Engineering 4.0

The future of smart cities in Africa

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.”

Watch the video in the sidebar or click on the following pages to learn what are the challenges and opportunities of big data for smart cities, why the future depends on smart African cities, and how to make a city street smart. You can also browse the related infographics for each page in the sidebar. 

Big data for smart cities – challenges and opportunities

Researchers at UP's Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment, and Information Technology are using computer models and diplomacy to bridge gaps between those who hold the data and those who need it, by making it easy for everyone to talk to each other.

Data is everywhere, constantly trickling in and out of the smartphones in our pockets, and through cheap sensors monitoring various aspects of city living.

“If we can connect these things together and make use of new opportunities like real-time monitoring, we’ll have a lot of useful information,” says Professor Ajith Abraham of the Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment, and Information Technology (EBIT).

“Cities are growing and populations are urbanising rapidly, which can lead to high levels of pollution, traffic and crime,” Abraham says, explaining that harnessing data in a better way would enable smart technological solutions for modern cities.

That is why EBIT researchers are using computer models and diplomacy to bridge gaps between those who hold the data and those who need it, by making it easy for everyone to talk to each other.

Modern artificial intelligence (AI) uses processes inspired by Mother Nature, like evolutionary algorithms, machine learning and artificial neural networks. These mimic the way the human brain works by connecting different individual data sets, or nodes, in the same way synapses connect neuron cells in the brain. These systems learn from data to find meaningful information more quickly and efficiently than a human or a traditional computer programme could.

Professor Nelishia Pillay, AI specialist at EBIT, agrees that Big Data is how smart cities will tackle humanity’s biggest threats, from inequality, to poor health, to climate change. “Going into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, all these aspects should link with each other nicely,” she says.

Pillay says academia, the private enterprise sector, and the government at all levels from cities to national, have massive amounts of important data that would be better managed through a repository, with a dedicated governing body. Right now, however, these collections of data are disconnected and disordered.

Through her research, she is creating models to help mismatched datasets work together to solve problems using artificial intelligence. “If you have models of the problem you can show what kind of data is needed to deal with that problem, and we can start building from that.”

Pillay hopes her work will result in a tool for African cities to streamline infrastructure maintenance by combining data from sanitation, transportation and other departments, for instance.  

This necessary cross-talk between all the players involved in running a city is also why EBIT’s smart cities and big data research takes place in the context of other projects around transportation, materials and minerals beneficiation, energy, and the environment.

“We get really excited working with different companies and entities to solve complex problems, but when it comes to doing a project, the biggest bottleneck is data,” says Pillay. “The problem is getting the actual data that you need in order to use the artificial intelligence that will get the smartness out of it.”

Abraham will lead the Big Data cause in his new role as director of the Data Science Institute. “My focus for the next six months will be to build a strong interdisciplinary team within the University of Pretoria and beyond.”

When efforts and data from academia, the government, and the private enterprise sector come together to make use of artificial intelligence for smart cities, Abraham says, “we can do wonders”.

Our future depends on smart African cities

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.

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. 

How to make a city street-smart

South Africa and the world will need to go a big step further to create smart cities where cars are safer and traffic congestion becomes a thing of the past: road infrastructure needs to “talk” to the vehicles driving on it, says UP's Professor Schalk Els.

Only in the age of smart cities could we come to know that a bumpy road maketh a rotten tomato. Not quite literally, but high-tech sensors within trucks and on the roads they travel can tell researchers a lot about how road conditions affect the shelf life of cargo like tomatoes.

But smarter roads don’t just mean fresher tomatoes – ultimately, road and vehicle sensors could transform the daily commutes that grind the gears of all city dwellers, as better road maintenance reduces potholes, vehicle damage, and even fuel consumption.

This is according to Professor Wynand Steyn, Head of the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment & IT (EBIT).

He specifically studies how roads and vehicles interact, by collecting data from road- and vehicle-based sensors to determine road conditions. 

In the case of tomato shelf life, he says, “we’ve manufactured sensors that are placed within the cargo, which track the effects of the road and the vehicle on the cargo during the whole trip”. Steyn and his team then developed a model that relates the shelf life of tomatoes to the condition of the road. Similar models can be used for other agricultural crops.

“But knowing the condition of the road does not automatically improve that condition,” he cautions. The data generated by road and vehicle sensors should ultimately be used by bodies like the South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL)  – the governmental body responsible for maintaining national roads in South Africa – as well as provincial roads departments to keep roads in good nick. SANRAL is on board: they co-funded a national road materials reference and training laboratory with the University of Pretoria.

“By doing advanced research on how road materials react to loads and the environment,” says Steyn, “we will be able to support road owners and road agencies in improving models and understanding of roads for smart cities and smart transportation.”

Another major issue for the inhabitants of any modern city is traffic congestion. Many experts, including Professor Schalk Els (Associate Professor at EBIT’s Vehicle Dynamics Group), believe self-driving cars could one day be the answer. 

Els is especially looking into smart technologies that assist drivers without obstructing their control.

“Our research is focused mostly on making vehicles safer,” he says. “We look at unexpected road situations, like driving on a wet road when it isn’t raining – for instance, if someone on your route is draining their pool – or when a new pothole appears on your commute to work.”

Although he believes smarter vehicles will improve safety, he says the road to a self-driving future must be paved with better trust in technology, because humans have a natural emotional drive to control their own vehicles. “There is an emotional aspect of trust in these systems. It is something that is ingrained in us, the need for control. It is going to take us some time to adapt to a new way of thinking and a new way of planning.”

Some of the smart technologies on the market already making vehicles safer include adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and blind spot warnings. 

But Els believes South Africa and the world will need to go a big step further to create smart cities where cars are safer and traffic congestion becomes a thing of the past: road infrastructure needs to “talk” to the vehicles driving on it. 

“A lot can be solved with simple things like synchronising traffic lights, but it can be challenging to implement due to issues such as loadshedding,” he says. 

Els says that traffic light synchronisation also depends on reliable, near real-time communication. “Communication technologies such as 5G, currently driven by private industry interest, are paramount to conveying data quickly to realise a smarter, less congested city.”

This highlights the idea that no solution to the challenge of modern cities can be researched and implemented in isolation – traffic lights need electricity; electricity requires mineral resources such as coal; coal-burning creates air pollution; and data on air pollution, including vehicle emissions, must be monitored because it affects city dwellers.

Similarly, the materials we use to build roads will affect road quality and longevity, which could ultimately affect the shelf life of food sold in cities – something we know thanks to high-tech data analysis. 

The interconnectedness between the challenges of city living is a key reason that EBIT’s smart cities work is done within the faculty’s broader ecosystem of research, including big data, water, energy and the environment, and minerals beneficiation.

For Steyn and Els, smart cities will be realised when road conditions are better monitored and maintained, and when cities are prepared for the interactions between self-driving vehicles and roads.


Prof Nelisha Pillay, Wynand Steyn, Ajith Abraham, Chrisna du Plessis, Schalk Els

November 26, 2020

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