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South Africa's Infrastructure Lesson (Opinion)

South Africa's preparation for the 2010 World Cup provides valuable lessons for IT leaders.

Quick: What's the most watched sporting event in the world? Sorry, the Super Bowl or World Series don't cut it. The correct answer is the World Cup. More than 600 million viewers watched some part of the soccer match between France and Italy in 2006, according to the Initiative Worldwide, an advertising firm.

Like the Olympics, World Cup games are played over several weeks in a host country at various venues. Beginning in June 2010, South Africa will host the World Cup, and the country's preparation and infrastructure transformation tell a remarkable story. Five new stadiums were built and five others are undergoing major renovations.

This started with a $56 billion allocation in 2007 for infrastructure improvements for roads, airports, railway, city cleanup, hotels, telecommunications and much more.

What does any of this have to do with technology? Quite a bit, I think. I visited South Africa in September to speak at their GovTech 2009 conference in Durban (not affiliated with Government Technology magazine). I definitely was impressed. I've been to conferences in the United States and Europe over the past 25 years, but this was my favorite -- offering wonderful hospitality and global technology perspectives.

I expected to see a lack of hope in a country with 23 percent unemployment. Despite the country's problems, there was undeniable excitement in the air. Our hosts thoughtfully interacted with technology experts from around the world. They also demonstrated how they're implementing disruptive technologies with a sense of urgency. Wherever I traveled, people displayed a remarkable optimism about the future.

One topic discussed in detail at the conference was broadband connectivity in South Africa. Similar to the United States, expanding high-speed Internet access to rural and underserved areas is a major initiative. New fiber and wireless capacity is being deployed across the country. Communications support to the World Cup stadiums will include a network backbone to support at least 40 Gbps to provide voice, data and high-definition TV. New high-capacity bandwidth connecting Africa to the world also is being added via undersea projects, such as SEACOM, which will provide African retail carriers with equal and open access to inexpensive bandwidth.

Another topic was redundancy and disaster recovery. In a country traditionally known for leisurely running on "African time," the World Cup organizers made it clear that "the show must go on -- on time." With fans expecting precise game-time logistics, technology and communications experts are focused on the importance of being prepared and asking "what-if" questions.

So what lessons did I take away that can help government professionals?

  1. Attitude is everything. If a country that has experienced so many struggles for decades can be optimistic, we certainly have no excuses for being pessimistic. South Africa has emerged from apartheid and developed a positive outlook for a new tomorrow. Positive morale within our technology teams is essential to long-term success, and we must regain that can-do momentum. Our strategic plans start with our people.
  2. Leverage national, state and local events to invest in the future. While your region may never host a World Cup, there are always unique opportunities that emerge. Even negative situations can be turned into positive projects if we engage the right stakeholders. We need to revisit infrastructure areas, such as broadband expansion and health IT stimulus dollars, to create new cross-boundary relationships.
  3. Listen, plan and execute. The South Africans have gone the extra mile to turn a (very big) sporting event into a transformational moment for their country. They're reinventing government by truly listening to global experts. More than that, they're building plans and implementing technology in inspiring ways.
One South African technology leader closed his remarks with stories of how government can positively impact the lives of ordinary citizens: "The business of business is to do business for benefit." We can learn from how South Africa has taken "its game" to a whole new level.


Daniel J. Lohrmann is an internationally recognized cybersecurity leader, technologist, keynote speaker and author.