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How smart cities and the Internet of Things will reshape South Africa

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Along with the rest of the world, South Africa is in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, in which the smart use of information and technology is reshaping societies. One of the most apparent examples is the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT), where smart, connected devices are being deployed in cities and industries globally to gather data and glean contextual insights used to achieve higher levels of efficiency and productivity and better use of scarce and natural resources.

The reach of the IoT is staggering. In the near future, for example, nations’ growing populations will be fed by crops that are smartly planted at the right time and in precisely the right place to produce maximum yield. Using the IoT, farmers will be informed via connected sensors of the precise dosage of water, fertiliser and nutrients that the piece of cultivated land will need to produce an optimal yield in terms of volume and quality.

As the increasing demand for food and the effects of climate change on food security become dominant concerns, smart agriculture is just one of the ways in which the IoT will prove its value.

Full steam ahead
More immediately, large metros in South Africa often struggle to meet citizens’ demand for electricity, deal with water shortages and wastage, and manage other resources. These challenges are expected to grow in the years ahead due to increasing urbanisation, and in Africa this has become a significant driver of conversations focusing on smart cities.

The good news is South Africa has already made exciting progress, with IoT projects under way and the development of smart cities at the top of the agenda. These, it should be noted, work hand in hand. In fact, the IoT is essential to the success of a smart city, as it bridges the physical and digital worlds.

Doing so enables a metro to gather real-time data from millions of objects, such as water meters, electricity meters, waste bins, traffic lights and street lights. This forms the basis on which contextual data can be collected, analysed and used to manage the city in a smarter, predictive and proactive way. Examples are better traffic management by informing travellers of congestion; dealing with crime by using sensors that detect gunshots in crime zones; and smart waste management, in which metros are automatically informed by sensor-equipped bins when refuse needs to be collected.

The prime objective
Beyond the general benefits of living in a smart city – a more efficiently managed metro brings about greater quality of life for its residents – the burgeoning IoT industry presents opportunities for entrepreneurs in South Africa, particularly those businesses that enable big data to be efficiently gathered, processed and analysed.

Job creation need not be limited to businesses in the big data space. Having smart cities in place will ensure that South Africa is ripe to attract global investment from the business sector. The most compelling advantage of these cities is that they may well offer an opportunity to boost South Africa’s economy, which would benefit all its citizens.

Rising to the challenge
However, before we can reap these rewards, there are challenges to be addressed. The sheer volume of connected “things” means the technologies that make these objects smart must be available at a low cost for the device, the connectivity and the implementation, so that substantial demands on cities’ budgets are avoided.

It is here in particular that SqwidNet, the result of a partnership between Dark Fibre Africa and Sigfox, has an important role to play. Sigfox technology enables low-cost IoT connectivity for, among other things, water and electricity meters and city building and facilities management, which enables the deployment of smart-city solutions at scale.

The network now covers all eight metros in South Africa, and the rollout plan is focused on covering all the national roads and moving to other cities and towns. Network coverage will exceed 85% of the South African population by the end of the year.

Other considerations include the power requirements for smart objects, as it is impractical for the bulk of these objects to be connected to a fixed power source. Rather, sensors will have to consume low power, allowing them to run on a small battery for years. The Sigfox network and device ecosystem is designed so that devices become active only when they need to communicate with the network. As a result, devices can last 15 years or more on a battery.

Finally, the network that connects these objects and sensors also has to be cost efficient, and the data transmitted by smart, connected things must be delivered securely to mitigate any risks to the city and its citizens. Sigfox has security embedded at all layers. Data is encrypted from the chip set and device layer, the data-in-motion layer and the data-storage and data-at-rest layers. In addition, long-range base stations, cloud-based operating and management systems and a range of device and chip-set manufacturers and partners collectively contribute to low-cost connectivity and end-to-end products and propositions to market.

International device roaming on the global Sigfox network is also addressed through roaming and clearing agreements between international Sigfox network operators, with no additional costs to the user. This is a compelling proposition for IoT applications and services focusing on asset tracking, supply chain, transport and logistics. Cities can also share this data across platforms, since the data protocols are non-proprietary, thus supporting the innovation and development of value-added applications and services for analytical and context-driven city management.

Final word
If South Africa wants to remain the gateway to Africa, our cities, the services they provide and the lifestyle they create for citizens must be nothing less than the global standard set by leading cities around the world. Considering the predicted growth of the continent, it is easy to see why developing smart cities in South Africa now is not only a necessity but also a smart investment in the country’s future.

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