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Build infrastructure to support the fourth industrial revolution

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In March 2018, tragedy gripped the nation once again when Lumka Mkhethwa, a five-year-old from the Eastern Cape drowned in a pit latrine — where excrement drops into a large, open pit. Since 2014, four children have died in school pit latrines. Mkhethwa’s death came as James Komape, the father of another five-year-old Michael Komape who died the same way in Limpopo just four years before, protested outside the Bhisho High Court, where Equal Education brought a case against the state because of its poor infrastructure. South Africa has approximately 4-million pit latrines, and more than 4 500 are in schools. The government aims to eradicate inappropriate sanitation nationally by the end of 2021.

But what sustainable solutions can be deployed? In India, which faces similar problems in rural areas, GARV Toilets  —  an Internet of Things (IoT) company  — has designed portable public toilets made of recycled metal with integrated solar panels, battery packs, auto flush, floor-cleaning technology and biodigester tanks. With about R3.4-billion allocated by national treasury for the next three years to eradicate pit latrines at schools, these kinds of solutions can be adopted here.

Statistics South Africa has detailed data that can be drilled down for any location using the indicators that they track. It is not clear if any of this information is being used to make vital decisions about whether we need hospitals, schools, early childhood development centres or police stations. In a country with deep inequities and inequality, data must be used in an informed way. Data can be mined and stripped to suit your needs. For example, how many people do not have access to drinking water and where are they located?

In the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), intelligent technologies could be the key to unlocking solutions to some of our most deep-seated problems. Invariably, various debates crop up. One of the issues of contention is that South Africa has lagged in the first three industrial revolutions, so why are we so readily jumping to the fourth? It is a misconception that this needed to be done sequentially.

Of course, we are still grappling with addressing electricity and infrastructure obstacles that should have accompanied the first three industrial revolutions. Yet, tapping into the 4IR has the potential to solve many of these existing problems. In South Africa, service delivery has become somewhat of a tainted phrase. It often spurs feelings of frustration and hopelessness. What it mainly describes is the distribution of basic resources citizens depend on such as water, electricity, sanitation infrastructure, land and housing. The new digital technologies related to the 4IR have huge efficiency-boosting and cost-cutting potential for the public service.

In 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that through the Presidential Commission on the 4IR, technologies would be used to capacitate South Africa’s developmental trajectory. The commission has made eight recommendations that will put South Africa’s fortunes on an upward path. In the past six weeks on this platform, I have addressed six of these recommendations. The first is to build human capacity in the area of the 4IR; the second is to establish the National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Institute; the third is to create the Advanced Manufacturing Institute (AMI); the fourth is the establishment of a national data centre; the fifth is to incentivise the adoption of 4IR technologies and the emergence of future industries and platforms; the sixth is to review, amend or create policy and legislation. This week I address the seventh recommendation, which is to build 4IR infrastructure that integrates with existing economic and social infrastructure.

The infrastructure I envision is software-based, data-enabled and has cloud access. Digital infrastructure is set to improve access to information and thereby promote transparency of government processes and activities and, in turn, build interconnected, empowered communities. South Africa faces enormous service delivery challenges which the 4IR can help to ease. For instance, we need to look at the generation and delivery of energy; the extension and improvement of water infrastructure; and the health and educational infrastructure to create a coherent and comprehensive infrastructure network.

The 4IR is highly dependent on energy which, in South Africa, is predominantly generated by using coal. Furthermore, the turbines that are used to generate electricity consume a significant amount of water, and therefore water infrastructure is critical in electricity infrastructure. Data and computing infrastructure is highly dependent on energy. Eskom has been struggling to supply electricity reliably. Medupe and Kusile have technical problems that still need to be resolved.

Although the 4IR requires energy to thrive, our energy industry requires 4IR to thrive. One of the significant issues hampering energy provision in South Africa is the maintenance strategy. There are three ways in which our energy infrastructure can be maintained, and these are run-to-failure, scheduled replacement and predictive maintenance. Predictive maintenance uses 4IR technologies, such as AI and robotics, to keep our energy infrastructure in a good state and thus ensure the reliable supply of electricity.  Furthermore, we ought to move energy infrastructure away from large-scale, top-down systems and make use of solar panels and wind energy in distributed interconnected mini-grids to increase energy generation and storage capacity.

The government should develop a comprehensive set of infrastructure priorities for the country with achievable timelines. In 2012, the government adopted the National Infrastructure Plan as a job creator to strengthen the delivery of basic services.  AI, for instance, can help improve urban planning by optimising routes for transport operators, reducing commuter journey times — a particularly significant move in a country that still battles with apartheid spatial planning, leaving a bulk of the population far away from the central economic hubs.

To accelerate building of infrastructure relevant for the 4IR, businesses can play a vital role in engaging with the government on projects that can be tested and scaled. At the same time, labour unions can facilitate any negotiation deadlocks that prevent timeous project rollout. 

In conclusion, the government must urgently buy a cloud to enable data storage and computing capability. The government cannot build its own cloud as effectively as some of the leading technology companies such as Amazon and Microsoft. As a country where protest has become synonymous with service delivery, tapping into 4IR solutions could be our best chance to overcome this.

This is the seventh in a series of eight articles unpacking the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor and the vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. He deputises for Ramaphosa on the Commission

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Tshilidzi Marwala
ProfessorTshilidzi Marwala is the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg and deputy chairperson of the PC4IR.

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