Engineering 4.0: Our future depends on smart African cities

Smart cities may seem like the fanciful dream of futurists, but UP researchers see high-tech cities that work for their citizens as the inevitable next step towards mitigating climate change and social ills in Africa.

Professor Nelishia Pillay, an artificial intelligence researcher at UP’s Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment, and Information Technology (EBIT) sees smart cities through the lens of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are a global set of targets for a healthier, wealthier life on earth.

Pillay says cities should be built from the bottom up, starting with people and their health. For instance, starting with existing smart medical devices and smarter diets, cities can eventually work towards smart homes, smart neighbourhoods and streets, and ultimately a fully-fledged smart city.

Pillay’s own work in artificial intelligence (AI), speaks to SDG 2: zero hunger and sustainable agriculture. She’s using AI to tackle a new insect pest called the fall armyworm, which threatens maize yields in southern Africa. “We have been looking at how we can work with farmers to get better yields and less wastage – we want to see if we can use artificial intelligence with sensors to predict conditions that will attract armyworms.”

Pillay says she wants to create systems that predict the best times and methods for irrigation to reduce water waste, as well as better ways to transport food. Better transport means smart technologies in roads and vehicles.

Some fear that the introduction of more automation and such smart tech will threaten jobs, but Pillay says urban dwellers need to adapt to the changing job landscape. She says that we need to cater for a skills shift. “We have not planned well enough for the job opportunities that are coming, and with it some level of unemployment.”

While this is a priority of SDG 8: decent work for all, Pillay says it also relates to how the fourth industrial revolution can reduce inequality, the focus of SDG 10. She says that as we move into a smart city future we must not continue class differences or make them worse by making the poor poorer, and having only the rich benefit from the coming industrial revolution.

“It is important to understand the phobia around artificial intelligence, and we have to manage the great expectations that come from it,” Prof Pillay says about what she calls “AI literacy”. She considers it a priority that people are educated about the capabilities of artificial intelligence, which is an important priority of SDG 4: lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Professor Ajith Abraham agrees with Prof Pillay, as he sees the fourth industrial revolution and smart cities as powerful tools to make cities cleaner and technologies greener. As the new director of EBIT’s Data Science Institute, he says that the availability of large amounts of sensors and data means that “we can do wonders”.

“Smart cities can provide citizens with cleaner, healthier conditions, and this makes them more attractive places to live in, with better economic progress,” says Prof Abraham. “We can have all this by looking at greener technologies, without stealing from future generations.”

With all this in mind, smart cities can be used as vehicles for South Africa and the world to move towards a sustainable, smarter future, free from the threats of food security, climate change and inequality. 

Published by Sipho Mphurpi

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