability with other services and systems such as transport, energy, health, social services, etc. We need to encourage innovation based on an open platform and open data, promoting the city as a living lab for the Internet of Things (IoT) and a technology hub.
Digital disruption and the 4th industrial revolution is coming, and it is coming at a rapid pace. It is critical that the African economy be prepared for this massive shift. Failure to meaningfully rise to this challenge means that we will relegate ourselves to just being consumers of foreign technology and services. The opportunity exists to create something that can meaningfully accelerate Africa’s participation in the new digital economy. Something based on solving real world problems that have relevance to the majority of the world population - developing local (African) solutions, local IP, local economies, with global impact.

However for this to happen, we need a different approach to the way that we have been tackling problems, and partnerships across society (government, private sector, academic and citizens) are critical. African cities have a crucial leadership role in accelerating Africa’s participation in the new digital economy. To do so, African Cities must promote an open innovation platform for the city, thereby generating the necessary scale and encouraging the creation of ecosystems in which the development of solutions arises not only from the city, but also from citizens, businesses and the academic sector. The intellectual genesis of the digital revolution was collaboration - people working together to pioneer technological breakthroughs that have allowed them to nurture their own imagination and ally creatively with others. This is the opportunity that awaits us if our African cities understand their key role as a platform for digital transformation.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Bringing a big fat Indian wedding from Durban to a hospital bed in Cape Town

My mum has been in hospital for weeks. She was desperate to attend the wedding of my niece, Nisthal Sooful, who got married over the Easter weekend. We, the family, also wanted to make this happen. However, just before the event, the doctors informed us that it would be impossible for my mum to travel. She was devastated and there was a real danger of her sinking into a depression (which was not be great for her recovery). So, my brothers and I leap into action and decided that if she could not attend the wedding, we would bring the wedding events to her.

This was no mean feat. There were 5 separate wedding events over 3 nights across 4 different venues (none of which had internet access). The events itself ran for hours. So we had to make a plan. For internet access, I took a Huawei B315 router with a Telkom LTE-A Uncapped plan. We also had phones with data sims from Vodacom, MTN, Telkom Free Me, etc. I took a selfie stick apart and merged some of the components with a camera tripod, so that we could use a phone as the main device to broadcast the event.

The intention was not only to broadcast the events, but to allow people at the various events to interact with my mum (almost like she was at the event). The good news is that we managed to make it work. The main technology that we used was Skype, but at times we had to switch to WhatsApp video (not the best quality, but worked when connectivity was bad), and WebEx (when all else failed).

The lessons we learnt was:
  • Connectivity had to be good on both sides. This was a challenge as the hospital room that my mother was in was in a poor reception area. My brother Sunil, had to put her in a wheelchair and go around looking for a good signal. In Kwazulu-Natal, we only had problems at the venue in Hillcrest. However, as this was the main wedding event, we had to make it work, and we did eventually succeed.
  • Power was extremely important. Streaming hours and hours of video drain the battery life of phones relatively quickly, so you need a power connection. 
  • Phones worked very well to broadcast the event. We had a fancy video conference unit that could be setup on a laptop, but the phones ended up working the best. It was portable when we need to take the call around to people to enable them to speak to my mum. For broadcasting the event, a phone on a tripod produced an extremely high quality video feed to the computer on the other end. Phones also helped make us relatedly unobtrusive (so as not to get in the way).
  • Headphones are important, as events are noisy and if you want to talk to people on the other side of the video, you need headphones. 
  • You also need a separate phone on both sides to communicate while you are getting all of the logistics right. Also technologies like WhatsApp becomes invaluable as you often need to tweak settings, but cannot speak while the events are happening.
  • People of all ages took to the technology. I was surprised that people in their 60s and 70s at the event where quite comfortable using it to speak to and interact with my mum in Cape Town.
All in all, it was a very successful endeavour. My mum got to see all of the wedding events, she got to speak to people every day at the various events, and in part, felt like she was a part of the wedding.  It was really great for us as technologists (and sons) to see that we could make an old lady’s dream come true via technology even when she was physically not able to travel.

This video clip gives a glimpse into the 3 days of wedding festivities.