Fourth Industrial Revolution: Let’s all get to work in a synchronised manner

​The Vice- Chancellor & Principal of the University of Johannesburg, Prof Tshilidzi Marwala recently penned an opinion article published in the Daily Maverick on 5 July 2019. Prof Marwala deputises President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which had its inaugural meeting on Friday (5 July, 2019).

There is an old English proverb that states that ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’. In simple English, it means that if too many people are involved in one thing, the outcome is compromised. Scientific experiments reveal that too many cooks only spoil the broth if they are not synchronised. Is South Africa synchronised around the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)?

When President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his maiden State of the Nation Address in March 2018, announced his forward-looking intention to establish the digital industrial revolution commission to prepare South Africa for the future that is already here, he ignited a fire that tackled the 4IR from different strategic angles in South Africa.

As hope for South Africa renewed in June 2019, the President once again, in the State of the Nation Address, referred to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We should celebrate this enthusiasm on the part of our society because it means the President has identified a path forward that is galvanising our society to prepare to be subjects of, and even agents of, the Fourth Industrial Revolution rather than the objects we were in the first, second and third industrial revolutions. As a consequence of his State of the Nation Address, various independent entities emerged to drive the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which consists of 30 eminent members from all spheres of society, the enthusiasm about the 4IR accelerated to new heights. As a collective, any vested interest is eliminated. Entities that have emerged include the Fourth Industrial Revolution South Africa (4IRSA), a partnership between Telkom SA, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), University of Fort Hare and University of Johannesburg (UJ). The 4IRSA also partnered with Deloitte and other private organisations to drive conversations around the 4IR.

Another organisation that has emerged from the government is the World Economic Forum (WEF) Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which is based at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) under the oversight of the Department of Higher Education, Science and Technology.

The former Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Naledi Pandor, established the Fourth Industrial Revolution Task Team that is incidentally chaired by my doctoral graduate Professor Bo Xing, which is tasked with the responsibility of preparing higher education for the 4IR.

Furthermore, McKinsey and Company has just completed a comprehensive study on the impact of the 4IR on the world of work in South Africa. Initiatives around the 4IR in South Africa are too numerous to mention, and one could say that too many have jumped on the bandwagon.

Given all these activities around the 4IR, what is the role of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (PC4IR)?

The primary goal of the PC4IR is to develop South Africa’s strategy around this phenomenon, the impact of the technological advancements associated with it, and how to leverage from the opportunities it provides. To quote the President’s 2019 State of the Nation Address:

“To ensure that we effectively and with greater urgency harness technological change in pursuit of inclusive growth and social development.”

Its task is urgent and will be concluded in 2020. South Africa is falling behind in this regard as other countries have already developed their strategies around the 4IR or artificial intelligence (AI). As an example, in 2017, Canada developed its Pan-Canadian AI Strategy, and Singapore developed Singapore AI strategy. In 2018, India developed the National Strategy for AI, as did Germany. Just between 2017 and 2018, at least 23 countries developed their national strategies around the 4IR. The PC4IR is intended for South Africa to be in line with other advanced nations in the world.

Given the strategic nature of the PC4IR, how will it arrive at the national strategy? To achieve this goal, the PC4IR has divided its work into six work streams. The first will deal with infrastructure and resources. This stream will include the digital infrastructure, and matters such as spectrum allocation will be at the heart of this work stream. The outcome of this work stream is infrastructure and resources we should invest to create an environment where 4IR will increase economic participation.

The second work stream will deal with research, technology, and innovation. This workstream will investigate matters such as what research we should create or attain through strategic partnerships or procurement. Naturally, this work stream will make recommendations on how we should invest in our research organisations, such as the research foundations, CSIR, etc., and what priority areas they should pursue.

The workstream on industrialisation and commercialisation will deal with industries and how they are going to be impacted by the 4IR and, consequently, how they should respond to these developments. This workstream will look at each sector, e.g., mining, tourism, defence, finance, etc and recommend how these industries should implement the 4IR.

The economic and social impact work stream will look at the economic and social implications of the 4IR and how we should respond to the challenges and opportunities that these will present. The human capital and the future of work will look at jobs that will disappear, jobs that will change and new jobs that will emerge.

Furthermore, it will look at how we should skill our people to thrive in the 4IR era. Naturally, it will look into our education system, how it is structured, curricula, and outcomes that are fit for the 4IR. This workstream will identify ways of growing our digital economy, through co-ordinating initiatives towards skills development, capacity building, and youth empowerment, thereby equipping priority sectors affected by the 4thIndustrial Revolution. The workstream on policy and legislation will look at the 4IR and make recommendations on what policy framework needs to be established as well as what laws need to be removed, changed, or created.

Who are the stakeholders who are going to be consulted by the commission in the formulation of the 4IR strategy? Society at large will be consulted, and this will include labour unions, faith-based organisations, etc. Stakeholders include all the economic actors, be they in the industry (and this will be all major sectors), in government, etc. The third stakeholder will be all those organisations that are working on the 4IR, including organisations such as 4IRSA, CSIR, etc.

For us to succeed in this task of developing a national strategy on the 4IR, we will need to synchronise all activities that are happening in South Africa around the 4IR. For example, it will be premature for a government department to come up with its strategy on the 4IR without the benefit of the recommendations of the PC4IR. Equally, it will be premature for the industry to develop its strategy on the 4IR without co-ordinating with the work of the PC4IR.

Similarly, it will be premature for organisations such as 4WEF Centre for 4IR and 4IRSA to attempt to be the custodians of the national strategy on 4IR.

The task ahead of us is humongous, but with co-ordination, synchronisation, and good intentions, we can assist the PC4IR in carrying out its mandate. With South Africa’s strategy on the 4IR, the exceptional work of the multisectored and eminent commissioners, we will be able to facilitate technological innovations that will improve our resource efficiencies in various sectors such as health, utilities, crime prevention, education, transport, and others to ensure better service delivery.

The resulting growth in these sectors will see the creation of new jobs, thereby reducing unemployment, poverty, and inequality.

  • The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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