South Africa’s major cities are home to more than two-thirds of the country’s population, and generate more than 60% of the country’s GDP – but they are facing a range of complex challenges, fuelled largely by a massive migration to urban areas.
Although cities host industries and businesses that create much of the country’s wealth, they are often unable to raise the resources required to deal with the problems associated with an expanding population, including the need to modernise aging infrastructure, provide critical services to citizens, and deal with socio-economic issues like unemployment, social inequality, poverty, crime and disease.
Help could be at hand, though. This week, Microsoft revealed a bold initiative to use a range of technology – including cloud technology, mobile devices, data analytics, and social networks – to help South African cities become more prosperous, despite struggles with urban decay and budget demands.
The initiative, Microsft CityNext, aims to use cities’ existing technology infrastructures to connect functions like energy, water, infrastructure, transportation, public safety, tourism, recreation, education, health and social services, and government administration. An important element of the programme will be a focus on helping cities create small businesses, develop skills and reduce unemployment.
Launching Microsoft CityNext in Cape Town this week, Microsoft South Africa managing director Mteto Nyati said technology could play a key role in not only helping city managers provide critical services to growing populations, but also address the burgeoning socio-economic challenges faced by cities.
“The bigger picture is that cities can become the engine-rooms that will drive Government’s National Development Plan objective of eliminating poverty and reducing inequality by 2030. This is where we can drive real impact around areas like enterprise development, empowering our youth through job creation and skills development, creating a safer and more secure South Africa and improving service delivery.”
One potential Microsoft CityNext customer, the Western Cape Government is investing in more modern technology capabilities to help it operate more efficiently and to roll out services that will enable better interaction with its citizens.
Lance Williams, Chief Information Officer of Western Cape Government, said the ultimate beneficiaries of a more sophisticated technology infrastructure would be the citizens of cities, who would enjoy more responsive and transparent government services, many delivered online.
“You can’t evolve to an organisation that provides citizen-centric services without the right technology foundation,” said Williams. “These higher-level services rely on a modern infrastructure, which we now have. The exciting part for us has just begun.”
A key focus area for Microsoft CityNext is safety and security, with the emphasis on helping cities protect their citizens in times of crisis. When critical information is allowed to flow seamlessly between government, businesses, and citizens in emergency situations, people will more readily get the resources they need to deal with the crisis.
Microsoft’s Nyati is particularly excited by Microsoft CityNext’s ability to drive citizen-focused education and social programmes that he says can make “a real impact” on the lives of city-dwellers. Many of the socio-economic programmes contained within Microsoft CityNext link to Microsoft’s 4Afrika initiative, which was launched this year to help accelerate Africa’s economic development and to improve its global competitiveness by empowering African youth, entrepreneurs, developers and business.
“Helping South Africans to become entrepreneurs can play a critical role in tackling unemployment, by empowering our people to become the job creators and economic drivers of the future,” said Nyati. “If we can work with cities to help small companies to succeed in the first 3-5 years of their lives, we will help grow job creation and economic development significantly. This will have a major impact on the well-being of cities and entire communities.”
Nyati said Microsoft would also be work with its vast network of solution partners to help cities transform their operations and infrastructure; engage their citizens and businesses; and accelerate innovation and opportunity.
“According to IDC’s Smart City Maturity Model, many cities are now in the first stages of implementing smart technology solutions as part of a 10- to 15-year path to realising full transformation potential. The result of ‘smart city’ initiatives will ultimately enable cities to attract businesses and citizens to build more vibrant city landscapes and competitive economies,” he said.