Digitizing Joburg

Tariq Toffa, Johannesburg Community Manager, and Garret Gantner
Johannesburg, 10 May 2016

The City of Johannesburg is currently laying out hundreds of kilometers of fiber-optic network to provide 1000 free Wi-Fi hotspots across the city ("the most ambitious... in the southern hemisphere"), with an allocation of 300MB of data per day and plans to launch complementary voice and video services. It is part of the City’s "Smart City" initiative, which it plans to cross-subsidize with those who can pay for higher usage versus areas that currently have no access at all. The service is currently available at 66 public libraries, as well as clinics, schools and the wireless mesh over the inner-city Braamfontein precinct, and is set to conclude before the end of the current five-year mayoral term in 2016.

Digital inclusion is today considered a major requirement in any developing country, declared “a basic human right” by the United Nations. South Africa’s National Development Plan has prioritized it and set itself a deadline of 2020 for universal broadband access for all citizens. Broadband network is understood to improve access to information (especially open online courses to students and educators), allow new ways of interacting with the city on service delivery matters (such as E-health applications and internet banking), as well as other provisions such as updates on road and traffic conditions and improved security camera monitoring.

These first steps to turn Johannesburg into a "Smart City" are part of an official, broader project, as the city’s executive mayor recently reaffirmed: "The Smart City is here, this is our vision for a world-class African City." But this project / brand is a contested one; its real and potential exclusionary implications on the ground are the subject of debate both on URB.im and other platforms. In this respect, the new broadband network does include several socially inclusive and developmental measures. Most notably, as part of its developmental service delivery model called Jozi@work, the city has committed itself to providing digital literacy training to approximately 3,000 entrepreneurial youth known as "Digital Ambassadors." Mentored by students from the University of Johannesburg, they in turn will train residents in designated suburbs. Other positive measures include using existing public buildings and spaces in communities, and employing local companies for any work required.

In any discussion of technology and the “developing world”; however, it can be useful to keep as a datum the critique of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, one major 20th-century figure who was profoundly critical of the modern technological world view for, as he saw it, its all-encompassing and reductive functionalism. While this did nothing to abate the technological age, perhaps its critique was not too far off. For too often technology appears in the “developing world” with distant global yardsticks and (usually Western) references. Too often these can appear disconnected from social and cultural realities and complexity, even while branding itself with those same stripes. A rear guard, then, may be to see how technology could emerge organically and intimately from particular contexts. It suggests a technology subordinated to the social rather than dictating toward it, where people can make use of technology to build on their own terms, not to “catch up” on its terms. The BRT, Joburg’s other major piece of infrastructure, with great potential for inclusivity is already showing early warning signs precisely of the erosion of the local and the organic if they remain neglected. The obvious benefits of digital inclusion aside, we therefore also need to remember that effective developmental infrastructure is as much an ongoing social process as it is a technological one.

Photo credit: Digital Ambassadors Programme, CoJ.

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