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 ways in which this is happening can be seen is in 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 which are used to achieve higher levels of efficiency, productivity and utilization of scarce and natural resources.
The reach of IoT is staggering. In the near future, for example, the growing population of nations will be fed by crops that are smartly planted at the right time and in precisely the right place to produce maximum yield. Leveraging IoT, farmers will be informed via connected sensors, of the precise dosage of water, fertilizer and nutrients that the piece of cultivated land will require to produce an optimal yield in terms of volume and quality.
As the need to respond to the increasing demand for food as well as and the effects of climate change on food security becomes a dominant concern, smart agriculture is just one of the ways in which IoT will, no doubt, prove its value.
Full steam ahead
More immediately, large metros in South Africa often face challenges with meeting citizen’s demand for electricity, dealing with water shortages and wastage, and managing other resources. Each of these challenges are only expected to grow in the years ahead due to increasing urbanisation, and in Africa this has become a significant driver behind conversations focusing on Smart Cities.
The good news is that exciting progress is already being made in South Africa, as we are seeing IoT projects underway and the development of smart cities being placed top of the agenda. Both, it should be noted, work hand in hand. In fact, IoT is essential to the success of a Smart City, as it enables the bridging of the physical world with the digital one.
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 upon which contextual data can be collected, analysed, and used to manage the city in a smarter, predictive, and proactive way. A few practical examples of this include better traffic management by informing travellers of congestion; dealing with crime by leveraging sensors that detect gunshots in high crime zone areas; 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, with the greater quality of life brought about by a metro that is more efficiently managed, the burgeoning IoT industry presents some real opportunities for entrepreneurs in South Africa, particularly those businesses which 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 smart cities is that they may very 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 benefits, there are some real challenges that must be addressed. The sheer volume of connected ‘things’ means the technologies make these objects smart must be available at a low device, connectivity, and implementation cost, so that substantial demands on cities’ budgets are avoided.
It is here in particular that SqwidNet, the result of a partnership between DFA 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 the 8 metros in South Africa, and the rollout plan is currently focussed on covering all the national roads as well as moving to other cities and towns. Network coverage will exceed 85% of the South African population by the end of the year.
Other considerations that will need to be taken into account 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 very low power, allowing them to run on a small battery for several years. The Sigfox network and device ecosystem is designed so that devices only become active when they need to send or receive a message to or from the network. As a result of this, devices can last up to 15 years or more on a battery, depending on the use case.
Finally, the network that these objects and sensors connect to also has to be cost efficient, and it is imperative that the data transmitted by smart, connected things can be delivered securely to mitigate any risks to the city and its citizens. Sigfox has security embedded at all layers of the solution. Data is encrypted from the chipset and device layer, the data in motion layer and the data storage and data at rest layers as well. In addition to this, long range base stations, cloud based operating and management systems, and a broad range of device and chipset manufacturers and partners collectively contribute to low cost connectivity and end to end solutions and propositions to market.
International device roaming on the global Sigfox network is also addressed through roaming and clearing agreements between international Sigfox networks operators, with no additional costs to the end-user. This is a compelling proposition for asset tracking, supply chain, transport and logistics focussed IoT applications and services. Cities are also enabled to 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 contextual driven city management.
If South Africa wants to keep its position as the gateway to Africa, our cities, the services it provides and the lifestyle it creates for citizens must be nothing less than the global standard that is being 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.