Smart cities a catalyst for social and economic development - Business Day, 08 June 2017

Metros work with private operators to deliver broadband, but law keeps provinces in the cold


By Rabelani Dagada 

Although metropolitan centres such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane and eThekwini have been working with the private sector to roll out broadband services, SA’s cities are lagging their international peers in broadband penetration and the use of smart technologies to connect service delivery and infrastructure to the internet.

In his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum Prof Klaus Schwab explains how progressive cities have implemented smart technologies – including intelligent parking solutions, smart rubbish collection and intelligent lighting. Other data-driven services include smart security cameras, smart water and power meters, eHealth and eServices.

In their book Making Africa Work: A Handbook for Economic Success, Greg Mills and his co-authors argue that providing broadband services can contribute to a city’s economic growth. This view is shared by some prominent organisations.

The dotcom bubble was a monumental economic era of excessive speculation that began in about 1997 and ended when the bubble burst in 2001. The colossal dotcom crash occurred simultaneously with the launch of the Group of 8 Digital Opportunity Task Force and the approval of the Millennium Development Goals by the UN General Assembly.

The task force perceived information and communications technology (ICT) as a vehicle for attaining the Millennium Development Goals, stating: "ICT can provide new and more efficient methods of production, bring previously unattainable markets within the reach of local producers, improve the delivery of government services and increase access to basic social goods and services. There need therefore be no trade-off between investment in ICT and the achievement of development objectives."

Since then, the key to benefiting from ICT potential has been the emergence of smart cities and the rapid development of knowledge economies.

Municipalities worldwide have embarked on programmes to improve access to broadband services. According to the Global Information Technology Report 2003-04, cities in the top echelon of broadband services penetration are those that had rolled out robust ICT infrastructure. Among South Korean cities, which topped the list, broadband penetration had reached two-thirds of households. Penetration was boosted by cities encouraging both supply and demand of broadband services.

Other cities leading in broadband services provision are predominantly in the US. These cities equate the provision of smart technologies with that of water and power. Meanwhile, cities in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands and Sweden, serve as good examples of the advantages of adopting municipal smart technologies and providing broadband services.

The Independent Development Corporation recently reported that the efficient use of ICT in Kenya — predominantly in Nairobi — contributed 12.1% to national GDP in 2013.

In recent years, I have undertaken study tours to Dubai, Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Shanghai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Melbourne and Paris to benchmark smart city programmes. I have also had the opportunity to visit and observe programmes such as iHub in Nairobi, the Silicon Roundabout in London and the Silicon Cape initiative.

All these centres embody what ICT can do for socioeconomic development.

It’s amazing, for instance, how children and teachers in these cities can use the internet for educational purposes and pay almost nothing.

In these instances, smart technologies enable children to grow up interfacing with technology with ease. By instilling ICT skills in the young, these cities are branding their determination to be smart cities and anchoring their residents in the knowledge economy.

All our metropolitan administrations are striving to drive economic development and investment activities, and it is our contention that developing and rolling out broadband services and smart technologies will play a significant role in meeting these objectives.

One notes the excessive dependence on telecoms-related services across SA, and in our cities in particular. The exorbitant associated costs are contrary to the general principles of universal access to ICT services. This has a negative effect on the needy and on entrepreneurs, especially those who live in underserviced areas. Our cities should work towards universal access to smart technologies for ratepayers, residents and small businesses by extending affordable broadband services to all stakeholders.

Cities need to work with private telecommunications operators to establish points of presence and last-mile connections. Broadband services can be the catalyst for emerging entrepreneurs to manage enterprises efficiently and for encouraging business development and job creation.

Although the South African government has been criticised for retarding the liberalisation of the telecommunications market, it should be commended for allowing municipalities to work with the private sector in rolling out broadband services.

While provincial governments are unable to implement broadband services because of the State Information Technology Agency (Sita) Act of 1998 — compelling them to rely solely on Sita for broadband-related services — municipalities can implement and use smart technologies. But the Sita law stifles competition and sabotages the rapid roll-out of infrastructure.

If SA wants to encourage socioeconomic development, the Sita act should be repealed as soon as possible. This will enable metropolitan cities to work jointly with the private sector and provincial governments to mobilise broadband services and create city regions.

*Dagada is a policy fellow at the South African Institute of Race Relations , a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. 

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