Sherman Indhul is Corporate Sustainability Manager at Transnet - a transport and logistics company spanning rail, ports, pipelines and engineering facilities across Southern Africa – and a future-thinker and innovator. Kate Newbury-Helps spoke to him to understand how technology is influencing the Transnet business model and explore the associated challenges and risks.
What are the biggest issues around the growth of technology which you see in your work?
The growth of technology is challenging the Transnet business. Transnet was set up to serve the ‘first industrial revolution’, and so the challenge facing us is how to operate in the context of the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. For example, we need to understand how the growth of circular economy business models (autonomous road trade, electric highways, uberisation of transport systems) compete with Transnet’s more traditional logistics and transport set up. Also, the transformation of energy systems - decentralised and dispersed smart grids for energy systems - means less reliance on commodities being transported.
How is Transnet adapting to the ‘fourth industrial revolution’?
These challenges offer huge opportunities and we need to switch our perspective. We can harness emerging technologies to repurpose our existing strengths into something new.
For example, specific rail corridors in southern Africa may experience stranded capacity in 10-20 years, as the shift to the circular economy happens. We need to stop thinking about rail systems as moving ‘stuff’. The fourth industrial revolution and the physical internet of things offer opportunities here - rail networks could host fibre optic networks - pipelines and rail networks could transform to lay fibre in these pathways.
Climate change adaptation is needed across Africa and this also presents a huge opportunity. Could Transnet set up renewable energy powered desalination facilities along the ports? Could rail corridors to ports incorporate water pipelines - thereby moving water inland?
Another opportunity is offered in the movement of waste across cities and between cities – how might we develop a digital waste trading platform which is linked in to the rail network system. This would allow us to use the rail system to move the waste around.