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Quest for smart cities

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Smart cities are no longer just a consideration, but are now a global necessity. RESHAAD SHA, Chief Strategy Officer at DFA believes now is the perfect time for South Africa to implement the basics to get itself ready for the smart city revolution.

In the past, the concept of smart cities may have been a lofty consideration for a Sunday afternoon, but smart cities are no longer a preference—they are quickly becoming a critical necessity. This is due to the confluence of increasing urbanization, greater pressure being placed on the successful management of a city due to a rising population, and climate change. The latter in particular means that a city needs to have the wherewithal to manage a sudden natural crisis, such as flooding, and be able to dispatch emergency and medical units without delay to save lives.

Compounding matters is the fact that, according to Gartner, the digitization of IT (1) is further forcing cities to adapt, and, like most businesses, have a digital strategy in place. Smart cities are far from a flash in the pan—according to Transparency Market Research, the global smart cities market is growing 14% at present and is expected to reach a value of $1 265.85 billion by 2019.

Benefit bounty

The benefits of smart cities are wide ranging, affecting a broad spectrum of industries and making life easier for residents in a multitude of ways. Take for example the healthcare sector that could be positively impacted. Local and provincial hospitals currently deliver services in isolation, and patient records are not mutually accessible. Yet, in a smart city with integrated systems, standardized records will be available regardless of which hospital the patient visits. This process will provide better service to the patient, and more accurate national health information to the relevant authorities.

ICT research company, International Data Corporation (IDC) notes that South Africa is the leader when it comes to smart city technology in Africa. (2)  All three of our biggest cities  ̶  Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban  ̶  have put into operation some variants of smart city solutions.

The benefits of living in a smart city are plentiful, if the ‘smart’ part is implemented correctly and the city is well managed. For governments it means that cities can be better monitored and looked after, but also improved. An example of this could entail a network of sensors being placed in the drainage system. It would be able to provide indications of where blockages are occurring, and during flooding, also real-time information of where the biggest trouble spots are. Furthermore, through e-government initiatives, cities would be able to improve governmental processes to its stakeholders, including businesses and citizens. This includes many online services which could cut down on process cost and time. Examples of this includes SARS’s highly successful eFiling system, and the online application for car licence renewals or the registration of new businesses.

Locally, service delivery stands to benefit significantly from having effective systems and processes in place. The implementation of the City of Joburg’s “load-limiting” smart meter is one such instance, enabling the power utility to better monitor and manage electricity supply. During periods where the electricity grid is under pressure, households will be alerted to turn off high-consumption appliances to avoid full power cuts.

Smart cities explained

But what exactly is a smart city? In a nutshell, a smart city should provide the technology framework that enables its citizens, its resident businesses, its varied government and non-government stakeholders, and itself to be better served through innovative use of information and communication technologies.

Pervasive high-speed connectivity is the catalyst of and foundation for the development of a smart city. It is this connectivity that will enable effective data collection and analytics to ensure continuous improvement along with the use of mobile technologies to reach every citizen in South Africa. In short, only once a comprehensive high-speed network is in place will our cities be in a position to address our unique challenges and become smart.

However, this is only the first step, since  the formation of a smart city requires a long-term urban plan. The reason for this becomes obvious when looking at the growth of the world’s urban population, which is set to increase from 54%  to 66% between 2014 and 2050.  South Africa’s major cities need to have a defined 20- to 40-year plan, coupled with a long-term vision to accommodate this projected expansion.

Obstacles on the path

A number of other challenges still stand in the way of smart cities becoming a reality in South Africa. Along with underdeveloped infrastructure, an even more troubling obstacle is the skills deficit. This is a particularly vexing hindrance to the advancement of smart cities nationally, requiring well-trained, tech-savvy individuals who understand and can use IT systems when under pressure. Unfortunately, this development of human capital does not happen overnight.

Looking ahead

Recently, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) launched the first global online community to encourage the development of smart sustainable cities. The aim of the portal is to assemble a community of experts to explore the factors that drive and impede the progression of global smart city development.

The evolving South African citizen of the future will be highly knowledgeable and more tech-savvy than ever before. They will expect enhanced, highly personalised service from cities and will move between cities to get what they want.

Cities, in effect, will become competitors for the top talent that, in turn, attracts businesses. To satisfy this new breed of citizen and so expand their tax bases, South African cities will have to see them as customers. This will require our cities to evolve considerably as they struggle to meet a new set of needs and to improve the quality of inhabitants’ lives.

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UN calls for electronics overhaul to beat e-waste

Seven UN entities have come together at the World Economic Forum to tackle the escalating scourge of electronic waste.

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Seven UN entities have come together, supported by the World Economic Forum, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) to call for an overhaul of the current electronics system, with the aim of supporting international efforts to address e-waste challenges. 

The report calls for a systematic collaboration with major brands, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), academia, trade unions, civil society and associations in a deliberative process to reorient the system and reduce the waste of resources each year with a value greater than the GDP of most countries. 

Each year, approximately 50 million tonnes of electronic and electrical waste (e-waste) are discarded — the weight of more than all commercial airliners ever made. In terms of material value, this is worth 62.5 billion dollars– more than the GDP of most countries.  

Less than 20% of this is recycled formally. Informally, millions of people worldwide (over 600,000 in China alone) work to dispose of e-waste, much of it done in working conditions harmful to both health and the environment. 

The report, “A New Circular Vision for Electronics – Time for a Global Reboot,” launched in Davos 24 January, says technologies such as cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT), support gradual “dematerialization” of the electronics industry.  

Meanwhile, to capture the global value of materials in the e-waste and create global circular value chains, the report also points to the use of new technology to create service business models, better product tracking and manufacturer or retailer take-back programs.  

The report notes that material efficiency, recycling infrastructure and scaling up the volume and quality of recycled materials to meet the needs of electronics supply chains will all be essential for future production.  

And if the electronics sector is supported with the right policy mix and managed in the right way, it could lead to the creation of millions of decent jobs worldwide. 

The joint report calls for collaboration with multinationals, SMEs, entrepreneurs, academia, trade unions, civil society and associations to create a circular economy for electronics where waste is designed out, the environmental impact is reduced and decent work is created for millions. 

The new report supports the work of the E-waste Coalition, which includes: 

  • International Labour Organization (ILO); 
  • International Telecommunication Union (ITU); 
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UN Environment); 
  • United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO); 
  • United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR); 
  • United Nations University (UNU), and 
  • Secretariats of the Basel and Stockholm Conventions (BRS). 

The Coalition is supported by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the World Economic Forum and coordinated by the Secretariat of the Environment Management Group (EMG).  

Considerable work is being done on the ground. For example, in order to grasp the opportunity of the circular economy, today the Nigerian Government, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and UN Environment announce a 2 million dollar investment to kick off the formal e-waste recycling industry in Nigeria. The new investment will leverage over 13 million dollars in additional financing from the private sector.   

According to the International Labour Organization, in Nigeria up 100,000 people work in the informal e-waste sector. This investment will help to create a system which formalizes these workers, giving them safe and decent employment while capturing the latent value in Nigeria’s 500,000 tonnes of e-waste. 

UNIDO collaborates with a large number of organizations on e-waste projects, including UNU, ILO, ITU, and WHO, as well as various other partners, such as Dell and the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA). In the Latin American and Caribbean region, a UNIDO e-waste project, co-funded by GEF, seeks to support sustainable economic and social growth in 13 countries. From upgrading e-waste recycling facilities, to helping to establish national e-waste management strategies, the initiative adopts a circular economy approach, whilst enhancing regional cooperation. 

Another Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) report launched today by the World Economic Forum, with support from Accenture Strategy, outlines a future in which Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies provide a tool to achieve a circular economy efficiently and effectively, and where all physical materials are accompanied by a digital dataset (like a passport or fingerprint for materials), creating an ‘internet of materials.’ PACE is a collaboration mechanism and project accelerator hosted by the World Economic Forum which brings together 50 leaders from business, government and international organizations to collaborate in moving towards the circular economy. 

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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