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Public and private sector R&D investments creating opportunities

As South Africa seeks to improve its growth prospects, supporting research and development (R&D) initiatives in ICT will be an important driver of job creation.  Investments in technology and collaborations between the public, private and academic sectors can catalyse more local production, skills development and social advancement. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) — the world’s largest radio telescope — less than three years away from being “operationally mature” — is a good example of how such collaborations can have multiple knock-on effects for the economy.

Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, noted in a speech earlier this year that: “effective innovation systems depend on a flow of knowledge and technology between enterprises, universities, and research institutions.” Minister Pandor is correct in highlighting “innovation systems” but it is also important to understand how these systems are supported and the kinds of return on investment that can occur.

African production and world-class research

Co-located in Australia and South Africa, the SKA will consist of thousands of telescopes with much of the project’s hardware being manufactured in South Africa, with over 7 200 employment opportunities already created through its construction as well as other related projects.

Currently employing 245 people in South Africa, the SKA expects to create hundreds of primary and secondary jobs. Eight African partner countries — Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zambia — will also benefit from the project through co-production and scientific collaborations. This financial year, the Department of Science and Technology has allocated R693 million for the SKA project.

In terms of private sector investment in SKA, Cisco has invested over R66 million including equipment and engineering support for PhD students at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) to explore how broadband technology can be further scaled in rural areas. 

In partnership with NMMU, Cisco has supplied a state-of-the-art Optical Transport Research laboratory as well as direct access to key expert resources in the company’s Optical Engineering Business Unit based in San Jose, with a telepresence System providing high-definition video capabilities for interdepartmental collaboration locally and internationally. The PhD students will have access to Cisco’s intent based technologies that constantly learn, adapt and protect the network by automating the edge of the network and embedding machine learning and analytics at a foundational level.

The research being conducted is in line with the National ICT R&D and Innovation Roadmap of the Department of Science and Technology (a 10-year plan) and is critical to the testing and validation of the central signal processing (CSP).  In plain English, the CSP is the ‘brain’ of the SKA, converting digitised astronomical signals detected by SKA receivers into information to make detailed images of deep space astronomical phenomena.  Essentially, the CSP must process enormous amounts of real-time data, and in so doing, produce mountains of Big Data. These data processing challenges are compounded by the fact that data will be located in remote locations, with some elements already in place, but most of it yet to be constructed.

This has resulted in some valuable research being conducted by local PhD students, including Phumla Dlamini from KZN.  Part of her research is to measure and compensate for ‘phase noise’ that can affect high amounts of data being transmitted over long distances (a challenge for the SKA project). Related to this is work she is doing – under the guidance of Prof Tim Gibbon at the Centre for Broadband Communication - to make better use of fibre optic cables so that spectrum is optimised automatically rather than manually controlled.  Insights from this research could be applied in South Africa in making more affordable broadband available in rural areas.

Skills Development (regardless of distance)

While the scale of the SKA may seem overwhelming — the project has enough fibre optic cable to wrap around the Earth twice, and computing power equivalent to 100 million PCs — there are some very straightforward benefits to this enormous project. Given the amount of data collected daily (around 14 Exabytes or 14 billion Gigabytes, equivalent to 14 times the entire planet’s IP traffic last year), the SKA will require Big Data management and analytics capabilities on an unprecedented scale. This emerging field not only requires supercomputing power, but also collaborations resulting in a transfer of knowledge that builds on a multi-disciplinary approach. 

A recent example is the launch of Africa’s first Big Data Summer School in Cape Town, a partnership between SKA South Africa and the Medical Research Council. The programme takes undergraduate and Masters’ students from around the world who are at the early stage of their research careers and want to develop their skills and knowledge in working with extremely large data sets. With this training programme, it is clear that South Africa has the opportunity to position itself as a world leader in big data and cognitive computing, two rapidly growing fields with ramifications on many aspects of the economy.

 

Not restricted to high-level academics and astronomy, the SKA will also be a valuable community development and education initiative in the areas in which it is located. For example, a Cisco Networking Academy and Knowledge Centre (CNC) has been established in Carnavon, Northern Cape, a community in which the SKA will be hosted. The CNC will help local community members to develop basic and intermediate ICT and networking skills. Beyond this, the Department of Science and Technology has created a SKA bursary initiative – now in its 11th year – that has funded over 900 students, more than 130 of whom are from other African countries.

 

Increasing R&D investments in SA

Apart from producing data that can change the world’s understanding of the universe, the SKA project will change lives in South Africa. It has already done so in generating jobs through local production of celestial-scanning hardware, the development of world-class Big Data capabilities, and the establishment of skills development programmes to make South Africa’s ICT sector more competitive.

As South Africa seeks to expand, modernise and improve the affordability of its ICT infrastructure and data services, having high-speed broadband connectivity that connects universities and other research facilities will be critical.  As much as the SKA will be about staring into space, it also offers ‘on the ground’ impacts that can be instrumental in driving innovation as the country seeks to improve the availability of Internet to more of the population, whether residing in cities or rural areas. 

More broadly, stargazing is about thinking bigger and imagining new worlds; two important by-products of R&D investments by the public and private sectors.

Notably, Cisco invests +/- $6 billion on R&D annually.


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