Engineering 4.0: The future of smart cities in Africa

Posted on November 26, 2020

The term Smart Cities might conjure up ideas of robots, flying cars and buildings that know what you want before you do. But according to UP researchers, Smart Cities are cities where there are jobs and food for everyone, different parts of the city work together to make for a better place to live, and these improvements are driven by gathering and using data in the best way possible.

UP’s Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology (EBIT) believes that by harnessing the power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Engineering 4.0, we can solve African urban challenges like food security, inequality, and energy vulnerability. That’s what really makes a city smart.

Professor Chrisna du Plessis is on a quest to gauge the future of smart cities in developing economies. Her work in architectural research at EBIT helps her understand the pitfalls and opportunities for future smart cities in Africa.

“I approach my work by looking into the future and thinking about what is happening now,” she says. “From there I try to investigate those things to see what is possible, what can help us; questioning what the risks are and how we can mitigate them.”

Du Plessis develops research agendas for smart cities, by asking the right questions. These questions can guide other research happening at UP. 

How can transportation and roads improve in a smart city?

One important aspect of a smart city is smart vehicles and how they can relate to smart roads and infrastructure.

Professor Wynand Steyn and Professor Schalk Els of EBIT are working to realise an African city where smart roads talk to smart cars to reduce traffic congestion and to ensure the safety of passengers and cargo.

This can help in areas such as agriculture and logistics, where transporting food can be improved to reduce wastage or damage to fresh produce. 

Concepts such as Engineering 4.0 can be realised with projects that seek to improve the crop of civil engineers available in South Africa. One such effort is the national road materials reference and training laboratory built at Engineering 4.0 at the University of Pretoria.

How will smart cities help us achieve the Sustainable Development Goals?

“Smart cities aren’t just about engineering or architecture,” Du Plessis says. “We also look across to medicine, psychology, spirituality, politics, economics; to see how these things converge to send us in different directions.”

These aspects of smart cities that go beyond architecture and engineering are the domain of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which Professor Nelishia Pillay considers as necessary tools in building sustainable smart cities. For Pillay, smart cities can improve health by providing healthcare through smart devices, and smart cities can change economies for the better by reducing inequality by upskilling citizens in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Du Plessis sees the future of African smart cities forking into many different possibilities beyond the “greenwashed” views rose-tinted spectacles might present. “We all hope for different futures,” she says.

“I would like to have a planet where most of the world’s species are still alive, and later generations will still see elephants and rhinos in the wild.”

What to do with all this big data?

In addition to envisioning a world where people are kinder to each other, and tolerance is the order of the day, Du Plessis says that African smart cities will have to thrive on collaboration rather than competition. For this to happen, different entities and individuals will have to collaborate on using artificial intelligence from different sets of data to solve problems in Africa.

For this reason, Pillay has been working on making it easier for different entities with different sets of data to work together, creating tools that make it easier for them to talk to each other.

Du Plessis remains hopeful for the future that African cities can bring in addressing the other four key principles of EBIT which are: energy, minerals beneficiation, water security, and big data. “I am hopeful because we have identified new ways of work in new technologies, new social systems, new economics systems.

“We have the opportunity to develop a much better world, and that makes me positive.”

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