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From the editor's desk: Smart cities promise local opportunities
15 November 2017, News

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear or read something about smart cities. Perhaps I’m only noticing it more because I’ve been doing some research into the topic and so it’s top of my mind. By nature I’m inclined to be sceptical about ‘the latest big thing’ but the more I learn and speak to people in the know about it, the more excited I’m becoming about the far-reaching prospects of the smart city concept.

For starters, South Africa has an undeniable crime problem, for which a more widespread, connected surveillance infrastructure would do wonders. But the same CCTV cameras that monitor people’s comings and goings can be used to analyse the state of the roads in their field of view, for example. It’s this smart use of available technology, as much as the rollout of smart new technologies, that lies at the heart of the smart city ideal. It also extends far beyond surveillance. Things like energy infrastructure and e-mobility also fall within the smart city, and can have hugely beneficial impacts on the lives of those residing in and around it.

When one thinks of a smart city, the first place to spring to mind might be somewhere like Dubai or Singapore, and indeed those are prime examples of the concept being taken to its limits. But South Africa is rolling out several smart city projects of its own, perhaps most notably in Cape Town, and there is a growing realisation of the governance and economic benefits that can be tapped.

One way the CSIR is looking to exploit the potential is its recent partnership with Uber to achieve a more cost-effective way of compiling transport planning data. As Dr Mathetha Mokonyama, manager for transport systems and operations research at the CSIR explains, “In transport planning, data collection is an expensive undertaking, and very susceptible to budget cuts at the expense of proper transport plans.

“We have often worked with government to conduct household travel surveys to ascertain how individuals travel. City planners often rely on data collected via such household surveys. These surveys are expensive and the data are not always reliable due to the nature of questionnaires and the fact that travel behaviour changes rapidly in cities. This is especially so in Gauteng where there is high migration and a fast-changing built environment. The data collected last year might not be applicable today, even for strategic planning purposes.”

The CSIR has therefore signed an agreement to share expertise on the use of Uber transactional data and city transport models to help cities to plan better, including the effective evaluation of where transport infrastructure investments are most needed. The pair have been collaborating for the past year, with the data collected by Uber vehicles giving an accurate log of travel times between nodes such as Sandton and the O.R. Tambo International Airport, for example, by time of day, day of week, and day in a month.

The uptake of electric vehicles in South Africa has barely begun, and government has yet to come up with a strategy to incentivise people to ditch their gas guzzlers, but that’s another related market that will offer growing opportunities for local developers. Not so much in terms of making the vehicles themselves perhaps (a company called Optimal Energy tried this a few years ago with its Joule electric vehicle but ultimately failed) but by developing the components of the charging infrastructure that will be necessary.

As we close the book on the last issue of Dataweek for 2017, we will be looking into these topics and more as we gear up to publish the fourth annual Electronics Manufacturing & Production (EMP) Handbook in January 2018. The electronics manufacturing industry is always abuzz in the months before and after Productronica rolls around every second year, and this year is no different as we look forward to once again working with the industry to inform South African stakeholders on the latest news, developments and prospects in store both locally and globally.

Brett van den Bosch


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