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The digital Mother City

27 min

South Africa’s Western Cape capital has received plaudits from digital experts in its work to create an entrepreneurial habitat for exciting new tech start-ups to grow, as well as to roll out ICT solutions for residents and businesses to make Cape Town one of Africa’s emerging flagship smart cities. But challenges remain: rife poverty, inequality, and record unemployment leave many considering whether the national government’s smart city vision is a valid one at all

The city of Cape Town, affectionately known as South Africa’s ‘Mother City,’ is the nation’s second most populous city behind Johannesburg, with an estimated population of 4.62 million. Seen by many as the Silicon Valley of Africa for its entrepreneurial spirit and cluster of tech hubs and start-ups in the city, Cape Town has been pegged as one of South Africa’s crown-jewel smart cities, especially following the national government’s announcement last year of a shift towards embracing smart capabilities to address some longstanding issues in the historically divided nation.

Cyril Ramaphosa, president of South Africa c. Groundup, Ashraf Hendricks

“I dream of a South Africa where the first entirely new city built in the democratic era rises, with skyscrapers, schools, universities, hospitals, and factories,” said president Cyril Ramophosa in June’s State of the Union address. “The cities of Johannesburg, Tshwane, Cape Town, and eThekwini are running out of space to accommodate all those who throng to the cities. Has the time not arrived for us to be bold and reach beyond ourselves and do what may seem impossible? Has the time not arrived to build a new smart city founded on the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution? I would like to invite South Africans to begin imagining this prospect.”

Though there is nationwide debate over what an established South African smart city should look like, observers do agree that South Africa – and the wider African continent – has serious questions to answer regarding its management of soaring population levels across cities expected in the coming decades. By 2030, it is predicted that Africa will have a total of 17 cities holding more than five million inhabitants, and 90 cities with at least one million residents. The influx of migration to these cities will subsequently put greater stress on transport and housing services, amongst many others: Cape Town’s ‘aged’ population (residents over the age of 65), for example, is expected to grow by 3.4% from 2018 to 2023, putting a strain on health and social care resources and posing questions that city planners will have to answer to manage increased demand in the city.

General public perception about smart cities is that it’s never going to work in a city that has not prioritised its own issues, such as affordable housing, reliable transport, and inequality

Whether the smart city route is the best method to solve these questions is another question altogether. Anine Kriegler, a criminologist at the University of Cape Town, calculated that the city’s murder rate has risen by 60% from 43 to 69 per 100,000 in the eight years to 2017/18 – 2017’s rise being the largest since data tracking began in 2005/6. Cape Town’s employment figures mirror those of the national crisis for jobs, with a staggering 29% of people being unemployed in the city at the end of 2019. With limited resources and a plethora of pressing societal problems to fix, many are concerned the sparkling image of a contemporary smart city will cloud the government’s addressing of key socioeconomic issues in the country.

“When the president made that announcement last year during his State of the Nation address, there was a general feeling of uncertainty regarding where Cape Town stands in all of this. Cape Town is not fully prepared to be a smart city, because there are a number of issues facing us at this stage,” Marvin Charles, metro reporter for the Cape Argus, told Cityscape.

He continued: “The general public perception about smart cities is that it’s never going to work in a city that has not prioritised its own issues, such as affordable housing, reliable transport, and inequality.

“The current political climate here in Cape Town is also a contributing factor, because we have groups fighting for inclusionary housing to bring people closer to the inner-city, we have groups fighting for the city to update its current urban policies, and we have groups fighting for the city to address its socioeconomic issues.”

Walter Musakwa is an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and expert on South African cities. In 2017, along with Baleseng Tlholohelo Mokoena, Walter co-authored the report ‘Smart cities in South Africa! A case of misplaced priorities?’, analysing the smart-city solutions for transport, housing, and other public services in major cities around South Africa. Assessing Cape Town’s smart city initiatives, Walter highlighted the MyCiTi Integrated Rapid Transit (IRT) system, as well as the City of Cape Town’s single integrated IT system, as positives in the Mother City’s smart tech progress – but argued that inequality and poverty across South Africa would lead one to consider whether cities should really be investing in ambitious digital projects over basic services such as water or affordable housing.

“There is no doubt that ICT is crucial in local governance, efficiency and service delivery, however there could be other pressing needs that require attention, such as housing, informal settlements, service delivery protests, and unemployment,” the report reads. “Perhaps cities should not pursue grand developments that don’t benefit citizens but rather tailor ICT projects to citizens’ needs, which is what Cape Town purports to do.”

Over two years later, then, does Walter believe things have changed for South African smart cities?

“It has not changed,” he lamented, “because the difference in wealth and inequality is the big stumbling block. There is nothing wrong with the smart cities discourse or development, but you find out that they appeal much more to the middle- and higher-income classes.”

Whilst Walter believes smart solutions such as the roll-out of fibre optic and increased Wi-Fi hotspots in public areas can be beneficial, he feels that certain installations can be made from the ‘top-down’ by city municipalities, with little relevance or respite to those in need of basic public services around the city. “It’s not a bottom-up approach like in other countries in Africa, such as Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda – for them, it’s a bottom-up approach with solutions developed for the people that people can actually use,” he pointed out.

Though critical of some smart-city decisions made by planning authorities in South Africa, Walter praised the City of Cape Town’s investment in its mobility sector, such as through the MyCiTi bus network and the municipality’s cash injection of approximately R300 million (£15.5m) in non-motorised transport projects – like installing cycle lanes and walking paths in a bid to improve active travel.

Compared to other South African cities, Walter adds, Cape Town is also performing better than its peers through its business and ‘smart’ ethos to providing services: “If you look at Johannesburg and Cape Town, there’s a different demographic,” he explained.

“If you compare what is within downtown Cape Town and downtown Johannesburg in terms of maintenance, Cape Town is far better, and I think that’s because they attract a lot of tourists, so they have to portray that image. It’s in the mindset.

“That’s why Cape Town is more than a smart city; it’s also about being smart. Being smart is not necessarily about installing smart-city technologies, but also about the mindset, the cleanliness, and how it reaches the local people.”

In other departments across the city, however, contentious social issues remain: in a bid to slake the burgeoning demand for housing in the Cape Town’s CBD, in October the City of Cape Town gave the go-ahead for the development of a R14bn Harbour Arch mixed-use development – one of the many new developments planned for its city centre. Spanning 5.3 hectares, the site will be home to two new hotels and residential apartments, all while creating at least 13,000 construction jobs for the city.

The city should deal with their own issues first: integrating communities and improving the public transport system, which has become the focal point of our city’s heartbeat

With an array of new mixed-use development projects springing up around Cape Town, however, many are concerned about lower-income and unemployed residents being priced out of their neighbourhood. “The Harbour Arch development is unashamedly exclusive, and will entrench racial and class divisions that continue to suffocate Cape Town,” social housing group Ndifuna Ukwazi attorney Jonty Cogger said. Amdec, the property development firm behind the proposals, has pledged to build 1,000 affordable housing units offsite in the suburb of Ottery – situated around 18km away.

The battleground of housing, on top of failures in other key areas such as that of South Africa’s public utility service Eskom – which has been heavily criticised following reports of corruption, price increases, government bailouts, and unreliable services – would lead one to consider whether successful smart-city applications across South Africa would even be feasible, let alone transformational.

“I hope they will be able to meet [South Africa’s smart city vision],” Marvin said. “I don’t think that it will happen in the near future, mainly because from a national point of view, the African National Congress – which is the ruling party in South Africa – still has its own problems, such as corruption, state capture, and troubles with Eskom; so we have all these troubles, and we’re not very prepared for smart cities just yet.

“In Cape Town, I think that the city should deal with their own issues first: integrating communities and improving the public transport system, which has become the focal point of our city’s heartbeat.”

Mobility in Cape Town

Getting around Cape Town using the city’s mobility network can be a bit of a mixed bag for commuters: with the highest levels of road congestion in South Africa, as well as overstrained bus networks and the lingering threat of crime, public outcry over the state of the city’s transport system has been in the collective consciousness in recent months. Elsewhere, with positive investment into active travel links such as cycling and walking routes, and connectivity to the rest of the Western Cape region, Cape Town has had varying forms of success with its public transport networks.

Private car

In terms of their approach to transport, South Africans have historically taken a particularly American-style view of mobility, with the majority of residents commuting by car. In Cape Town, a staggering 320,000 passengers use mini taxi services daily, provided by the 102 taxi associations in the city. With road traffic constituting around 1.3 million passengers daily, Cape Town now ranks 101 out of 416 cities in TomTom’s 2019 traffic rankings, with a 32% congestion rate. Capetonians spend the equivalent of six days and 10 hours in traffic each year.

c. GroundUp, Ashraf Hendricks

“Unlike regions such as Europe and the Far East, where there is a culture of public transport, countries such as South Africa share with the United States an urban sprawl, long distances, and much lower urban densities,” explained Paul Vorster, CEO of the Intelligent Transport Society of South Africa (ITSSA), a membership organisation aiming to encourage innovation in transport systems around the country. “We are a car-reliant nation, and changing this towards greater public transport usage is a very long-term endeavour.

“Car reliance is a function of (amongst others) spatial planning and land use aggravated by apartheid-era planning and a lack of adequate public transport options. South Africa’s long-term strategy revolves around modal shifts from private to public transport and road to rail – it is a massive undertaking to roll out the required infrastructure and rolling stock, develop systems to sustain operations, and encourage a paradigm shift of perceptions and a public transport culture,” Paul told Cityscape.

Despite public criticism of the city’s highways network, Paul noted that there is a “quiet determination” to tackle the city’s development challenges at the City of Cape Town’s Mayoral Committee. “Have they solved all problems? By no means! Are they working hard to solve them? Definitely!” he exclaimed.

“I base this view on a recent joint briefing on Spatial Planning and Transport and ongoing, behind-the-scene developments we had with the two Mayoral Committee principals and some of their officials. One such specific focus, together with civil society and corporate employers, is on taking steps to mitigate congestion.”

Bus networks

Observers in the Cape Town mobility sector have identified poor public transport reliability and connectivity as one of the causal factors behind congested highways. The MyCiTi IRT – a ‘rapid’ bus network that provides dedicated roadways for buses, aiming to combine the capacity and speed of a metro system with lower costs – is managed by the City of Cape Town, and transports around 60,000 passengers daily; Golden Arrow buses, a more traditional commuter service, carries around 230,000 people every day.

c. GroundUp, Ashraf Hendricks

Whilst the MyCiTi bus network was largely successful when it was founded in 2010 to cope with increased demand for the FIFA World Cup, more recently, inconsistent services and users feeling unsafe on the transport network has led to a dearth in revenue. In January, reports surfaced that the City of Cape Town will receive R25m less in MyCiTi revenue compared to the previous year, following a weaker uptake of the network’s travel card over delays to the N2 MyCiTi contract and vandalism on the bus network.

There is no single, standalone transport ‘silver bullet’ for all of the varied travellers and commuters

“Our buses have become more and more expensive for people to commute on; our trains have become unreliable because they are constantly late, or they have been vandalised by criminals, which has a huge implication on our economy,” argued Cape Argus’ Marvin Charles. “It’s very difficult for people to travel in and out of big destinations – there isn’t a proper public transport system in place.”

Marvin did note, however, that the City of Cape Town has been looking to expand its network to enhance connectivity in the northern suburbs, including in Durbanville, Brackenfell, and Kuils River – a welcomed prospect to local residents, who can currently face a half-hour’s drive from the suburbs into the CBD.

c. GroundUp, Ashraf Hendricks

ITSSA’s Paul Vorster agrees that whilst the bus network may be too expensive for regular users, it is emblematic of the city-wide transport challenges faced by Cape Town. “National Treasury has more funding requests than it can provide for, and our cities are seriously underfunded,” he explained. “Urbanisation, and ageing and improperly (if at all) maintained infrastructure, has left cities in a precarious position. The simple reality is that cities are facing a perfect storm of increasing service delivery needs contrasted with a shrinking income base.”

Given that the national roll-out of IRT networks has lost steam, kickstarting stalled operations will “require political championing, a driving vision, efficient management, and adequate resources – all fired-up by a passion to make transport work smarter for all,” Paul argued, adding: “There is no single, standalone transport ‘silver bullet’ for all of the varied travellers and commuters.”


The city’s 610km rail network is managed by a variety of stakeholders, including passenger service operator Metrorail. The Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), responsible for most passenger services in the country, owns the Metrorail branch which has come under fire in recent years.

Train delays, vandalism, arson attacks, and inconsistent leadership have led many to abandon the system, which oversees around 620,000 rail trips a day – the majority to and from the Cape Town CBD, Epping, and Bellville. Since November 2019, there have been zero trains operating on two of the Central Line’s busiest routes: Kapteinsklip (Mitchell’s Plain) and Chris Hani (Khayelitsha).

c. GroundUp, Ashraf Hendricks

“Trains have also become dangerous, and it’s just not viable for people to use public transport anymore,” Marvin Charles commented. On Easter Sunday last year, a fire tore through Cape Town train station, the latest in arson-related attacks on the rail network in the city. In November, another arson attack caused a train fire overnight at Cape Town station, destroying 18 coaches.

There are plans to alleviate some of the road congestion with investment in the rail network, however: new Prasa administrator Bongisizwe Mpondo announced in January that the Central Line will be re-opened within six months – but admitted that services have been inadequate for passengers, many of whom have turned to taxis and private cars as a result. “Having looked at what has been happening at Prasa, before and after I joined, one gets this deep sense of injustice to our commuters. The commuters do not have a choice,” the new Prasa chief said earlier this year.

Future trends

Where can Cape Town turn to in order to prevent future transport woes similar to those of its bus and rail networks in recent months? Smart platforms such as Mobility as a Service (MaaS) can have a transformational impact, but they must be built on the foundations of a functioning public transport network if they are to improve efficiencies. For Paul Vorster, MaaS can never be a standalone solution.

Right now, 10.3 million South Africans are actively looking for a job but can’t find one. We need localised MaaS solutions with a sharp focus on the affordability levels across different transport services

“Big data is the fuel that drives transport; the technology and innovations behind it, however, are moving significantly faster than our policies and organisational structures can to embrace the drivers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” Paul argued. While there has been much progress within separate transport operations, he believes that they are lagging nationally when it comes to adopting an overarching approach breaching the confines of individual silos. In 2016, WhereIsMyTransport, a journey planning platform, collected data for more than 1,000 routes across Cape Town, using mobile tools to highlight peak and off-peak times as well as gaining insight on taxi behaviour – meaning journey planning platforms can provide estimated times even for vehicles with no set timetable. Paul argued that having this data openly available for city planners and commuters can open up different forms of transport and alleviate high-stress areas of the city.

In opening up those different forms of transport through MaaS, Capetonians can be provided with an array of transport options, encouraging both public transport uptake and active travel in a bid to reduce the strain on road networks and encourage a more sustainable commute. A fully integrated MaaS platform providing users with road, rail, bus, and cycling options, for example, can help create a more balanced and integrated transport network in the future.

But any MaaS project in Cape Town must be tailored and contextualised for those who it is aiming to serve. “Much of the MaaS development has been Euro-centric, where there is high density and short distances as well as much higher income levels across commuters than what we have in South Africa,” Paul noted.

“Right now, 10.3 million South Africans are actively looking for a job but can’t find one. We need localised MaaS solutions with a sharp focus on the affordability levels across different transport services. One size or price definitely does not fit the needs of all commuter segments.”

A digital Cape Town

Named as Africa’s Leading Digital City by the Central City Improvement District, Cape Town’s investment into ICT solutions, fibre broadband, and working with entrepreneurs and the commercial sector has paid off hugely for the region – making it one of the driving forces behind the Western Cape region’s GDP growth to R431bn in 2018.

This success is largely driven by proactiveness from the City of Cape Town to install widely-available ICT solutions for residents and businesses to access. By 2021, the City of Cape Town aims to provide a fully-functional fibre-optic network to the entire metropolitan region. The city’s Connected Pilot Project, launched in 2018, seeks to provide affordable, open-access, high-speed fibre connections to more than 1,000 commercial buildings in the CBD, with continued roll-outs planned for the future.

For Omeshnee Naidoo, CIO at the City of Cape Town, the municipality’s success is rooted in its practical approach combined with an ambition to provide residents with solutions that can help make Cape Town a global technology hub.

“We try to build digital strategies that aren’t too broad in nature or very difficult to implement, but rather strategies that have very clear programme initiatives behind it, with benefits for the city itself. It then becomes an initiative that makes sense for us to do from a digital enablement perspective,” Omeshnee told Cityscape.

The City of Cape Town’s digital department also runs one of the only Open Data Portals in the African continent, collecting data on parking, water usage, and city buildings – amongst others – and sharing information to increase government transparency, as well as to encourage entrepreneurial innovation from many of the web developers based in the Mother City.

There, the data conversation is one centred on openness and pragmatism: “From a data perspective, we very much adopt a stance that data is public, unless we feel otherwise,” she outlined. “So unless we have very clear reasons as to why data should be internal or confidential for specific parties. We look at all our datasets ahead of them going out into open data forums or into the open data space and we apply that methodology.”

The City of Cape Town has an open data policy and an open data steering committee, hosting both internal and external parties to ensure that public data is used responsibly but also effectively in encouraging innovation from local businesses. Last year the municipality appointed a new chief data officer, and in 2020 the mayor of Cape Town will launch a formalised data strategy for the organisation.

“We absolutely have it in our strategy that data is key, and the whole concept of data being the new oil; so we are busy formalising our data strategy at this point in time,” Omeshnee noted. “I think the open data committee will say that we could probably do more in this space and that we aren’t giving out as much data as we should be – but, as we know, it can be a contentious issue as to what data should be public and what shouldn’t be.”

Data aside, what emerging technologies does Omeshnee expect the City of Cape Town will consider implementing across its processes in the coming years? The authority will continue to roll out its fibre-optic broadband programme and build on the strong foundation of its Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, but the CIO signalled a ‘new wave’ of experience for residents who use public services in the future: “We will go into a new breed of ERP. Instead of just one centralised ERP system, we will start to focus on experiences on the applications base – so how we improve the citizen experience in our CRM system, the supplier experience in our SRM system, and the employee experience in our HRM system,” she detailed.

We absolutely have it in our strategy that data is key

Another area the city will be looking to dip their toes into will be around analytics and in the machine-learning space, Omeshnee said: “We believe that we have a lot of great data, and now it’s about how we improve decision-making and how we make the best use of that data to forward-plan for the city in terms of its strategies.

“In terms of building on the foundations of analytics and the whole artificial intelligence space, we will put a focus on Internet of Things and talk about where it make sense for us, and consider where will we have public/private partnerships versus where will we invest [ourselves].”

South Africa’s innovators

Home to a massive 60% of all South African start-ups, and well-known for its entrepreneurialism, cross-industry collaboration, and commercial innovation, many onlookers have pitted Cape Town as Africa’s Silicon Valley – an impressive homage to the Californian tech-giant hub which has birthed tech industry titans such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

The work to create a city that is attractive to talented young entrepreneurs has involved years of investment and collaboration from the City of Cape Town. Omeshnee said the municipality’s investment portfolio has focused on two key areas: the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative (CITI) and Bandwidth Barn, two NGO corporates that work with tech start-ups to build their portfolios and equip them with growth support mechanisms – “either by providing capital investment into their companies or being able to give them support in other areas, such as skills and development training,” Omeshnee said.

The result has led to a boom in the number of business process outsourcing (BPO) companies in Cape Town, specifically a surge in call centres as part of offshore outsourcing from international companies. Figures from 2017 show that an astounding 55,000 people are employed in that sector alone.

“The growth initiative has come about because we have done careful consideration in terms of the investment portfolio side of our organisation; we have put aside a fair amount of investment into tech start-ups. As opposed to trying to just use existing tech firms in our actual business to run our portfolios, we’d rather invest in the technology start-ups so that they can become global players in the private-sector space.”

Outside of the commercial aspects that may draw exciting young tech experts to the Western Cape, Omeshnee highlighted that the appealing lifestyle, picturesque scenery, and bustling downtown and entertainment scenes are major appeals to those weighing up cities to take their talents to. “The other side of it is the future of work and flexibility and the way the world is moving, with the ability to be more mobile than office desk-space driven. From a ‘place to live’ perspective, Cape Town generally attracts talent in terms of the lifestyle [that it offers] – creating that desirable work/life balance,” Omeshnee argued.

Dr Sumarie Roodt, chair of the Silicon Cape Initiative, is one of the most respected businesswomen in the Cape Town smart tech circuit, teaching at the University of Cape Town and running her own company to help African start-ups achieve their goals. In her role at the Silicon Cape Initiative, an NPO and an ecosystem enabler for digital start-ups in the broader Western Cape, she has discovered that whilst Capetonian entrepreneurs may show similar talents and qualities to their Silicon Valley counterparts, many get into the technology sector for a completely different reason.

“For me, what is interesting about the innovations we encounter locally on a daily basis is that most of them are driven from a needs-based perspective,” Sumarie told Cityscape. “It’s innovation that is driven by a specific problem in society, in government, or in business; let’s try and use technology as an enabler to sort out whatever those problems are.

“I find that a fundamental difference between tech start-ups here and in the Silicon Valley, for example, is that a lot of start-ups in the Silicon Valley are purely for profit, whereas a lot of the start-ups here are not. It latches onto the Tech for Good movement, which speaks about four things: people, planet, profit, and purpose.”

Yet, like all businesses, challenges remain for Capetonian entrepreneurs. Relentless national issues such as unreliable connectivity and power failures plague businessmen and women in the Mother City, leading many to question the validity of some smart-city developments when basic services are still failing the commercial sector.

It’s innovation that is driven by a specific problem in society, in government, or in business; let’s try and use technology as an enabler to sort out whatever those problems are

Detailing some of the recurring obstacles that Cape Town companies encounter, Sumarie said: “I would say the number-one most disabling factor is payment conditions: if you’re an SME or a start-up, you don’t necessarily have access to long lines of credit. So if a payment from one of your customers takes, let’s say, 120 days, you need your payment terms honoured much sooner than that – and that’s not a Cape Town or Western Cape thing, it’s a South African thing, and it’s way beyond South Africa too.

“I would also say that operationally, at the moment things are quite tough in South Africa from an infrastructure support perspective. Our main power producer, Eskom, is quite unstable in terms of providing electricity from its infrastructure – so that is something that is definitely hitting entrepreneurs badly here.

“If you are a start-up trying to operate in the e-commerce space, for example, where you’re expected to be online 24/7 for 365 days, interruptions in electricity can mean in many instances that you’re not online anymore – which, to many start-ups, is a death sentence.”

It’s not just the energy problems that can blight a city’s productivity and progress, either – whilst there is direction in the Western Cape’s smart city development, Sumarie claims that there is insufficient clarity from the national government on what is needed to create an enabling environment to allow businesses to grow. “For me, there’s a difference between direction and action: whilst direction might be clear regionally, in terms of action there’s almost always a lag, and at a national level I think we’re really far behind,” she posited.

“In terms of examples in smart cities where I know that we aren’t even remotely close to creating an enabling environment, one of the things that we look at is mobility. Mobility is a huge factor in any country that wants to achieve growth via entrepreneurial innovation where you need to transport your citizens – who happen to be both your consumers and your entrepreneurs – yet we have major mobility challenges throughout South Africa.” The Silicon Cape chairwoman noted that the nation’s drone legislation, for example, is “very cumbersome,” proving it to be very challenging to bring in Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies that can catapult Cape Town into the international stage. “I think we’re at great risk of actually being behind in terms of being one of the first African cities potentially to be classified as a smart city,” Sumarie noted.

The prominence of Cape Town and the Silicon Cape Initiative will give hope to many that innovation can continue to drive a national economy that could be perceived as stagnant in recent times. With more people unemployed nationally than the current population of London, education decision-makers will need to ensure that new generations of workers will be equipped with the skills they need to provide value in the smart cities of the future. For Sumarie, this could represent a seismic shift in the skills taught to pupils in Cape Town education.

“It’s quite interesting for me, because there’s a definite shift in focus from more theoretical content, which has traditionally been the case. I’m seeing a shift in the needs of the market, and what these cities will look like in the future, towards more soft skills like teaching, critical thinking, creativity – it’s much more about how these young people are able to think about things, as opposed to what exactly they’re learning in terms of content.

“There are some basic hard skills in tech that are really essential in terms of data science, data analytics, and understanding how it all works – but for me, there is a definite shift towards critical thinking, problem solving, a lot of skills-based content.”

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