Local government is under the same pressure to digitize as businesses are. And if it does—just as we’ve seen with business—cities will see higher citizen engagement, higher trust, more revenue and different revenue opportunities.
And government has proved that it can move remarkably quickly when necessary.
A good example is the current contact tracing system for Covid-19 cases used in South Africa. On the face of it, it seems unsophisticated. When somebody goes for a test, they write down the names and numbers of anybody they have been in close contact with in the last 14 days. This is done with pen and paper, no complicated screens or keyboards. The test results are usually available within 12 – 72 hours, and are communicated via SMS.
This is the simplest and most accessible technology for the levels of device penetration in our country. The system even allows you to forward your results via SMS to other people who may need to know. The system anonymizes the data, so that the person you nominate receives an SMS saying “somebody you have been in contact with has tested positive for the virus”, while keeping their identity anonymous.
A system like this seems simple, but it needs sophisticated technology to make it work. It has the public health benefit of assisting contact tracers, but it also has the benefit of increased citizen trust for anybody who uses it.
In mid-August, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) report was handed to President Cyril Ramaphosa.
I and my colleagues Vukani Mngxati, Jigyasa Singh and Neil Lister have written about the 4IR. In the light of Covid and against the background of this research report, I wanted to put some thoughts down about how cities could benefit from digitization.
My colleague Dawn Msibi says cities …
- are under pressure to balance budgets;
- Need to escalate citizen needs and expectations;
- Are subject to the acceleration of digital;
- Need to focus on economic development and innovation.
These four priorities can be balanced by moving to digital.
In conjunction with the World Economic Forum, Accenture conducted research that showed three technologies that can accelerate a city’s move to digital. They are:
- The Internet of Things (IoT). Smart meters already exist for water and electricity consumption so that cities can identify usage trends per suburb, city block or even individual households. Smart traffic cameras all networked together can keep traffic flowing and cut many hours a year from citizens’ daily commute.
- Data analytics. This is needed to really take advantage of the information collected by the IoT. Analytics can uncover hot spots of usage and allow cities to charge heavy users and light users different prices, which helps optimize the city’s use of water and energy. Or it can identify traffic bottlenecks which waste commuters’ time.
- Artificial intelligence can propel innovation throughout a city. In one South African city there is a backlog of 20,000 title deeds that haven’t been registered. With artificial intelligence, blockchain-enabled contracts, some automation and integration between estate agents, conveyancers, mortgage bond issuers and the deeds office, a city could reduce friction in its property market and unlock value for everybody. Using AI, a city’s traffic management system can learn from traffic patterns and route traffic in far more efficient ways.
I often say that cities aren’t getting smarter — citizens are getting smarter. As consumers, we are used to trusting our banking app, or accessing entertainment from half-a-dozen streaming services.
Our research shows that in the next five years there is the opportunity to access trillions of rands of value if our cities respond the same way the national government responded to the Covid-19 crisis.
To read the research about how this vast store of value can be unlocked, please click this link. It is recent research into the reality in South Africa right now.
I would be interested to hear what you think of smart cities. As a business, can you see benefits in dealing with a smarter city? And if you are in the public sector, is this something we should even be considering?