Meet our Network:

Sherman Indhul, Transnet

By Kate Newbury-Helps

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.

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We can harness emerging technologies to repurpose our existing strengths into something new.

One tech risk that is top of mind for many organisations is economic and labour disruption. How is Transnet thinking about this issue?

Jobs, skills and automation is a real challenge for the business because Transnet has a lot of human activity which can be automated. South Africa already has a 27% unemployment rate. Technology will require new skills to keep up with the pace of change – we need data scientists to analyse the skills gaps and define a strategy. For all the work being done we are at the very start of the journey towards understanding the changes and the implications for job creation in the coming decades.

Another potential risk which commonly hits the headlines is security, privacy and control. How does this affect Transnet?

Freedom of information and access are a problem across sectors, and this is a major challenge for the Transnet business – it’s in our top 10 risks at a corporate level. However, I don’t believe that this is the main narrative of the growth of technology. There are powerful benefits which come from the growth of technology. For example, we mustn’t discard the potential of crypto currencies because it facilitates trading on the dark web, as it also presents significant opportunities, removing waste from the system and enabling social equality.

There is currently a lot of debate about what technology providers should be accountable for. What is your perspective?

There is no doubt that accountability is a major issue. Policy can’t keep up with the evolution in pace of technological change. Disruption is always ahead of the regulatory system. For example, the automotive sector will be moving away from internal combustion engines in the next decade, but policy makers and value chains are not yet set up to support and incentivise this. There is a debate as to whether digital technology should be ‘let loose’ to create a new future and what is the role of regulation is - this conversation is only just beginning. Inevitably digital technology will continue to advance rapidly, and policy makers need to collaborate with technology companies to shape a space better for society.

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I see these challenges as painful bumps in the road to achieving the SDGs. We can flip many of these challenges into opportunities.

How optimistic are you that these challenges can be overcome?

Overall, I am very optimistic. I see these challenges as painful bumps in the road to achieving the SDGs. We can flip many of these challenges into opportunities, there is always another way of looking at these issues. Design thinking and hackathons can help us look at things differently. However, time is not on our side. We need to look far into the future in order to build resilience and adapt our systems, which is a very difficult thing to do. To overcome these challenges, we need to develop a picture of where we are now and where we want to go, and then develop a plan for getting there through collaboration across private sector and policy-makers.

Sherman was talking to...

Kate Newbury-Helps

@kate_newbury

SustainAbility Analyst based in London working across the technology and food sectors. Loves innovation, travel and music.