Tapping collective strengths to create a smart university

Cape Town is firmly entrenched as the design hub of South Africa since it was awarded World Design Capital status in 2014. Professor Chris Nhlapo, vice-chancellor of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), believes the institution is at the forefront of the design-thinking energy that pervades the country’s legislative capital.

With just over two years in the position of vice-chancellor and more than 10 years at the university, Nhlapo calls CPUT “home”. He is adamant that “listening is very important in communication as well as engaging and committing”.

Speaking to University World News, Nhlapo called his vision for the university “unique”. “When I started at the university, there were discussions around smart cities, but none around smart universities,” said Nhlapo. This insight led to the creation of “One Smart CPUT”, the university’s Vision 2030 strategy, which will harness the fourth industrial revolution to deliver work-ready graduates and impactful applied research.

“Oneness is about cohesion, using the collective strength of the university community to anticipate what’s coming in the next decade. It focuses on the softer issues, but the smartness is about using technology to make sure that its processes, its operations, are highly efficient,” said Nhlapo. “We have to harness the power of great ideas and value all the voices to build this one smart university.”

The value of universities of technology

The alignment to South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) and Operation Phakisa (the delivery acceleration arm of the NDP) is clear: “The NDP promotes job creation, entrepreneurship and innovation. There are no better institutions in South Africa that are as close to industry as the universities of technology,” he said, emphasising that research must support local economic development to ensure that the commercialisation of research becomes a reality as adequate funding is a critical element in the long-term success of education institutions.

CPUT has seven focus areas for applied research: climate change and environment; space science and technology; economic growth and international competitiveness; design for sustainability; human and social dynamics; energy; bio-economy and biotechnology.

So, are there any success stories? “Yes, there are many. But you cannot talk about space science in South Africa without talking about CPUT,” said Nhlapo.

To date, the university has launched two satellites (one in 2013 and one more recently in December 2018) which validates Nhlapo’s insistence on the “applicability of technology”. The “vibrant satellite programme” at CPUT resulted in a spin-out company, Amaya Space, which commercialises innovative nanosatellite communications solutions as well as complete missions that have been developed by CPUT.

The university is the sole shareholder of the first Black-owned and managed space technology company and this is key to CPUT’s strategy to reduce dependence on government subsidies.

The MIT of Africa

“This is actually what a university of technology should be. We want to make sure that we exploit our intellectual property appropriately in order to reduce our reliance on government,” said Nhlapo. CPUT has a long-standing relationship with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States and is one that Nhlapo holds in high regard as the yardstick for CPUT: to be the MIT of Africa.

Nhlapo says that MIT epitomises the essence of a university of technology and always remains focused. “MIT is always referred to as one of the top universities of technology, usually number one… They fuse academic knowledge with practical purpose. It’s about being entrepreneurial. That’s where UoTs [universities of technology] in South Africa must be moving.”

Universities of technology are not in competition with universities. “We should not think about competing with other universities. We are making sure that we play in the applied space. We must ensure that research uptake and utilisation is important. We don’t do research for research’s sake but the exploitation, the commercialisation of research, the licensing of our technology – that’s basically where we are.”

The university is the current host for the Pan African University (PAU) Institute for Space Sciences, which is the fifth node of the PAU programmes, representing the Southern Africa region. According to the website, PAU is a network of postgraduate research programmes in five regions in Africa and was launched in 2011 by the African Union Commission to foster excellent research in key development fields and enhance the attractiveness and global competitiveness of African higher education and research.

‘Future-ready’ graduates

The issue of unemployment in South Africa, currently at its highest at almost 30%, hits the youth the hardest. Getting graduates “future ready” is high on CPUT’s agenda. “Our students do not complete a qualification without spending time in industry, at least six months or more. If you want graduates that are work-ready, then this is the only institution. Otherwise, we will continue to produce unemployed graduates.”

CPUT is invested in the growth and development of the local economy through its technology stations, he said. There are currently three autonomous units that support local businesses and entrepreneurs. According to their website, the Agrifood Technology Station offers a wide range of services that can assist food and related companies in developing, enhancing and maintaining safe, efficient and cost-effective food production and processing.

The Technology Station Clothing and Textiles provides innovation support to the clothing and textile and related industries to become more competitive with an emphasis on small, micro and medium-sized enterprises. And the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) Adaptronics Advanced Manufacturing Technology Laboratory’s primary objective is to specialise as a national manufacturing, research and educational resource centre for adaptronics technologies.

A recent achievement is the qualification of two CPUT teams in the World Robot Olympiad (WRO) which aims to develop creativity and problem-solving skills through challenging and educational robotics competitions. These two teams have been placed second and third respectively in the Advance Robotics Challenge category of the Western Cape leg of the WRO. The nationals will be held this month (September) in Gauteng.

The well-being of surrounding communities is an essential element of CPUT’s innovative strategy. Nhlapo believes that “there are solutions within us and we need to support our young researchers to acclimatise to university life and eventually mature into researchers”. This includes supporting the provision of valuable healthcare services to those in need.

The university’s cardiometabolic clinic located at the Belville campus conducted a diabetes tracking study on around 5,000 Bellville-South residents which involved regular health screen checks including a dental exam and weight and blood checks.

Head of the programme Professor Tandi Matsha has since been recognised with the ‘Science Oscars’ – the Data for Research Award in the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)-South32 Award ceremony for excellence in science, engineering and technology in South Africa. Nhlapo calls this “social innovation for the benefit of the people of South Africa”.

In keeping with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, CPUT reduces its carbon footprint by being 100% paperless, according to Nhlapo. “Even our graduation ceremonies are paperless. Phase one was completed last year with graduates’ names on screen. Phase two will include names with photographs [of each individual]. There are still some problems with pronunciation which we will sort out through big data.”

This copy is subsidised by the South African Technology Network.