Information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure being built to support the growing use of digital technologies is following wealth and, by extension, apartheid spatial patterns, but this can be corrected through development financing and city planning, says University of Witwatersrand multimedia journalism lecturer and innovation hub Tshimologong JamLab lead Indra de Lanerolle.
“Digital infrastructure underlies new technologies and contributes to its unequal distribution. City infrastructure, like digital infrastructure, connects people, places and opportunities and, therefore, not only maps out the existing social and wealth relations but also entrenches them.”
Underlying all digital processes are physical objects and equipment, such as fibre-optic cables and transmitters. Digital networks can, therefore, be mapped out based on these physical objects, and digital maps of South African cities reveal that they reproduce physical inequalities.
Fibre-optic networks are essential infrastructure to enable digital services. Companies laying fibre in the greater Johannesburg area have maps of their current and planned roll-out that are similar to one another, including the areas where they are not building, namely Alexandra and Soweto.
“We are entrenching something new, which offers new possibilities, along existing spatial architecture for the next thirty years.
“Relying on mobile networks for digital infrastructure is unaffordable and impractical, especially to support the data demands of businesses. This is how a lack of access to digital infrastructure can create even more barriers for businesses.”
However, new infrastructure offers new possibilities to change these spatial patterns of development. Cities are networks and, primarily, social networks. Urbanisation may be the result of people wanting to access denser social networks and, hence, more opportunities and social and intellectual capital to achieve objectives, such as finding a job or business partners or to access funding.
“New communication networks can enhance and change what is lacking in the existing networks, but this is challenging to achieve,” he says.
While there are similarities between digital and traditional infrastructure, there are also significant differences that present opportunities to intervene to prevent a repeat of unequal distribution of infrastructure.
The regulatory power that cities can exercise over infrastructure within their boundaries, which include designating servitudes and where companies can lay cables, can be a suitable lever for overcoming digital infrastructure exclusion.
Most physical infrastructure was built by cities themselves or public agencies, but most digital infrastructure is being built by private companies. Development finance institutions can play a strong and strategic role in bridging digital infrastructure divides, especially in areas private companies consider uneconomical, and thereby fulfil a key part of their developmental mandate.
An additional problem affecting the inclusiveness of digital infrastructure development concerns planning cycles, which must change to meet the much more rapid and dynamic roll-out of digital infrastructure.
“Big plans require big assumptions, which, if incorrect, lead to poor investments in infrastructure. When it comes to technology and innovation, almost by definition you will not have enough information to make accurate forecasts of future uses.”
To improve digital infrastructure planning, De Lanerolle proposes that city planners use lean, or agile, development methods that focus on how strategies can be executed in times of uncertainty, a core concept of which is to deploy small and iterative projects – start small, learn and then change planning and budgeting processes.
Additionally, cities can benefit from the ‘broken world’ paradigm, which acknowledges the fragmented nature of civil systems and physical infrastructure. The planning model for this scenario focuses on fixing nonfunctioning elements, intervening to address pressing issues, using the capabilities provided by existing infrastructure and systems effectively and enhancing systems for future use.
“Such a model of planning provides more room for intervention and possibly more successful interventions than big plans, as well as generating more ideas for city planners.”