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A New Gold Rush for the Gold City: Joburgs Smart Data

Johannesburg is a rather young city. It’s a child of the gold rush. Thousands of bounty hunters flocked into the area after the first gold reef of the vast Witwatersrand Basin was discovered in the late 19th century. The old city of gold miners and fortune seekers was a rather wild and chaotic place. Some of that untamable vitality, it seems, has stayed with us, for better and for worse.

Johannesburg is one of the six cities featured in the Atlas of Digitalization, check out the findings here.

A place of turmoil and increasing economic rehabilitation

Africa is the fasted urbanizing continent in the world. Johannesburg is estimated to merge with Tshwane by 2030 to become one of earth’s then 41 mega cities (population > 10m). The province of Gauteng, in which the city is located, is the smallest and most densely populated in the country.

Furthermore, South Africa is the greatest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter on the continent, and belts out more CO2 than Great Britain with 10m fewer inhabitants. In Johannesburg, or eGoli, as the city is called in Zulu, many higher income residents have left the inner city to settle in the suburbs after the political changes in the mid 1990s. Buildings dilapidated, high value and sought after real estate like the Ponte Tower were suddenly abandoned by former tenants and owners and left to their fate. 

Crime rates were on the rise. Once considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, a lot has changed for the better by now. Many young well-educated professionals are returning from abroad, and the city’s financial center and industry are attracting new talent from around the globe. Public transportation is still largely handled by a fleet of minibuses (referred to as “Amatekisi” in isiZulu) of rather intransparent ownership operating in high-strung competition for customers.

Beneath all this whirling activity lies a great resource that still needs to be fully salvaged: the city’s big data. With the proper digital toolkit for analyzation this resource can be turned into smart data unleashing the city’s full potential for the digital age. This data forms digital patterns of how the city moves, what it uses, wastes and creates. 

It is the digital fabric of the city, which intelligent design and technology can turn into a custom-made digital armor for all the challenges to surmount: energy efficiency and consumption, public transportation and logistics, building automation, sustainability, and safety.

In a collaboration with renown African designers, Siemens Fabrics has taken digital city data and turned it into beautiful fabric patterns. This design visualizes the smart data of Newton, Johannesburg.

Working as a sales manager for total smart building solutions

I am proud to contribute my share to Johannesburg’s transformation into a smart city. As a sales manager for Siemens I am assisting our clients in total smart building solutions, optimizing their energy efficiency and sustainability while ensuring its occupants safety and maximizing their comfort. At Siemens we have set ourselves a high standard, and throw in all our expertise to create perfect places, and further increase and secure the livability of this wonderful city.

As investment buildings make for more than 30% of all GHG emissions, and 40% of worldwide energy consumption optimizing their energy efficiency and sustainability through smart technology can really make a difference. In our city there is a heightened sense of urgency regarding the smart revolution.

Johannesburg’s looming energy crisis

The most imminent threat to Johannesburg’s budding economy has now turned into an energy scarcity crisis. The South African electricity public utility Eskom, established as the Electricity Supply Commission by the government of South Africa needs to often resort to scheduled blackouts within a rotational framework to cope with energy demand supplied by Eskom’s aging fleet of coal-fired power plants and distribution network. Different areas are taken off the grid at various times resulting in limited energy availability.

Many of our customers have expressed interest in being self-sufficient and reducing their dependence on power from the grid to cope with energy constraints whilst desiring to reduce their over-all greenhouse gas emissions. We help to shield our customers from this imponderability of power constraints by making their real-estate assets more energy efficient, safe and secure. 

Additionally, our customers are considering gas-fired generators where they can transfer excess heat energy to other facilities. The excess heat from a gas plant can be used for heating and cooling cycles in storage rooms or heating swimming pools. Siemens’ vast arrays of offerings are able to address these concerns and we are able to use smart data to asses, monitor and implement all these potentials.

A crisis is always an opportunity for great innovation

The current energy crisis might seem like a disheartening impasse, but it must really also be seen as a great opportunity. We have a small time window of action. And it starts now. As the pressure from the ailing energy system is so high there is no other choice than to innovate at high-speed. The skills and young talent are already in the city, we just need to get started and really tap and excavate that new gold, and turn it into the smart data we can use to

  • identify waste energies and ineficiencies
  • predict energy consumption over time
  • and identify bottlenecks

Unity in development, people at the center

From a business standpoint we must protect our human capital, ensure people’s well-being and bring them to the places they need to get to safely and in reasonable time. We must put the well-being of the people at the center of all our endeavors. The smart city revolution and the proper retrieval and processing its new gold, its underlying virtual fabric of data, calls for unity in development among urban planners, smart building experts, and city council.

What we need is a united focus to use smart technology to make buildings cleaner, more efficient, and safer, and embed and connect them in a working infrastructure that is fully optimized to the work force’s needs. The backbone of the city is the connectivity of its people to infrastructure.

Let’s get at it, embark on this new bounty hunt for data, and make our city smart. There is no other way.

Please feel free to comment, ask questions, or share your thoughts about urban digitalization and smart city development in South Africa and elsewhere. Let me know about your experiences!