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Where mobility goes next

If we carry on addressing the need for mobility using the same paradigms and behaviours (such as car ownership and single person occupancy) that have existed since the early days of the Industrial Revolution we will doom ourselves to disaster, possibly even extinction, but says SIMON CARPENTER, Chief Technology Advisor at SAP Africa, Uber is an example of how networked technologies and digital platforms can change an industry and human behaviour at an exponential pace.

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It has been a long journey; one that started slowly and then accelerated at an exponential pace as we moved from the first wheel 5,000 years ago to the first steam-powered vehicle in the late 1700s to the internal combustion engine 159 years ago, the world’s first production motor car 27 years later (Karl Benz in 1886) and then very rapidly to flight, jet engines, gas turbines and today’s electric motors.

Along the way, the various modes of transport we have created have made incalculable contributions to socio-economic development and human progress. Apply your mind for just a moment and it’s hard to come up with a facet of modern life that is not impacted by some mode of transport or vehicular activity; whether it’s moving food from the farm to the fork, workers from the suburb to the workplace, tourists to their holiday destinations or patients to a hospital, transport and vehicles are inextricably involved in making society and economies work.

But, there is a downside to all this utility. As we stand at the tail-end of the industrial revolution and contemplate the future of humanity, it is clear that our love affair with the internal combustion engine has created some wicked problems.

The downside of mobility

Globally, the urban sprawl that personal mobility made possible in the first place has morphed into an unproductive commute in slow-moving traffic amplified by the fact that many of us travel alone in our cars. Today most people spend an increasingly frustrating chunk of their day and their disposable income simply getting to work. This problem is exacerbated in South Africa by the legacy of apartheid spatial planning which sequestered black people in townships far away from where they could find work. Most of those people are impoverished and therefore must spend a disproportionate and inequitable amount of time and money on their commutes.

The industrial-era paradigm of car ownership means we devote copious amounts of personal capital and social goods to acquire and house (i.e. park) vehicles that are used for a brief period each day. Those resources could be better used to address even more pressing concerns such as food security.

There is growing evidence to support the fact that vehicle emissions, both greenhouse gases and particulates, contribute not just to global warming but also the growing burden of chronic illnesses.  Recent studies have linked traffic pollution with reduced lung and cognitive function, and an increased risk of asthma, breast cancer, lung cancer, childhood leukaemia, heart disease, emergency hospital admissions and death.

And, of course there is the huge cost in lives and treasure associated with vehicle accidents. In South Africa alone 14,000 people die on the roads every year in accidents which cost our beleaguered economy ZAR 142 billion.

One thing is clear; if we carry on addressing the need for mobility using the same paradigms and behaviours (such as car ownership and single person occupancy) that have existed since the early days of the Industrial Revolution we will doom ourselves to disaster, possibly even extinction.

Reversing the challenges we have created will not be easy due to their multifarious, integrated nature and the many vested interests that will fight for the status quo. But, there is a solution at hand: Exponential Technologies, many of them digital in nature, accompanied by cultural, generational and societal shifts and innovative thinking offer us the opportunity to completely reshape how we move ourselves and our stuff around on this over-crowded little planet called Earth.

Exponential Technologies to the rescue

Uber is arguably the seminal example of how networked technologies and digital platforms can change an industry and human behaviour at an exponential pace. Uber’s system demonstrates the possibilities that emerge when exponential technologies such as smart mobile devices, networks and machine learning are synthesised with innovative thinking.

Another example is Nanjing City in China where authorities are using SAP’s real-time computing platform to gather data in real-time from cars, taxicabs, buses, traffic cameras and public transport users (via loyalty cards / tickets and mobile applications). Marrying this Big Data together (it amounts to some 23 billion individual records per year) provides deep insights into traffic patterns and trends. The beauty of the approach is that citizens get real time data that helps them plan their commutes better while city authorities use that same data to support short-term tactical decisions and long-term policy decisions such as where to invest in new roads or bus lanes.

These are great examples of how Exponential technologies such as IoT, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and real-time computing can come together to solve complex problems in the real world. They are equally applicable in South Africa, where the apartheid regime’s spatial planning was such that black people were confined to townships on the outskirts of cities far from commercial and industrial centres. This legacy means that today the residents of these townships, often impoverished to begin with, must spend disproportionate amounts of time and disposable income to travel to their place of work. Exponential technologies could go a long way toward informing better policies from government and at the same time alleviating the daily travel woes of most of our population.

As the Digital Revolution takes hold we stand at a unique moment in human history with the opportunity to reshape our mobility systems for the better. Only we can choose – and only action will make it so.

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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