Global engineering and infrastructure advisory company Aurecon is one of the partners in the initiative, which is known as the Youth Innovation Challenge (YIC).
“Something extraordinary happens when people who might never have crossed paths otherwise band together with a common vision; they ignite something. For Aurecon, that something includes teaching the youth the skills they need to become agents of change in their communities.
Together with the eThekwini Municipality and other stakeholders, Aurecon is investing in the future of the city using the Innovate Durban platform,” says Aurecon Global Service Leader for Electrical and Control, Richard Ahlschlager.
Launched in 2014 by the municipality, Innovate Durban aims to improve the city by bringing together businesses, academics, communities and other partners to build skills and foster innovation. The YIC, one of Innovate Durban’s key components, focuses on creating a platform to empower the youth.
Urban areas – effectively the economic nerve centres of their countries – play an essential role in contributing to the global GDP. It’s estimated that over a billion people will be living in African cities by 2050. Cities which will need to adapt rapidly in response to climate change, as well as provide innovative solutions to address future housing, infrastructure and transport challenges.
“We need to equip our youth with the skills to think big and innovate groundbreaking solutions in response to Africa’s challenges,” says Abbas Jamie, Aurecon’s Director for Transformation and Innovation.
Aurecon is going about that through initiatives like the YIC. Driven by Aurecon, in partnership with Oracle, the challenge focuses on giving participants the knowledge they need to provide new, creative solutions to eThekwini’s energy, water, waste, mobility, information communications technology, and urban renewal challenges.
“Creativity is an integral part of what we do – whether it’s partnering with a photographer to capture transport insights, or using design thinking to help communities to actively participate in the solutions we create for them.
“It’s when we fuse that creativity with our technical expertise, that’s when we’re able to think out-of-the-box and innovate,” says Jamie.
This was demonstrated by the winners of the challenge, who were announced at the YIC Awards evening earlier this month. From creating a Facebook Chatbot, to developing a solution to prevent water wastage in townships and rural areas, they showed how learning, collaboration and mentorship can unlock innovation.
When the Feather Design team chose their company name, they settled on the word “feather” not for the delicate beauty the appendage lends to a bird’s plumage, but rather for the critical role it plays in helping it to fly.
“As a graphic design company, we want whatever we create to help others take flight,” says one of the company’s founders, Mlungisi Nzimande.
The 24-year-old and his team was awarded top honours in the recent challenge.
Together with fellow team members, Zathaba Ndlovu (20), Sandile Khuzwayo (22), Thulani Joyisa (23) and Sibanisezwe Dube (21), Mlungisi created a Facebook Chatbot to improve the municipality’s ability to address comments and service reports emanating from its social media channels.
Put simply the bot – which is a generalised term used to describe any software that automates a task – uses Facebook Messenger as a platform for customers to contact the municipality.
Previously this task entailed capturing numerous reports before the municipality could respond – now the bot ‘feeds’ the database – the municipality has only to check the database and it can then dispatch a technician speedily.
Speaking of the process the team underwent – including learning essential skills such as problem-solving, how to develop a business proposal, as well as learning about the application of artificial intelligence – Mlungisi said for the first time they realise how technology and innovation can “bring out the best in our city”.
“I want to help solve the problems we face as a country, including using technology to help disadvantaged learners.”
As the winning team, Feather Design will undergo a three-month mentorship programme at Aurecon’s eThekwini office.
Power to the people
Having all grown up in rural areas, Brendon Clark (24), Njabulo Shange (31), Sphamandla Msane (25), and Sphelele Dumisa (25) are well aware of the desperate need there is for a good education.
“Disadvantaged children aren’t exposed to computers – we want to put an end to that. We need to get technology into rural areas so that they can develop,” says Clark.
This inspired the team’s idea to develop a low-cost computer, which uses an open source operating system – that means the source code is open and people can make changes to it – and runs on solar and battery power. “Our main drivers were accessibility and the running cost. We’ve tested our prototype and have run it on solar power for two days without charging it.”
When connected to the power grid, the team’s computer runs at a cost of R25 a month, as opposed to R250 a month for a conventional computer.
Having been placed second in the challenge, the team plans to use their winnings to build enough computers to pilot at a school. “Longer term we hope to get more people in the rural areas into the tech space” says Clark.
Asked what he’s learnt through the process, Brandon immediately answers: perseverance. “I’m the sort of person who gives up easily – this time I persevered. And I’m going to see this idea through – until it makes the impact it should.”
Conserving our water resources
Ntando Ndimande (19) was still in school when the idea he’d develop for the challenge was sparked. “We had a neighbour who would waste a lot of water – so much so that it created puddles in front of our driveway, which we had to walk through every day.”
It got him thinking about how he could help the community to conserve water. “In rural areas people depend on a communal water outlet, which everyone uses. I thought: why not have a tap that is foot operated?”
After Ntando and his sister, Yenziwe (21), entered their team, Innovators Technology, into this year’s challenge, they then developed a basic prototype to demonstrate the water conservation and hygiene benefits. Instead of opening a tap, you step on a lever – which means the possibility of wasting the precious resource is reduced because releasing the lever stops the flow of water.
The experience has taught him invaluable skills, he says. “I’ve learnt how to communicate and present, and take criticism positively. It has also taught me how to network – and the importance of responding to emails!”
The final prototype is being manufactured, after which the siblings intend on testing and introducing it to the market.
Equipping the youth
Now in its third consecutive year, this year’s Innovation Summit was focused on finding sustainable, innovative solutions to the city’s challenges. Challenges such as urban sprawl, informal settlements, collapsing infrastructure and congested roads – which many of Africa’s rapidly growing cities face.
“The digital age is changing the way that cities run and the way that people move, socialise and work in them. We need to empower the youth with the skills they need to shape the future.
“The private sector has a crucial role to play in engendering skills development by giving the youth the tools, guidance, technology and insights they need to impact their cities,” concludes Ahlschlager.