Two years ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced his dream of an African smart city and, at this year’s State of the Nation Address (Sona) in February, that dream became a reality with the first smart city earmarked for Lanseria in Johannesburg.

As exciting as this sounds, is the South African built environment ready for a project such as this? And how will the construction industry assist in the development of a connected city without having undergone digital transformation itself?

It’s no secret that the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies, with everyone from children to pensioners acclimatising to digital tools. Yet the sector that will be most integral to the construction of a smart city — or any city, for that matter — has still to embrace the very technology that is needed to see such an endeavour come to fruition.

Historically, the built environment sector, which encompasses construction and architecture, has been characterised as a structurally difficult business that hinders attempts at reform. The sector’s hesitation to embrace the latest technological opportunities and its resultant labour productivity has left it stagnant. Internationally, tech start-ups in this arena have contributed to improved processes of collaboration between suppliers and contractors, simplicity in recruitment, and sufficient knowledge transfer. But the field remains largely untapped, especially in Africa.

In a billion-rand industry, technology provides vast potential for improved productivity and efficiency to help drive the sector forward. One way of doing this is through the harmonisation of technical specifications and the introduction of platforms to break down barriers to trade. This is where tech start-ups for the built environment shine, especially as the world moves from an era of information technology to one of data technology.

If Ramaphosa’s smart-city dreams are to be realised, there needs to be a vast overhaul of how the built environment industry operates. This means encouraging data exchange, benchmarking and best-practice knowledge sharing, whether via partnerships or among individual companies, and constantly using data to further help business interactions.

Consider this: one-third of construction costs are currently attributed to building materials, with most of these materials being imported from other countries. During the global hard lockdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, many of these imports were stopped indefinitely, resulting in backlogs of inventory as well as interruptions in operations. Additionally, this resulted in companies having to shut down for long periods of time, with some smaller companies letting go of workers or closing down permanently. Had the supply chains within the sector originated locally — or even continentally — the industry would have been able to pick up right where it left off as lockdown regulations eased. Unfortunately, much of the sector, specifically within the SMME community, was only able to truly return to work at the start of 2021.

Platforms that improve communication through the material supply chain to predict demand, potentially eliminate inventory and connect businesses of all sizes where it is needed most will be the departure point to ensure this does not occur in the future. Other features that will benefit the industry include transparent pricing structures, reviews and direct architect — or design — manufacturer communication. More specifically, these platforms will enable the industry to increase the development and implementation of standardised, modularised and prefabricated components, which will, in turn, increase productivity, lower costs and maintenance fees for end-users, as well as provide improved systems for interface and technical issues, and more scope for recycling.

Semi-automated and automated equipment also offers greater potential thanks to shorter delivery times, higher quality, increased accuracy with fewer workmanship errors, and improved safety for labourers. And, leaning into the president’s proposed smart-city goals, digitalisation will contribute to the interconnection of people, machines and data to further optimise the operation and management of construction projects and properties.

The development and deployment of digital technologies and processes is key to the transformation of the built environment sector, hence the goal of creating connected cities of the future. To get there, the industry will need to embrace technology and invest in innovation aimed at enabling functionalities that facilitate users at every phase of the value chain.

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