Addresses aren't just a convenient label to mark where you live, they're a vital technology – and one that needs an upgrade.
By Joshua Howgego
KWANDENGEZI is a beguiling neighbourhood on the outskirts of Durban. Its ramshackle dwellings are spread over rolling green hills, with dirt roads winding in between. Nothing much to put it on the map. Until last year, that is, when weird signs started sprouting, nailed to doors, stapled to fences or staked in front of houses. Each consisted of three seemingly random words. Cutaway.jazz.wording said one; tokens.painted.enacted read another.
In a neighbourhood where houses have no numbers and the dirt roads no names, these signs are the fastest way for ambulances to locate women going into labour and who need ferrying to the nearest hospital. The hope is that signs like this will save lives and be adopted elsewhere. For the residents of KwaNdengezi in South Africa aren’t alone – recent estimates suggest that only 80 or so countries worldwide have an up-to-date addressing system. And even where one exists, it isn’t always working as well as it could.
Poor addresses aren’t simply confusing: they frustrate businesses and can shave millions of dollars off economic output. That’s why there’s a growing feeling that we need to reinvent the address – and those makeshift three-word signs are just the beginning.
“Poor addresses frustrate businesses and can shave millions of dollars off economic output”
In itself, an address is a simple thing: its purpose is to unambiguously identify a point on Earth’s surface. But, it also forms a crucial part of the way societies are managed. Governments use lists of addresses to work out how many people they need to serve.