SONA 2019: The Thin Line Between Dreaming and Doing

What did you think of President Ramaphosa’s recent State of the Nation? Did you feel inspired? Or were you one of the people who thought it was heavy on dreaming and light on substance?

Michael Jordaan posted one of my favourite reactions on Twitter, when he joked about quizzing anyone who talks about the Fourth Industrial Revolution on what the first three were. This led to a great discussion about the public understanding of digital technologies and what it means for the nation.

Whenever anyone uses the 4IR terminology I ask them to name the first 3....

— Michael Jordaan (@MichaelJordaan) June 22, 2019

My thoughts? Yes, 4IR is overused, but it isn’t some empty buzzword, nor is it a magical fix-all. It’s a framework through which we can reimagine the problems we face as a society. Digital technologies like AI, predictive analytics, IoT and so on aren’t bleeding edge anymore. New use cases are popping up every day as digital becomes entwined with our lives.

For all the flack President Ramaphosa is getting for his bullet train comments, his vision for the country isn’t an unrealistic dream. Each and every one of the seven focus areas highlighted in the speech has a plethora of digital solutions from which we can draw examples.

Kicking Corruption Out

Of all of President Ramaphosa’s focus areas, building a capable, ethical and developmental state is the one we’re all tired of hearing about yet most anxiously awaiting action on. Tracking down wasted resources - whether through corruption or inefficiency - is critical if we want to achieve the other priorities.

This means using digital tools to improve data transparency and flag suspicious behaviour. Citizen platforms that let people track development projects and report areas of concern drive accountability, as do predictive analytics that can identify suspicious behaviour as it begins to emerge. The same tech used to spot identity fraud can also be applied to workplaces to find employees whose behaviours don’t match up to their earnings.

Get that right and we’ll have a lot more resources to devote to the other focus areas.

The Basics of Digital Service Delivery

If you think providing basic services to almost 60 million people is a stretch, try doing it for 1.3 billion. Yet India, our BRICS peer, is chipping away at inequality and driving reliable service delivery through e-governance initiatives.

Since the Digital India Programme was launched, India has risen in the ranks to become the second fastest digital economy in the world. Over 1.2 billion people are enrolled in Aadhar, the world’s largest identity programme, which not only allows them to access basic services but do things like make digital payments, apply for loans, and manage ownership of assets.

We’re living in a world where digital isn’t a thing anymore because it’s so ubiquitous, and 5G is set to bring high-speed, always-on connectivity to everyone. From water and sanitation to agriculture and utilities, there’s not a single public service for which digitisation is out of reach.

It’s Not about Smart Cities, it’s About Smart Solutions

Maslow had it right. You can't expect functioning societies if people don't have access to the basics: shelter, food security, a living wage and so on.

It’s why building safer and more cohesive society is so closely linked to access and inclusion. Yes, we can use digital technologies to fight crime and track down the bad guys, but why start there when you can minimise the environmental factors that lead to poverty, desperation and financial inequality?

Just look at Pablo Escobar’s home city of Medellín, which was once one of the most violent cities in the world. Using the power of digital leapfrogging, Medellín overcame its infrastructural shortcomings and bloody history to drive inclusive urban services, entrepreneurial programmes and access to basic services. And while it may not be a bullet train, Medellín’s metro system was instrumental in bringing opportunities for employment and education to those who needed it most.

What makes a smart city isn’t that it’s powered by cutting edge technology, but there are multiple digital channels that give the people that live there greater ownership of the communities they live in.

Incremental is Instrumental

We all know which challenges seem most unrealistic - high youth unemployment, a pressing need for digital skills, and the massive implementation of NHI. If the numbers are against us, why not even the odds? Fix the processes, remove bottlenecks, and improve the outcomes - one percentage point at a time.

The private sector has been using technology like IoT, analytics and automation to improve processes and drive efficiencies for years. If the public sector starts focusing on customer and user experience, it can do the same. Start with the persistent problems - missing textbooks, long waiting times, unaffordable internet and so on - and put in place the analytics that can tell you why.

There’s also no reason that solutions to these problems need to come from think tanks and parliamentary debates. Open up the floor to everyone, and make it easy for people to access and share relevant knowledge. Innovation challenges, on-demand skills platforms, open data repositories - governments the world over are finding success through initiatives like these.

President Ramaphosa has laid out his vision. Now comes the hard work - the execution that will make or break it. The private sector has a huge role to play in driving this execution - by finding and sharing the use cases and success stories where digital has been used to achieve the seemingly impossible.

Do you buy into this vision? What use cases would you like to see implemented by the public sector?

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