/ 25 May 2022

Davos: How SA can build a digitally competitive future based on trust

Gettyimages 1240875556
Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry (2nd L), Xie Zhenhua (3rd L) Special Representative for Climate Change Affairs of China , Geraldine Matchett, Member of the Board of Directors, ABB Ltd (3rd L), Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti (2nd R), Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.com (R) attend the annual meeting of World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on May 24, 2022. (Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Davos under the theme “working together, restoring trust” should give pause for thought to anyone working to make South Africa a better place. Whether you’re in business, government, or civil society, the building of a resilient and thriving country is our goal and digital transformation must be part of that achievement. 

But we should also be concerned with whether digital transformation could serve a societal purpose too. And what we should be attempting to achieve with digital transformation is restoring trust in one another and the digital tools that can help us competitively grow.

In South Africa, trust is frayed. Whether it be trust in government or even private and civic institutions —there is, for the most part, a clear deficit. This no doubt feeds into lower-than-optimal levels of cooperation. And trust and cooperation are vital cornerstones of resilience. Considering the tragic weather events that affected the country in recent weeks, the importance of resilience based on meaningful trust and cooperation is becoming ever more urgent.

Digital transformation and the move to Web 3.0 solutions and technologies provide South Africa with an opportunity to reshape our institutions (public, private and civic) in a sensible and competitive way. And there are good examples of how machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain can be used to help us build trust back into the system and encourage cooperation.

Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti speaks annual meeting of World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on May 24, 2022. (Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

We see this in countries like Kenya, where a blockchain-enabled AI solution has been developed to allow the unbanked to secure loans for fresh produce to sell in informal markets. This digital innovation transforms communities by allowing people to not only participate in their economy but compete and thrive. 

Closer to home, a handful of innovators provide analytics as a service software to farmers looking to optimise and protect their yields. Combining satellite imagery with machine learning algorithms and on-the-ground sensors, farmers can use precise data to ensure they can sustainably maintain their contributions to national food security.

And in the public sector, municipalities can drastically improve the services they deliver to their residents. In a country beset by poor municipal service delivery, these gains would make significant headway in restoring trust where it matters most.

A 2021 briefing by the European Parliament on Artificial Intelligence in smart cities and urban mobility examined how the right kind of AI can inform the use outcome of digital transformation. There are many lessons that South Africa can take from their findings.

A key digital enabler for better service delivery and safer communities is smart urban lighting. The humble lamppost is an ideal object to equip with IoT (internet of things) devices that link to the internet and capture data. IoT-enabled lampposts have been used at European beaches for instance to manage crowds. During Covid-19 restrictions, residents could assess whether social distancing was possible at a given beach given the crowd size.

We’d be fools not to imagine how machine learning and AI could be developed for use in informal and formal urban settings to provide early warning to police and law enforcement about potential acts of violence or crime. AI that can detect rapid, sudden movement of people, using cameras, could alert police or other law enforcement to the possibility of violent crime or protests. In some areas of Johannesburg these are already in action on the corners of busy streets. Cameras are AI-enabled to detect suspicious activity and proactively alert the relevant private security companies or the SAPS.

The surveillance of people in this way raises serious questions about privacy. But it’s more than possible to monitor people in a way which promotes privacy. This technology need not use facial recognition but rather can use modelling to predict if a visual situation likely represents a criminal act. Technology like this, that could make headway in tackling violent crime and protests, would go further than just rebuilding trust between citizens and state. It would arguably also play a role in improving trust between members of communities, especially where crime and violence is high.

Digital transformation that makes use of AI and other Web 3.0-centred solutions can build on these kinds of gains and have an impact on an almost limitless range of governance outcomes, from waste management and urban planning to enhancing early-warning systems for climate change and its catastrophes. 

Some cities are already deploying this tech to connect better with what citizens need at a basic level. The My Cape Town app for instance allows residents to log and monitor faults directly with the responsible municipal department, bypassing call centres and the need to call back to follow up on progress until resolution.

One Web 3.0 capability that could both revolutionise governance and build trust is the blockchain. At its most simplest, the blockchain is an incorruptible ledger of activity. Vitally, once a transaction has been placed on to the blockchain, it cannot be changed, it cannot be erased, and is impossible to corrupt.

Given this incorruptible quality, there is much more potential for its application, especially in South Africa where distrust in transactions with or by the government is at an all-time high. If we could move all government transactions to blockchain ledgers, public sector procurement would be far more transparent and efficient. 

We could also ease the current strict tender specifics. Well-intentioned they may be to combat corruption and mismanagement, in many instances tender terms ultimately inhibit growth and innovation due to their restrictive terms.

We don’t need to simply employ the latest tech like AI, blockchain and IoT to digitally transform. But we do need to work together responsibly to become a digitally competitive South Africa founded on trust. The north star is not just using these technologies but being innovative and purposeful with how we use them.

Rafael Rodriguez is the executive partner and digital experience innovation lead and Lyth Brown is the digital consultant at IQbusiness.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.