Q1. Your academic and professional paths were mostly based in South Africa and Australia. You have now moved to Europe and Portugal. Could you let us know a bit more about this life journey?
I began life as a pure mathematician but left that once I realised that only about twelve people on the planet cared about my work. From there, I joined the IT industry, installing networks, designing and coding systems, and managing databases. When I got tired of how predictable computers were, I turned to management and had fun, and some success, trying to make people and organisations work in coherent ways. After Y2K, I moved back to higher education, working mostly in universities, but also for the Council on Higher Education where I compiled policy advice. In between, I opened a creative co-working space in Johannesburg, in order to spend time with other artists.
I have lived and worked in South Africa all my life, never in Australia. My slim connection with Australia was a distance MBA and working on the Johannesburg campus of Monash University. However, being white in apartheid South Africa meant that I grew up believing that I was European! That is what I learned to fill in next to “race” on official forms, and public services I used were labelled “Europeans only”. I also grew up English, in a town with a statue of Queen Victoria, reading story-books that were all set in England. Even Portugal had a place in my past because that town was in Natal, a province named by Vasco da Gama on Christmas Day in 1497. So, moving to Europe is an opportunity to explore whether I really am European or African.
Q2. We have stumbled upon your blog and read your article “A Small City Throws a Big Party“. For those who have not read it, it concludes with the sentence “Imagine tackling crime by throwing parties“. What do you mean with this sentence?
In South Africa, with extreme inequality and high crime, people living in the same city often view each other with fear and suspicion. Trying to tackle these problems, we look for ways to increase social cohesion – the “glue” that holds society together. In Guimarães, I find a society with lots of social “glue”. It is very strange for me to see children running around and people enjoying themselves, in public spaces. How strange that I should find this strange! Guimarães holds many festivals and social events that are open to the whole town. I wonder if these events and this use of public space are one source of social cohesion? If so, we should be throwing more parties in South African towns, to increase social cohesion. This may, in the end, reduce crime. These problems are much, much more complex of course, so please do not take this comment too seriously!
Q3. Your interest in cities goes beyond travel since cities are also a major part of your research. Can you tell us more about the research you do in the area of Smart Cities?
I love cities because they are complex and magical. Cities are monuments to human creativity and showcases for the technologies (in the broad sense) of the human race. I love that people just get on with living and working, individually and collectively, and cities or settlements emerge as a result. Cities seem to have a life and personality of their own, so perhaps a smart city will, one day, be a city with a sense of its own presence. New technologies enable us to see, and influence, emergent patterns at different scales, so these processes are now more visible and can be studied.
My research looks at the discourses surrounding smart cities, like “your city needs to buy our system” or “smart means futuristic buildings”, in contrast to discourses that are more human-scale, like “a smart city supports healthy living” or reflective, like “smart cities think long-term”. I am interested in what influences these discourses, how different nodes of power steer them and how they can be subverted. Smart often focuses on new, clean, working cities, but I think that being smart is even more important in big, messy, broken cities. I think super-high-tech smart solutions like the City Brain in Hangzhou [China] are cool and intriguing social experiments, but I also really like solutions like Kabadiwalla Connect in Chennai [India], that use simpler technologies and existing informal scrap shops and waste-pickers to increase recycling. As long as people are being creative, there will be more to learn about cities.
Q4. What is your view on the importance of EGOV for society nowadays?
Well, to start with, I think that government is very important today as a counter-balance to the power of companies. Noble governments care about inequality and provide a long-term, broad and human perspective. But people have lost faith in governments that are out of touch; they do not vote and they do not care what governments do. Companies have put new technologies to good use; listening to people, providing great services that people really want, and getting people excited about their brands. For governments to stay relevant and healthy, they need to become expert at using the same tools that companies use. e-Government is a set of tools that can be used to listen to people, provide excellent services, and to make a case for the importance of strong government. If governments do not master these tools, they will continue to lose power and become irrelevant.
Q5. What major trends do you see in the EGOV area for the upcoming years?
The biggest trend will be re-shaping the culture of public organisations to embrace creativity and innovation while reviving a commitment to public service. Smart public servants understand the need to innovate with ICTs to improve government and service delivery, and that there is much work to be done. Alongside this culture shift, comes an awareness of the value of diversity and the need for governments to extend their reach and skills base by working with companies, non-profits, academia and individual residents. Good data will play an important role, with a focus on collecting, curating, sharing and using data sets effectively and with due care. Many will put time and energy into crafting new regulatory tools, appropriate for the future. Smart governments will build their legitimacy by acting to contain polarization and increase trust. For this, they will need sophisticated communication tools and to model values that people can believe in.
*The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the UNU.