E-government in the City of Gold? Innovation and agility can get the economy growing

From the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan to London and New York, the world’s great urban centers have always been catalysts of change and engines of innovation. Can South Africa’s money province, Gauteng, use digital to spark the innovation and entrepreneurship so critical to its economic revival?

South Africa provides a gateway to Africa. The success of the Gauteng Provincial Government’s massive e-government push will have a vitalising effect not only on the country, but likely also the rest of Africa — a very needed one.

One thing we know — good e-government is not just about extending the reach and efficiency of public services (as important as that is to do well); digital technologies provide a platform for cities to transform service and catalyse innovation.

Representing less than 1 percent of the African continent’s landmass, Gauteng generates more than 10 percent of the entire continent’s GDP. The opportunities that lie before it to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship are immense. Can it?

Research shows that for every 1 percent increase in digitalization, countries experience a 0.5 percent increase in GDP, a 1.9 percent gain in international trade and 0.86 percent drop in unemployment rates. Great numbers to gun for with stats like these. At present, Gauteng dominates the South African economy in every major sector except agriculture and mining. It also accounts for 47.7 percent of employees’ remuneration in the country, and is responsible for 50.4 percent of all company turnover in South Africa.

Noteworthy e-government strategy rollouts signpost the way to success. Singaporehas one of the most mature e-government implementations and, as we heard about during the Gauteng e-Government Summit last week, Georgia’s e-government to e-governance journey has catalysed discussions around electronic democracy.

These are great examples and the Gauteng Provincial Government (GPG) is just starting its journey.

So how will they do it?

First up — and this is a cornerstone of the strategy — GPG leadership understands the importance of connectivity and of ICT as an economic enabler. It describes it as a utility, as critical as water, sanitation and housing, to the lives and livelihoods of the people of the province, and to stimulating business.

The blueprint for delivery, from the access infrastructure to e-services, has been created.The big drivers: revitalisation of Gauteng’s economy, with specific emphasis on stimulating the vast but inert township economy and industry sector.

It starts with infrastructure, the lifeblood of digital. A 1,600km fibre optic transmission network will connect major centres, municipalities, core services, and township economies along major nodes. ‘Last mile’ connectivity, the missing link in South Africa’s telecoms landscape, is part of the deal, as is free Wi-Fi across large municipal areas. Partnerships with the private sector to commercialise and expand infrastructure will drive momentum.

There is of course much much more to the strategy. There is a single characteristic, however, that will drive success…

The agility of a startup

To succeed, the GPG will need a strong culture that supports a new openness to change and to innovation. Its delivery needs to match its intent, not the strategy blueprint.

An analysis of 40 cities worldwide to distil success factors defines the leading characteristic needed for success as the ability of the city to act like a start-up: to experiment to understand what works, learn from failure, and capitalize on successes quickly, at the top of the list of needed characteristics.

Cities can foster innovation and entrepreneurship by making use of key levers at their disposal in three important areas: openness to new ideas and business, optimisation of infrastructure for high growth business, and how it builds innovation into its own activities.

My advice:

  • Signal commitment. Commit to establishing innovation leadership positions; have the strategies and teams in place for coordinating policy across departments and agencies; invest them with real problem-solving capabilities as well as the resources they need to effect change.
  • Embrace new design techniques. Mimic the approaches entrepreneurs take by employing prototyping, design methods and digital techniques to craft policy, seed growth and solve problems.
  • Be comprehensive. Treat the full range of city operations and influence as mutually supportive drivers of success, capable of being used to improve the innovation and entrepreneurship environment. This extends into core municipal functions such as regulation and procurement.
  • Be open by default. Cultivate habitual open exchange with the local entrepreneurial community. Let entrepreneurs gain an understanding of the critical urban challenges they are well placed to solve. Simultaneously, enable city officials to understand the issues entrepreneurs face and design policy that reflects their needs. Encourage open standards, interoperability and meritocracy.
  • Use soft power. Apply softer approaches that involve influencing, convening and collaborating to effect change in areas where the city government has little direct power.

Successful cities act as bridge-makers. They connect start-ups with potential stakeholders and they facilitate connections among multiple parts of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. And here’s something to note: This does not require money or power; cities can accomplish it by effectively exploiting their central positions in this ecosystem … which takes us full circle to the need to build that start-up culture into the city!

The prize is great. Here’s to a start-up mentality, the courage to fail, the stamina to keep trying, and the ability to build sturdy bridges!