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Using the Internet of Everything to build Africa’s smart cities of the future

Today, only 1% of all things are connected in our world. In the next ten years, this number will increase dramatically — and with that — enabled societies to create smart cities.

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With the world moving more and more towards the Internet of Everything (IoE), it’s a space that’s only going to get more valuable. In fact, it’s estimated that right now, it’s worth about US$19-trillion. Africa meanwhile has a potential value space of US$500-million. That’s the equivalent of estimated revenue generated with South Africa’s World Cup four years ago.

It’s understandable then that networking conglomerate Cisco is pretty excited about IoE. At the recent Cisco Connect 2014 South Africa, event it outlined how IoE could massively benefit Africa as it starts to build smart cities.

The Internet of Everything embraces all kinds of connected objects and covers everything from sensors used to monitor and analyse traffic, track data usage in urban areas and spot insightful trends in our societies.

Barcelona, Spain, for instance, embraces public WiFi which enables it to create new economic services for its people and businesses. Furthermore, with the help of Cisco, the Spanish city uses sensors to monitor parking so that it can reduce traffic.

“If we can do away with the time sitting in traffic, we can boost GDP by 2%,” notes David Meads, Cisco’s VP for Africa.

Other crucial areas where IoE could leverage smart cities are waste management, water management, street lights and electricity, as well as safety and security.

Where does Africa fit into this tale?

Today’s problems are tomorrow’s potential opportunities

As many of you may know, Africa and other emerging markets are currently seeing rapid growth of its populations, and young ones at that.

Over 700-million people will need to be urbanised by 2030. That’s a lot of data, and a lot more management required.

Meads notes that in the next fifteen years, the energy demand will increase by 40%, something that’s already being felt within South Africa’s current energy sector.

If the cards are played right, these problems could become massive opportunities.

Meads explains that bridging the ICT skills and human capital gap in Africa is critical. South Africa for example needs between 30 000 to 70 000 skilled information technology workers.

To meet this growing demand action between both government and the private sector is needed. “We need to create conversation between governments which are service-oriented, and the private infrastructure which is equity-driven,” South Africa’s CTO Vernon Thaver adds.

“Tech is the easy part. The large obstacles lie with government decision-making and major policy implementation,” argues Cisco VP of Systems Engineering Ian Kennedy.

There’s massive potential in developing markets to leapfrog. The impact could be huge.

Stepping forward

Governments and large service providers tend to create solutions focused on single problems. This, in many cases, could lead to tunnel vision. Issues are interrelated — the water management is influenced by power management which is influenced by skills management, for instance.

Having the right infrastructure in place these seemingly separate obstacles could be overcome and harnessed. Kennedy elaborates:

Once you create the infrastructure, you can start overlaying — enable to provide solutions for a variety of interconnected issues. Cities should open up data sets and collect data from its citizens.

“There’s a lot of assets available, we can orchestrate these to progress further,” Kennedy notes referring to some of Africa’s major cities like Nairobi, Lagos and Johannesburg.

Though it also means government will need the capacity to engage and have conversations with its citizens. Which prompts the question whether government is actually ready to deliver on such a magnitude.

“The con of open data is that it’s open to everyone’s opinion. You have to have the platform to monitor, engage,” says Thaver.

For instance, with the prominence of social media and other forms of rapid communication, the aftermath of having your data on display to the rest of the world has to be backed by accountability in order for it to be effective.

The City of Cape Town, however, has begun opening its data to the world with its (you guessed it) Open Data programme, as part of its five-year development plan. The Open Data draft policy reads the following:

The City generates a significant amount of data that could be useful to citizens. However this information is often located in archives and other sites which are not easily accessible to the public. The City would like to create a portal that is user-friendly and accessible; with information that is machine-readable to enable public access and use this data.

Another example that’s making progress in Africa is Kigali, Rwanda. The country is often referred to as the golden boy in adopting ICT as a major driver of its economy, and with good reason. The World Bank even cites Rwanda as the smart country in light of inspiration.

“What’s happening in Rwanda is transformational,” Meads says. “Internet access shouldn’t be one of the pillars underpinning government infrastructure.” Rwanda understands these benefits in driving a knowledge-based economy. And it’s doing it well.

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