Absa at WEF
The African smart city. An opportunity for last mover advantage.
Prepared by Yatish Narsi, Grid Worldwide
As the world descends on Cape Town to discuss the impact of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), Africa continues to work through ‘developing’ country challenges, over and above the impending technological revolution. Political instability, social inequality, youth unemployment and poor service delivery continue to hinder our growth potential.
Against these challenges our first instincts are always to ignore problems that seem far away and solve the issues that we believe are most pressing. Biotech, automation, AI and big data all seem like issues that are too ‘advanced’ for a continent that lacks the basics such as housing, jobs, education, social cohesion and security, etc. Surely we should look to address those before moving onto the challenges of 4IR?
Unfortunately, even if we managed to muster the private and political will to solve our socio-economic challenges the world around us would have developed in ways that we cannot fathom.
Famed author, Yuval Harari (in discussion with International Monetary Fund (IMF) chair Christine Lagarde), compared the dawn of 4IR to other industrial revolutions.
“In the 19th century, you had a very small number of countries leading the industrial revolution and getting most of the benefits and really dominating and exploiting much of the rest of the world. The same thing may happen again, with the AI revolution. This is like, you know, you live in 1840 somewhere in South America or South Asia and you hear that in Britain they have these things like steamships and rail roads and you say, ‘Oh I have so many more urgent things to worry about than these steamships and rail roads.’ Thirty years later you’re a British colony. And this is the situation we are in now. The main difference is that in the 19th century and in the 20th century, the big threat if you were left behind, was exploitation. In the 21st century there is actually a worse fate. You will not be exploited, you will simply become irrelevant.”
To ensure African progress, we have no choice but to consider the global challenges facing our societies, and a global economy on the cusp of change may be just what Africa needs to leverage its last mover advantage. To build a continent capable of competing on a global scale, using present-day thinking and technologies would be too resource-intensive, time-consuming and ultimately too little too late.
We may have no choice but to embrace the breakthroughs of 4IR for a future-fit continent, and in doing so solve the basics. This may also require us to abandon a long-held ideal; African solutions for African problems. As nice as this sounds, it is limiting, arguably populist and will close us off from employing the best of breed. Yes it needs to be relevant, empower our citizens and drive an African agenda but it need not only come from here, just be best considered for here.
Embracing new technologies allows us to re-imagine a future of prosperity that seems impossible today, because it is. It is only possible when conceived through the lens of tomorrow. With the world’s highest concentration of youth and set to become the fastest urbanising continent on earth, Africa and more specifically the African city, may become a key player in our story of progress.
An African smart city would need to solve beyond just integrating technology into the urban fabric. It would need to harness this revolution to solve inequality and inclusion, create public and private spaces that are affordable, comfortable and provide a better life for all. It would also need to create jobs, and opportunities for upskilling and continuous reskilling, as we continue to evolve into 4IR.
The key is to think of the benefit of technology within an African context and to tackle the challenges the continent will face. Investing in technologies that will genuinely benefit the majority of our population and will fundamentally improve the overall standard of living. A study covering 30 cities in Africa found that construction costs constitute between 35% and 72% of projects. Employing a combination of new technologies could have a massive impact in this regard. From modular construction that is up to 80% faster than traditional methods or automated bricklaying systems that can lay between five to 10 times more bricks per day.
Blockchain and smart contract platforms such as EHAB could reduce project management inefficiencies and corruption typically associated with our infrastructure and development spend. There are numerous such innovations that have come to light under the World Economic Forum and their focus on 4IR. The opportunities of a smart city for an ordinary citizen in Africa are endless as rapidly improved connectivity and constant digital innovation are already making their mark in a big way.
To explore ideas around an affordable, inclusive and connected African city, we have created an interactive augmented reality (AR) experience using an area of downtown Johannesburg in South Africa as an example. The installation, on display at the Absa Dome on the sidelines of WEF Africa in Cape Town, is free to view and explore. It aims to showcase how themes and technologies in 4IR could positively impact the lives of Africa’s citizens. This is intended to spark debate and conversation around why we need to be future-thinking and look to tomorrow to solve our most urgent present-day challenges.
To accompany this, our white paper, in association with Absa and MTN, explores the possibilities for an African smart city and the technologies we could employ to achieve one. How could we employ the world’s best thinking to solve a uniquely African challenge? How could we enable an African smart city that would deliver a better life for all?
To access the full white paper, click here