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July 22, 2020

How science and technology can solve social issues

Life in South Africa is particularly challenging right now. On top of the societal issues that have been plaguing the country for many years, we’re also dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic that has played havoc with our daily lives.

So much so, that it’s not unfair to say that COVID has exacerbated many of our challenges and turned them into full-blown problems.

As dark a rain cloud as the current situation appears to be, there is a silver lining: most, if not all of the problems the country faces can be addressed – if not solved entirely – by leveraging the technologies we have at our disposal.

And not future technologies – ones that are readily available or are in active development today.

This article will look at some of the ways in which technology can address these challenges head on, and truly allow us to build a better South Africa for all.

Healthcare

Citizen health is important to any country, and in South Africa rolling out high-quality care to all citizens remains a high priority for government.

It’s a big job, however, given the country’s history, but a large part of getting it done is enabling communication between citizens and the government, and putting high-quality health information into the hands of every citizen.

The Mpilo app, released late in 2019, is an example of how technology can help with this. It’s a zero-rated smartphone app that connects citizens with the Gauteng Health Department, providing them with information like the locations of their nearest healthcare facilities, official COVID-19 information, the ability to call ambulances, and much more.

The app also allows citizens to raise concerns and have them investigated and responded to within a time frame far faster than the previous process did.

The app improves the patient experience and allows the Gauteng Health Department to improve the quality of care to patients, and in so doing raise the standard of care accessible to more South Africans.

It’s not a silver bullet solution to the country’s health challenges, but it’s a great example of how technology can help to make a challenging situation better.

Improve Service Delivery

Smartphones are everywhere. Today, nearly everyone knows what Spotify, SweepSouth, Uber, and AirBnB are because they’re a part of our everyday lives.

When it comes to service delivery, apps are in a unique position to enable governments to extend useful services to a huge number of people, quickly and efficiently.

By enabling citizens to log community concerns, get reference numbers, and follow up on logged calls easily, governments can hold themselves accountable to the promises they have made, and citizens can see progress towards the resolution of their issues, in real time.

The MyJRA app is a great example of this, as it allows citizens to report issues like traffic lights not working, pothole locations, and much more. The data goes directly to the Johannesburg Roads Agency, which then dispatches teams to sort the problems raised out.

This idea can be extended to any government services, from car license renewal to driver’s license bookings, passport and ID applications, and much more. The potential here is enormous for technology to have a tangible – and positive – impact on the lives of citizens.

Food Supply

As populations grow, so too does the need to grow food to feed them. With that, comes a growing need to do more with land that’s allocated to agricultural activities.

There are two ways technology can tackle this. The first is through the use of robots that are purpose-built for farming that plant, water, de-weed, and harvest our crops, automatically, 24/7/365. They can run on solar power during the day and battery power at night.

By automating the farming process, less human effort is required, and the results from the accuracies of the robots’ sensors and the intelligence of their programming means better-quality and possibly even higher-volume crops grown over time.

The second is to use food technologies like hydroponics to grow crops inside high-rise buildings. Hydroponic crops use less water, can be mass-produced at a very low cost, and can be set up in vacant skyscrapers in urban areas.

A side benefit of growing food this way is that it’s close to restaurants and supermarkets that need the freshest produce possible.

These so-called “vertical farms” can take over abandoned buildings to create more food for more people, while also creating jobs for people interested in growing food in this way.

Extend the reach of quality education

The internet is everywhere these days, and in South Africa absolutely everyone can access it thanks to the magic of smartphones and cellular networks.

Through the internet, a person has access to information like never before. This includes access to online educational courses that teach everything from basic carpentry skills to psychology and much more besides.

You can even do traditional university courses online now, so you can get an internationally-recognised qualification without ever leaving your home.

Some courses are as expensive as doing a degree in person, however, while other online resources are a lot cheaper and often run specials on their content. Sites like Udemy, Cousera, Khan Academy, and Codeacademy are excellent for teaching useful 21st century skills, for cheap.

How cheap, you might be asking? Very! For example, Udemy offers sales several times a year, offering courses as cheap as a modest meal for two at a fast food restaurant.

With knowledge already within easy reach thanks to the internet, a more educated population is little more than a few clicks away.

Creating jobs

There’s no need to be scared that technology will steal jobs. Instead, as it solves problems, it will create new jobs for humans to do in the process.

Just like 20 years ago nobody knew what a social media strategist is, people will be doing jobs in 20 years’ time that we can’t even begin to imagine today.

And therein lies the adventure, as well as hope, for the future!