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Innopreneurship: The foundation of the truly smart city

/ 16 May 2017 at 22:30pm

Dr Jeff Yu-Jen Chen (GIBS) and Dr Geci Karuri-Sebina (SACN)

“Innovation” and “entrepreneurship” are concepts that have become central to our modern-day understanding of how we grow economies, and the latest Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) 2016/17 report began to draw important connections between these in their latest assessment of national economies. 

In an age of increasing African urbanisation, with all the opportunities and challenges that it brings, leaders need to explore ways in which to enable viable and deep  socio-economic transformation in order to bring about prosperous and sustainable futures. In recent years, the hybrid term “innopreneurship” – the pursuit of translating innovative ideas into successful entrepreneurial endeavours – has been used to express these as the key ingredients of competitiveness and success of businesses, communities and cities. At the risk of adding to the dense pool of SA jargon, the term may offer a useful lens for thinking about our city economies.

A city that endorses innopreneurship is one that provides inclusive services and facilities to its full populace, understanding the need to level the playing field with regards to access to work opportunities, transport, internet, enterprise development and other crucial elements of community life. In this way, such a city begins the necessary work of bridging the gap between rich and poor in a manner that ensures the needs of both are taken into consideration, and effective solutions and capabilities are developed. As more people around the globe move into cities for the long term, innopreneurship is vital to the sustainability and efficiency of accommodating large numbers of workers and residents. Basic local functions such as effective delivery of services, refuse collection, metering and traffic management need far more innovative solutions than ever before.

While innovation requires a thinking and doing process that leads to meeting specific current and future needs, innopreneurship would be the metaphoric blueprint on which a smart city is built by visualising something that doesn’t yet exist, working for people who don’t yet know that they want the services and opportunities a smart city provides.

The “smart city” has typically been defined as one that uses information and communication technologies (ICT) to create critical infrastructure and public services that are more affordable, accessible, interactive and efficient. However, infrastructure alone does not make a smart city: Innovators must leverage technology, training and city personnel creatively and ethically for mutually-beneficial gains in order for the city to work for the communities it serves, and generate the capital to sustain itself. According to digital communications provider Telefónica, “In a broader definition, a city can be considered as ‘smart’ whenever investments in human and social capital, and in communication infrastructure, specifically encourage sustainable economic development and a higher quality of life, with judicious management of natural resources through participatory government.”

A smart city, therefore, is not merely one that looks good and functions efficiently – it is one that uses technological innovations to empower people to live more fulfilled lives within their contexts. This is the critical challenge facing innopreneurs, who understand the importance of garnering the collective power of multiple stakeholders able to work outside the silos of regular offices and governing bodies; bringing not only experience and investment, but agility and responsiveness. Partnerships without too much restraint on each partner provide fertile ground for innopreneurs to make both profitability and sustainability real for real stakeholders.

To truly create smart cities, partnerships must be holistic and view the bigger picture from the nascent concept to the formulation of strategy. This requires transparency of partnerships, ethical project selection, and thorough implementation as a business imperative. Innopreneurs and partners would benefit by the exchange of suggestions and information between city actors of varying socioeconomic status, which would enable them to leverage off each others’ strengths, understand overall requirements of all citizens, and build on their collective experience and wisdom.

Where city innovation managers and economic development managers work together, implementation of the necessary infrastructure and strategies will likely be easier and more beneficial to all parties, particularly where they adopt viable business models already successful in the private or civic sectors to promote innopreneurial collaboration. It must be noted here that, in the case of Singapore, government’s National Research Foundation is working together with private-sector firms, universities and other government departments, highlighting the importance of overall buy-in from all stakeholders. Reliable funding from governments and from the private sector is the foundation of the critical sustainability on which nations’ competitiveness and future preparedness rests. And reliable knowledge from all four sectors – public, private, civic, and knowledge – is the bedrock that ensures contextual relevance and inclusion.

Striving to be the world’s first smart city – and well on its way – Singapore’s Smart Nation program was launched by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in late 2014. According to a 2015 article published in The Economist, chances of ‘smart city’ status were remote in 1965 when, as a small and underdeveloped newly-independent country, it had a population of relatively recent immigrants with little shared history and no natural resources to speak of. It is noted that three key drivers made the difference between the Singapore of 1965 and the economically successful powerhouse it is now. Firstly, its harbour and strategic location at the mouth of the Malacca Strait made it an important route for maritime traffic. Secondly, the country’s first Prime Minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, welcomed foreign trade and investment, and global corporations found it to be a natural hub where they were encouraged to prosper and expand, thereby creating jobs. Thirdly, the government was kept small, efficient and honest and is regularly rated very highly in surveys of ease of doing business.

While some have raised personal privacy issues regarding Prime Minister Loong’s Smart Nation program (and these are indeed important issues begging consideration in any democratic country), the innovations on which Singapore is pinned are largely designed for better quality of life and monitoring by those in a position to quickly take care of service that falter. One such example is sensors deployed by private firms in publicly managed elder-care homes that will alert family if individuals are not moving as they regularly do and even record bathroom use in an attempt to monitor general health. This would mean quicker action by families and healthcare practitioners, reducing suffering.

Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan, FRCS, is also the Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Programme Office, and asserts that the programme is about action and the conducting of trials across many sectors, focusing on "areas with high impact on residents and citizens." In any country, this naturally requires partnerships with various government departments, as well as the corporate and private sectors. Included in these partnerships are partner- accessible divisions that share resources and innovate, collecting data to pre-empt service delivery failure and seamlessly implement new systems as technology becomes available.

Though the term “smart city” sounds high tech and wealthy, it is imperative that any truly smart city across the globe take into account the needs of the poor, under-educated and possibly tech-challenged. Often, app developers forget this sector, but innopreneurs understand the importance of overall equality of opportunity. In India, for example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 100 Smart Cities Plan was boosted in January 2017 with the announcement of a further 27 smart cities, bringing India’s total to 60.

Greeted with excitement by many, his plan has come under scrutiny by political parties questioning the choice of cities and the impact on existing cities – and rightly so. As the innopreneur knows, every “solution” must be taken apart and added to, over and over, as questions arise, especially with regard to socio-economic jurisdiction issues. It is here that the innopreneur’s vision presents challenges if partnerships and funding have not been identified and deals sealed before collective decisions are made. Modi’s smart city plan requires securing capital from domestic private investors and foreigners, but a 2017 article in Firstpost.com quotes Deloitte as saying that the “100 smart cities mission will require an investment of over $150 billion over the next few years with private sector contributing $120 billion”. Can the private sector wait years for return on investment?

In Africa, smart city status (in global terms) has not been achieved yet, but that is not to say there are no cities very close to the mark. Nairobi and Cape Town rank among the most advanced cities on the African continent, both of these using Singapore as a model. However, the closeness of co-operation between Singapore’s government and its business sector has had far more time to develop into a trusting and trustworthy partnership and, regardless of how much money is put into ICT solutions that move a city towards smart status, the gap between the wealthy and the poor must still be conquered. This requires collaboration between all involved. In the case of Kenya, often dubbed “the most intelligent city in Africa”, the hugely successful money transfer app M-Pesa inspired many entrepreneurs to focus on the tech industry and launch start-ups. In 2010, Nairobi invested heavily in the fostering of innovation by creating the iHub, a tech incubation centre where developers, entrepreneurs and innopreneurs can debate and create solutions in an innovative space. By 2015, iHub had given rise to 150 start-ups and over 1 300 jobs - a key factor in the success of any smart city. Now, some 60km from Nairobi’s centre, Konza City is being built to become Africa’s “Silicon Valley”. While the development has many critics, it is an example of a focused aspiration to leverage an emerging innovation-driven competence area.

Cape Town’s government has made a good start with various implementations of its four-pillar project towards reaching the smart city status: Digital infrastructure, digital inclusion, e-government and digital economy, with the Cape Town Emergency Dispatch Centre being the nerve system of the city. This allows for heightened security and safety for all and, importantly, is able to function efficiently. By the end of 2016, the city had installed 72 public WiFi hotspots. Its goal now is to create one hotspot in each of the province’s 384 municipal wards by 2018, essentially levelling the playing fields between the haves and have nots. Cape Town’s large investment into ICT means any citizen with a mobile device can go online to pay utility bills; report a crime or emergency; apply for municipal services, licenses and permits; and request municipal service or maintenance. Other cities like the capital city of Tshwane have similar aspirations.

While a virtual polar opposite of Singapore and, like India, with a large population of citizens with low or no earnings and housing crises, Johannesburg is working towards being smart and is currently using technology and social media to talk to its residents and respond with services. A mobile app recently created for the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA), Find & Fix allows road users to report road defects, potholes, missing manhole covers, defective traffic signals and other infrastructural faults for urgent attention to raise vehicle and pedestrian safety. It is a small step towards being a smart city, but the innovators have created a platform on which more innovations can be built.

It is this growth and promotion of entrepreneurial thinking that underpins smart cities and creates both jobs and potential investment in any country. Once innopreneurs take into account the sectors that can benefit from mobile apps and the connectivity provided by Internet of Things (IoT), innopreneurship grows into partnerships between innovation managers, economic development managers, government departmental heads, academic institutions, OEMs, SME implementers, the private sector, entrepreneur incubators and venture capitalists or angel funders and to other aspiring innopreneurs. In this way, ideas and funding are spread broadly, encouraging an innopreneurial mindset - the key to future economic success.

Even while the concept of smart cities has been largely linked to digitalisation and ICT, Boyd Cohen’s 2014 article in FastCompany showed that the top ten cities around the world doing best are embracing the future by focusing on improving technology, equality, sharing and civic participation. “For many years, the push to create smarter cities was led by technology companies looking for uses (and buyers) for their products,” Boyd writes, adding that “in recent years, cities have begun to think more holistically about what being a smart city could mean, and have innovated new ways to modernise how a city serves its citizens.”

Clearly, while tech is a vital part of smart cities in this era of digital disruption, innopreneur-led transformation is most likely to use technology as a base from which to generate the ideas shared by partners, entrepreneurs and private enterprise to create cities that take socioeconomic factors, human rights and care, and business and job creation into consideration.

Urban innovation must start with the basics that make cities liveable - housing, health (including water and energy), and transport; tying all of these in with government administration, public safety, education and social programs. Partnerships that are open, ethical and understood by all stakeholders remain the determinant for success.  Truly smart cities have the potential to be breeding grounds for entrepreneurship, the cornerstone of economic growth – but ultimately, every city starts with a human heartbeat and true innopreneurs take this into account: Make it simple, make it sustainable, make it smart from a user perspective and the benefits will be felt for generations to come.




Dr Jeff Yu-Jen Chen is a full-time faculty member of the Gordon Institute of Business Science. His research and teaching interests include corporate innovation, value creation thinking, digital disruption and human computer interaction. Apart from coaching and advising leaders across different sectors in his private capacity, Jeff serves as the lead faculty of the GIBS – Dimension Data Digital Disruption Collaboration, various customized executive training programmes and strategic dialogue sessions.

Geci Karuri-Sebina is an Executive Manager at South African Cities Network, and an Archbishop Tutu Leadership Fellow. She has two decades’ experience working and publishing in the fields of urban development, innovation and foresight. Her most recent publication is the book Innovation Africa (Emerald Books, 2016).