11 May 2022 | Story Dr Udesh Pillay | Photo Sonia Small
Dr Udesh Pillay
Dr Udesh Pillay is the Director for the UFS Business School, University of the Free State (UFS)

Opinion Article (Part 1)

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is evolving at an exponential rate. The breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance. The possibilities of billions of people connected by mobile devices, with unprecedented processing power, storage capacity, and access to knowledge are unlimited. And these possibilities will be multiplied by emerging technology breakthroughs in fields such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing.

4IR felt more in the world’s cities and their built environments

Nowhere is the impact of the 4IR more felt than in the world’s cities and their built environments – where the density and diversity of human settlements creates perpetually evolving eco-systems ripe for innovation. City administrators (as well as administrators of smaller urban conurbations) must be aware and empowered to direct such transformation for the long-term benefit of citizens, ensuring that the efficiency of advanced technology is balanced by innovation in policy; that decisions are made on sound values as well as robust data; and that local administrators stand ready to address the challenges and opportunities for their constituents.

In the developing world in particular, structural unemployment; unprecedented levels of urbanisation; an extreme dependence on social grants; urban poverty and violence; a lack of basic infrastructure; corrupt municipal practices; and growing levels of frustration and discontent at the manner in which city administrators are governing their municipal jurisdictions, have forced government entities at all levels to consider more efficient ways to deal with rapidly rising demands. For municipalities, the opportunities offered by the 4IR potentially coalesce around:

-    building smart, interconnected and resilient cities by harnessing the value chain, efficiency and interdependence of the urban system and the built environment (including small towns and the rural economy)
-    stimulating local action in building clean, green, healthy, and sustainable local communities
-    modernising governance through technological innovation and connecting people to their ecosystems, institutions and services
-    moving towards efficiencies in urban health and resources to lower pollution and improve liveability and affordability
-    building sustainable transport and logistics to increase mobility and connectivity
-    better revenue generation and financial management (for example, rethinking the nature of public-private partnerships, infrastructure investment, and financing instruments)
-    building communities of purpose – by enhancing resource efficiency and transparency through solution-based and open (e-) procurement systems
-    better understanding the growing complexity of IT and operational systems, and the need to more fully comprehend the (dis-) connection between the digital and physical environments; and
-    balancing the impact of complex interactions between cities and the natural environment (from resource use and ecosystem services to air pollution).

Smart planning and construction

With respect to smart planning and construction, while the co-location of people, jobs, services, entertainment and shops define the built environment, uncoordinated development and sprawling single-use construction patterns characterise many of today’s rapidly growing cities. Low capacity and ineffective urban policy, planning, and regulation mean that urban space is not used as well as it could be. This is costly, but also results in higher greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and air pollution resulting from increased private transport, inefficient services, fewer open spaces, and extensive ‘grey’ infrastructure. Socially, poorly planned cities are worse off, too, because people with lower incomes are typically marginalised, living in poorly constructed homes in disconnected, unserviced settlements.

Mixed-use development


Mixed-use development, which is compact and well-connected, offers a far better model for the economy and environment. Solutions to make more out of scarce, valuable urban space include:

-    integrated, digital urban planning, transparent land-use planning, monitoring and management, and clear property rights that allow for the development of shared spaces
-    denser, integrated and mixed-use communities close to transport nodes, e.g. transit-oriented development
-    multifunctional buildings that enable the optimal use of floor space
-    next generation business codes using digital design and nano-materials to radically reduce embodied carbon in production
-    ‘just-in-time’ offsite, pre- and modular fabrication that improves construction efficiency and flexibility by re-using building parts; and
smart residential and commercial building management that reduces the cost of inefficient energy and water-use.

Technologies associated with the 4IR

Technologies associated with the 4IR can offer new tools for city authorities, private developers and residents to properly plan, visualise, and manage urban development and built environment imperatives. Drones, sensors and big data-powered simulations aided by AI can simplify these processes and improve engagement with citizens, leveraging new ways of generating and using data. Advanced materials, 3-D printing, blockchain (a software program that records information that makes it extremely difficult to change, hack or cheat a system) and AI, can support intelligent building design and streamline construction contracting.

Clean energy and utilities

With respect to clean energy and utilities, cities are our biggest opportunity to mitigate climate change. They account for more then 70% of global energy use to power their buildings, industry, utilities, and infrastructure. Addressing this issue requires huge investment in renewable, decentralised and controllable energy solutions.

Improvements to fossil fuel generated power and heat include renewable energy generation coupled with energy efficiency measures. The key solutions include:

-    renewable decentralised energy generation such as rooftop solar, city heat networks, and peer-to-peer energy systems
-    temperature sensors, smart meters and occupant controls for efficiency and to control energy and water use
-    intelligent grid management that assists municipalities monitor asset use, and to ensure efficient and cost-effective operations
-    advanced batteries for energy storage and electric vehicles; and
-    waste-to-energy plants including associated district heat and cooling networks.

The 4IR technologies can offer new efficiencies in generation through virtual power plants. These integrate various energy sources through IoT and cloud-based platforms for more reliable power supply, decentralised energy storage, networks and quad generation. For transmission, sensor-based electric and water grids can be used, while in distribution and consumption the technologies include blockchain-enabled asset and contract management, demand forecasting and AI-powered modelling.

Urban health and resources

Turning to urban health and resources, degraded air quality, dirty water and unsustainable waste practices are contributing to deteriorating health and economic productivity in the cities and built environments of many developing countries and emerging economies. Planning new cities and retrofitting existing ones requires a paradigm shift given rapid urbanisation and growing environmental pressures.

The urban ‘anatomy’ of energy networks, green spaces, water, and waste systems (as part of the built environment ecological value chain) must transform from their current wasteful ways into resource-efficient ones. Key solutions include:

-    sharing economy principles for developing smart solutions and efficient supply chains, which can help meet human needs with minimal ecological footprints, improve the quality of life and reduce economic losses from waste
-    a circular economy design for remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling to keep components and materials circulating, reduce damage and manage negative environmental effects
-    integrated municipal and industrial waste management
-    life-cycle assessments of water quality, management and re-use
-    air pollution sequestration and purifiers, including biofilters; and
-    ‘living’ building facades, green spaces, and urban agriculture.

Municipalities also have the difficult balancing task of ensuring that more stringent environment quality controls and rules do not leave poorer members further marginalised. 4IR innovations will be integral to delivering a better environmental quality of life in cities. Opportunities include developing urban farms on rooftops and on building walls, making underutilised spaces greener and less polluting through bio-engineering, tracking water quality, recycling, and creatively re-using waste.

Resilient urban systems


Resilient urban systems, emerging cities and their built environments have to continually manage change, and often respond to natural hazards and human catastrophes such as conflict and mass migration. Demographic, economic, political, and cyber shocks can also have an impact on the city environment because reduced financing abilities, different priorities, and compromised systems can divert scarce funds and focus from key sustainable infrastructure and low-carbon investments.

Climate change

Climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, with underlying geo-political unrest and shocks. Cities will need to be at the forefront of averting and tackling negative impacts, from damaged infrastructure to related infectious disease outbreaks (like Covid-19, for instance). Solutions include:

-    real-time, integrated and adaptive urban management systems and change management to better adapt to, learn from and respond to shocks
-    integrated financial, procurement and governance systems
-    enhanced risk-monitoring and prediction, combined with up-to-date cyber security measures, for flexible, reliable city and utility functions as well as insurance management; and
-    disaster-ready urban infrastructure and smart emergency response systems for natural and man-made disaster prevention, mitigation and recovery.

4IR technologies, consequently, have immense potential to promote predictability and transparency in risk preparedness and responses: IoT and AI can predict and communicate potential shocks and disasters in real time; blockchain can enhance cybersecurity; drones can deliver urgent supplies to hard-to-reach areas; and 3-D printing and advanced materials can better rebuild infrastructure making it more resilient and with a lower ecological footprint.

(The next instalment of this article will attempt to localise the discussion that has unfolded above by looking at the potential of South Africa’s larger urban conurbations to embrace some of the changes fomented by the global transition to a digital economy).



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