The Economic Mission Statement presented by the Right Honourable Sir Anerood Jugnauth, Prime minister of Mauritius last Saturday, has been able to provide a boost to the morale of the population and the business community, who have long anticipated a regain of confidence and hope for the country to take the next step in its development. It is the role of a government to set bold visions and set the bar high, which act as a locomotive driving the whole population towards the attainment of lofty heights. However, many keen observers of Mauritian society would agree that the speech delivered for about one hour in front of a mixed audience of ministers, as well as senior executives of the public and private sectors, is at best only an attempt to bring a feel good factor to a country trapped in economic stagnation in recent years, whilst the world emerges albeit sluggishly from the great recession. The implementation of such a bold vision needs a paradigm shift in the mind-set of the population in order to embrace the idea that the world is now global and that the new economic reality of the world is that of innovation where you either “innovate or evaporate”.
As a Mauritian living in the UK, I cannot help but see Mauritius as a tiny replica of the UK. Indeed, as a former colony of Great Britain, Mauritius inherits most of its systems (political, economic, educational, judiciary, etc) from Britain. It dawns on me very quickly that many of our “innovative” ideas also emerge from Britain. As many other inventions of the modern world, from television, computer, internet, automobile and aviation, the concept of Smart Cities originates from a Briton, notably Ebenezer Howard, who published his vision in a 1902 book: “Garden Cities of To-Morrow”.
The idea proposed in that book was based on a popular idea of that time, namely electromagnetism, to describe a model of society where the country and city would act as opposing magnets, each attracting and repelling labour and capital through various pull and push factors, thus regulating itself. It turns out that his idea has resurfaced in the twenty-first century with the inexorable growth of computing power, with technology providing the backbone for a city to acquire cybernetic qualities for self-regulation. Bletchley Park in Cambridge, where computing pioneer Alan Turing decrypted Enigma codes and led to the end of world war two, is considered to be the first smart city, as it was the first example where innovation from research was being applied in an orchestrated and timely way to solve problems arising from Nazi Germany.
A modern Smart City, according to Anthony Townsend, author of: “Smart Cities, Big Data, Civic Hackers and The Quest for a New Utopia”, is a city which is data-driven. This implies having sensors to monitor all aspects of the city, from energy, water and bandwidth usage, to road traffic, air pollution and consumer behaviour and accordingly regulate itself using algorithms driven by Big Data Analytics. This is a bold vision for developed economies to push their most advanced cities to the next step of their evolution. According to Forbes Magazine, the top five smart cities in the world are: Barcelona, New York, London, Nice and Singapore. What then would the smart cities of Mauritius look like?
The idea of a smart city is a very ambitious one and can only arise in the context of a country’s current technological, economic and societal development. A smart city can only exist where the technology is mature enough to support its existence and the city is mature enough to need such an innovation in the first place. These two criteria unfortunately do not yet exist in Mauritius as we seem to be talking about creating new smart cites rather than upgrading existing towns and cities to smart status. According to the Smart Mauritius brochure, it seems that the idea of smart cities being conceived is that of technology parks similar to Ebène in different parts of the island. This is very different to the original idea of a smart city. Moreover, Mauritius has not yet embraced the concept of Big Data, which requires a complete revamp of the technology sector towards high-end research and development in the fields of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.
Given the size of Mauritius, it can be considered as a single metropolitan city and the concept of “intelligent island” is more appropriate for a country that wants to adopt technology to bridge the needs of the population with the environment in which they operate. A first step towards a smart Mauritius can be to have a data-driven approach to deal with road congestion, where sensors would monitor traffic patterns and systems implemented to re-route traffic at appropriate places to reduce congestion. Such research projects have been tackled for over a decade by the Computer Science department at the University of Mauritius. However, till date, there has not been any initiative to deploy such technology.
The vision of a smart Mauritius requires an agile partnership between academia and industry, where ideas created by universities can find a clear pathway to impact through deployment in real-life. Other examples of embedding intelligence in a smart country include: using technology to efficiently manage electricity and water consumption, especially in the context of scarcity of both of these resources in coming years, and starting to incorporate Big Data Analytics in governance, in order to make decision making more transparent and data-driven.
Explorers or exploiters?
Any astute observer of Mauritian society would agree that the country tends to favour exploration over exploitation. Exploration deals with presenting bold projects with blue-sky visions just to raise the hopes of the population and bring with it a populist flair. On the other hand, exploitation involves making the best of existing resources in order to spearhead projects that are both achievable and beneficial to the country as a whole. As a country, we have a great appetite for the elaboration of bold ideas, which quickly fizzle out when the implementation phase gets under way.
Examples of exploration projects include: creation of new cities (e.g. Highlands, Jin Fei, Neotown, etc.), light railway project, creation of a new regional airline, etc., which involve mind-boggling costs and questionable returns on investment. Exploitation projects on the other hand, involve making the best of what we already have, such as: invigorating existing towns and cities with technology, replacing old buses, improving the road infrastructure, using technology to solve the road congestion problem, consolidating the existing national airline with a refocus on the African continent, moving the IT/BPO sector from low-end to high-end with an emphasis on research, innovation and knowledge exchange with universities.
Finally, it is imperative to open up the country to foreign talent through the ability of Mauritius to attract the best and brightest students from around the world to study in universities and give them visas to work in the country after graduation. The Education Hub project is, in my view, the project that holds the most promise for the country if done properly. It would help to attract world-class universities which would favour innovation and research-led teaching to produce smart global citizens who would be the major drivers in bringing forward the second economic miracle.
Invest back home
On a final note, I would like to mention something about the project of “bringing back the Mauritian diaspora”. In a globalised world that we live in, I believe that we can be more innovative than this. There is big potential for the diaspora, who are shining abroad, to contribute to the country by setting up collaborations between local and international institutions in order to promote knowledge exchange and innovation, without them having to relocate to Mauritius. Many successful developing countries such as India and China have harnessed on their diaspora by giving them incentives to invest back in their home countries whilst maintaining their strong ties with their host countries. Such an initiative would encourage the flow of both capital and knowledge to the home country, and would be beneficial to both members of the diaspora and their home country.
We have to face the reality that as a developing country, our infrastructure and administration can never be on par with developed countries and instead of “bringing back” the diaspora, we should rather encourage them to “give something back” by setting up the proper channels and institutional framework to make this possible. As a proud member of the Mauritian diaspora and having myself benefitted from world-class secondary education at the Royal College of Curepipe, I would welcome this idea as I am willing to make any contribution I possibly can to help Mauritius take the next leap forward.