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Smart cities need smart utilities

Sustainable energy consumption and ‘green’ energy production at home is becoming a new lifestyle. Today’s hyperconnected consumer expects a reduced environmental footprint while still enjoying seamless services and ease of use, improving their quality of life through fully digitised processes that give them complete control over every aspect of their lives.

According to IDC, 30 billion ‘things’ will be connected by 2020. Everything from cars and appliances to lights and temperature control will be connected in an interoperable network that will give consumers unprecedented control and choice over their energy use. Energy itself is also becoming more sustainable: Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that by 2040, 72% of total new power generation capacity investment globally will go to renewable energy, with the falling cost of residential renewable energy disrupting the relationship between utility companies and their customers. This decentralisation is changing consumers into prosumers, who are able to generate energy and manage their usage in sustainable and convenient ways.

However, in Africa the picture looks distinctly different: here, the true empowerment of the energy utility lies with the interplay between consumers, utilities, connected devices and the software that links it all together in a cohesive whole.

Empowering the energy utility and its customers

Historically, the meter has been the centrepiece of the energy utility company’s relationship with its consumer. A contract is set up with the consumer to provide energy, and the meter is read to determine how much energy has been used. The utility company then bills the consumer according to their energy usage. Unless something – a billing query or outage, for example – compels the consumer to contact the utility via a call centre, the bill sent to the consumer is the only touchpoint the utility company would have with them.

However, with the advent of smart metering systems and the rise of powerful technology platforms such as SAP S/4HANA and tailored software solutions such as SAP Predictive Maintenance and Service that incorporate advanced analytics, big data, machine learning and AI, this interaction is evolving in exciting ways.

Energy utilities can now continuously collect and analyse data from smart meters, SCADA systems and sensors to determine and monitor the health of infrastructural assets. This is creating new opportunities to reimagine business processes and business models: while in the past each asset provider had its own system producing its own set of analytics, we are now able to collect all of the data from each asset into a single IoT platform in near-real time. Linking this to advanced predictive analytics capabilities enables utilities to proactively manage key assets within its value chain, driving down maintenance costs and optimising customer satisfaction through the uninterrupted supply of power.

Energy consumers are further empowered by gaining real-time visibility of consumption behaviour, enabling better energy management at a business or household level. In a smart city environment, this also enables benchmarking, which can give energy consumers insight into the energy usage of neighbours as well as at a neighbourhood, city, and potentially national level. When energy consumption levels exceed supply, utilities can better communicate with major consumers of energy and incentivise them to reduce consumption.

Disrupting 100 years of business-as-usual

Not much has changed for utility companies’ business models over the past century. However, there are three major disruptors currently challenging utility companies, namely:

  1. Decentralisation, which is changing where energy is created and how it is consumed. A famous example is Elon Musk’s Solar City, which features renewable solar roofing tiles that generate electricity at the local level.
  2. Deregulation, which is allowing a new breed of disruptive competitor to enter the market with services and devices aimed at consumers, such as the broad range of home energy monitoring and control devices and applications.
  3. Decarbonisation, which is driving the adoption of non-fossil fuel energy sources.

These three disruptors are enabling the rise of the off-grid consumer, typified by businesses and individuals who generate their own energy via renewable sources. Aside from the obvious loss of revenue, these consumers pose a further risk through their potential to sell surplus energy to their neighbours, further diverting the energy utilities’ revenue stream. In South Africa, for example, nearly all municipalities restrict consumers from selling their own generated access electricity back to the grid, and the infrastructure needed to enable such prosumers to supply excess power back into the grid is not yet in place.

However, utilities need to prioritise a journey of digital transformation that reimagines their business models and reengineers business processes. By embracing exponential technologies such as blockchain, machine learning, predictive analytics, Big Data, and IoT, and integrating it all into a cloud platform under the SAP Leonardo digital innovation system, energy utilities can fast-track their digital transformation to rapidly adopt new business models and capabilities.

With technology giants increasingly encroaching on the territory traditionally held by utility companies, and rapidly increasing customer expectations, the need to transform business models and processes has become urgent. It is critical that energy utilities prioritise their digital transformation, or they risk being left behind by an increasingly empowered and self-sufficient consumer market.

* Hannes Venter, Industry Advisor: Utilities at SAP Africa

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Cisco gives pre-owned tech a Refresh

In a market of constant upgrades, Cisco Refresh aims to keep quality product away from landfills, writes BRYAN TURNER.

When one gets a new smartphone upgrade, the old device may be used as a backup or can be used by someone else. In business environments, equipment upgrades may not be conducive to keeping old equipment around, which may send older, working equipment to landfills.

This is where Cisco’s Refresh initiative comes in. At Cisco Connect in Sun City this week, Ehrika Gladden, VP and general manager of Cisco Refresh, lifted the lid on a little-known aspect of the company’s strategy. 

“Refresh is Cisco’s global pre-owned equipment business unit,” said Gladden. “It is certified to meet the quality and engineering standards of Cisco. It is licensed for software and it’s also inclusive of a services warranty.

“Our responsibility in 80 countries around the world is tied to both the recovery of assets and the ability to leverage those assets at a lower price point. This ensures our sustainability and proper usage of the Earth’s resources while providing access to small and medium businesses. The products are typically in the range of 20-40% cheaper. The products represent the entire portfolio for Cisco in some part, the majority of that product set is 2+ years in terms of generation.”

Cisco’s Circular Economy initiative ensures a sustainable loop through businesses willing to pay a premium for the latest, cutting-edge solutions, while Cisco markets older, working equipment for resale to those who don’t require the latest solutions. This ensures far less new components need to be used in a product range.

“We are leveraging the model of remanufacturing, refurbishing, recycling, and reusing,” said Gladden. “Depending on the product set, there is a certain set of product yield that we expect. They vary from product to product, but we do have a percentage that doesn’t make it through.

“Those are always reused, meaning we will look at those products and decide to use them completely differently, leveraging the components, remanufacturing back into the overall build process. If that can’t be done, we will go into a recycle process where we melt those products down to reuse them.”

Repairing and refurbishing older products isn’t just that. Cisco is creating repair centres that are owned by third-parties to uplift local ownership.

“The repair centres, as a global manufacturer, is Cisco’s entree into local ownership,” said Gladden. “I want to be precise about what I mean by local ownership. It’s critical for us to have a localised presence, but doing that through ownership. When you look at inclusive economies, those that are participative, to be sustainable – not in the product set, but generationally.

“The ability as a global manufacturer through a local ownership model  isto create a repair centre where a product can be returned, screened, tested, and repaired, leveraging the talent that the Networking Academy is creating.”

Cisco is working closely with local governments to understand where it operates and how to leverage the skills in the market.

Gladden said: “We are also super excited about the National Development Plan and African Union statements which with we align: eradication of poverty, job creation, ownership, healthcare, education, it all fits in the model. So we were very excited to have the opportunity to come to Africa first to announce this. Over the next twelve months, we want to establish our first repair centres, and in the next 3 to 5 years, build that vision into a reality.”

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Why Data Privacy has become a Pipe Dream

If you’re active on WhatsApp, Facebook or any other social platform, you’re not as safe as you thought, writes
AARON THORNTON, MD of Dial a Nerd

As you begin to read this, let’s perform a quick experiment! How many active conversations are you engaged in – right now – on WhatsApp? When was the last time you shared a picture or video on Instagram? Is Facebook currently open and active on one of your devices? And how many internet- connected devices are you using at this moment? Chances are, you have multiple devices running multiple applications most of the time. So what’s the problem, you ask? Since when did checking in with a high school buddy in Australia via Facebook become a dangerous act?  

In reply, we say, read on if you can stomach it!  

Nation-State Hacking & You  

It might seem like a laughably long shot to say that you are a key player in the increasingly sinister and sophisticated world of nation-state hacking. Well, you are. Given that individuals, businesses and governments are now constantly connected, round the clock, consumers and businesses have become fair game in cyber espionage. And as we create and share more and more data, both the value and accessibility of that data increases. According to a report by McAfee, IP theft now accounts for more than 25% of the estimated $600 billion cost of cybercrime to the world economy.    

With data having become the ‘new gold’, nation states are naturally pouring investment and key resources into building advanced cyber warfare tools. Indeed, entire divisions of armed forces as well as the upper echelons of corporate leadership are devising ways to harness data to gain economic, political and social power. At the highest level, tools and platforms are being developed with the specific aim of perpetrating cyber espionage and data theft. No surprise then, that the consumer and business environments are rife with increasingly advanced malware, ransomware and many other malicious hacking tools and methods.  

Still not convinced? Yes, we can smell the scepticism from here! So let’s take a moment to see how this has already played out, beneath our noses.  

Remember the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal of early 2018? For many, this was a watershed moment in the emerging war for consumer data – and the ensuing tensions between privacy, power and profit. Need a refresh? Well, in 2018, Facebook exposed data on up to 87 million Facebook users to a researcher who worked at Cambridge Analytica, which worked for the Trump campaign. In essence, the data was harvested without user consent and used for political purposes.  

Another chilling but less direct example can be found in Russia’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections. According to Politico, Russia launched a massive social media campaign to ‘sow discord’ leading up to the elections. The website reported that as early as 2014, an infamous Russian “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency – a company linked to Russian president Putin – developed a strategy using fraudulent bank accounts and other fake identity documents to “spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.” 

When referring to the Russian hacks and their impact on election results, one U.S. Representative sagely noted: “They didn’t just steal data; they weaponized it.” 

Ignorance is not bliss 

Okay, so data is being ‘weaponized’, and ordinary people and businesses are being caught in the crosshairs of cyber warfare. A little bit frightening, but the good news is that savvy individuals like you can take steps to protect personal data and actively combat the creeping influence of juggernauts such as Facebook and Google.  

To begin with, awareness is key. As you engage with various platforms and applications at work and at home, take time to understand how your data is being used and what the terms of use are. Is your data being accessed and sold to advertisers? Have you consented to this? In addition to scrutinizing your consent, also pay close attention to how much data you share online – and the nature of the details you are divulging. Always keep in mind that hackers are employing smart social engineering tactics and using the details of your private life (birthdays, holidays, pet’s names, etc) to trick you into opening infected emails and clicking on malware. Whenever you are online, you are a target – and vigilance at all times is critical. Beyond that, it goes without saying that you must commit to following basic security protocols with your devices. So always keep software up to date and keep your data backed up so that you can reboot or wipe a device if needed.   

Now that we’ve left you sufficiently spooked, you can get back to those demanding WhatsApp/Facebook/Instagram notifications (same company, by the way)…albeit, we hope, with a slightly altered [cyber] worldview!  

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