Youth Leadership in the fourth industrial revolution

Past industrial revolutions were sparked by innovative youth; the 4IR should be the same, says Professor Tshilidzi Marwala.


The Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) delivered a key note address at Mail and Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans awards ceremony on Thursday, 27 June 2019. Prof Marwala deputises for President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the fourth industrial revolution.

Youth Leadership in the fourth industrial revolution – Prof Tshilidzi Marwala

In 2005, I appeared in the inaugural edition of Mail & Guardian 100 Young South Africans. As a reward for this achievement, we were featured in the newspaper, and we were taken to lunch at Nando’s. Amongst the young people who were featured in this 100 Young South Africans was the (now) Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng as well as the Deputy Minister of Finance Dr. David Masondo. Renewing and expanding hope, the “M&G 100 Young South Africans” has now evolved into the “M&G 200 Young South Africans.” Later on, the 200 Young South Africans included my former master’s student Msizi Khoza, who is now the Deputy Chief of Staff of the CEO of ABSA, and my former doctoral student Prof Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, who is now the Executive Director: Modelling and Digital Science, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). More dramatically, the young people who are honoured today live in the middle of a great revolution called the fourth industrial revolution (fourth industrial revolution). Because of the extraordinary technological advances and changes that are happening around these young leaders, the skills and prowess that are required in this era are extensive.

What is the fourth industrial revolution? To understand the fourth industrial revolution, we need to understand other industrial revolutions. The first industrial revolution happened in England in the 17th century. Given the population size, the first industrial revolution should have happened in India or China, which were much larger countries than England. It happened in England rather than India or China because of the scientific revolution, which was led by a 23-year-old Sir Isaac Newton and who gave us the principles of motion and gravitation, occurred in London. The age of Newton when he was most intellectually productive was only 23 years old, and it is essential for the youth to realise that they are at their most productive stage. So seize the moment, be daring, be bold and as the former US President Roosevelt put it: “…fear nothing but fear itself”. You are never too young to lead!

The first industrial revolution produced steam trains and mechanised the production of goods. During this period in England, a group of people called the Luddites arose to attempt to end the first industrial revolution by sabotaging machines that were used for production. They were defeated, many of them were hanged and they were relegated to the dustbin of history as the first industrial revolution marched on. Those among our midst who are resisting the changes of the fourth industrial revolution do so at their own peril. I am reminded of the words of Charles Kettering, who once noted: “The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress.”

The second industrial revolution occurred mainly in the United States with the discovery of electricity by a British Scientist Michael Faraday at the age of 21 years. Faraday realised that moving an electric conductor located close to a magnet generates electricity. Up to today, the most popular way of producing electricity in the world is by moving a conductor located close to a magnet. Whether it is a coal-fired power station or nuclear or hydropower stations, we produce electricity by moving a conductor located close to a magnet. The reverse to that is that when one puts a magnet close to a conductor and pass electricity through the conductor, then the conductor moves and this is an electric motor. An electric motor is widely used in an assembly line in our factories to produce goods, and it gave us mass production. Electricity and electric motors are produced using the principle called electromagnetism. Electromagnetism is not superstition…asi vhuloi…it is science. South Africa is battling with the security of supply of electricity, the technology of the second industrial revolution, and we need urgent, sustainable and reliable solutions. Now it is the time for our youth to master the art of scientifically organising our society to increase economic production, end superstition, increase economic growth, and unite our people.

The third industrial revolution came about because of the invention of semiconductors in the 1950s. These are materials that conduct electricity under specific conditions. Semiconductors gave us transistors and ushered the electronic age. Transistors power our phones, computers, and televisions. Today we do not have a home-grown semiconductor company nor a cell phone company nor a computer company in our Africa. Now it is the time for the youth of today to transform the landscape of our industrial base to tackle the problems of poverty, unemployment, and inequality. As Ban Ki-Moon once noted, “Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth… these are one and the same fight. We connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women’s empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all.”

The fourth industrial revolution is the confluence of advancements in digital, robotics, and biological technologies and is catalysed by artificial intelligence (AI). Artificial intelligence is a technology that makes machines intelligent like human beings are intelligent. Because of artificial intelligence, airplanes are flying without pilots, and cars are driving themselves. AI is replacing human beings and substituting them with machines. At the University of Johannesburg, we have developed technology that enables drones to take pictures of the earth, classify the soil and recommend which crops should be planted at specific location. We have also developed a technology that is able to use electric conductivity to screen for breast cancer. We have developed AI technology that is able to read medical images and diagnose deadly diseases called pulmonary embolism. Now it is the time for our youth to skill themselves with knowledge in areas such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and blockchain to tackle the problems such of exclusion, social dispersion and foster national unity.

The fourth industrial revolution is changing our economy. Standard Bank has laid off 1500 workers. Those who in our country who think the fourth industrial revolution is irrelevant are inadvertently planning for our society to be relegated to the life of subservience. Business Connections intends to lay off 700 employees and Goldfields intends to lay off 1500 workers because we are automating mines and business processes. Everywhere, factories are shrinking, and we are entering the post-work era where the nature of work will change. There are three changes in jobs that will define the fourth industrial revolution. Firstly, some jobs will disappear altogether. Secondly, some jobs will change an example of this change is the medical profession where doctors will increasingly be required to be competent in technology. Thirdly, new jobs will emerge. For example, banks are now hiring people for a job called the Chief Artificial Intelligence Officer that did not exist few years ago. These changes in the world of work will result in the increase in inequality and poverty. How should the youth of today contribute towards resolving this situation?

The fourth industrial revolution is changing the essence of our society. Technologies such as Facebook, Uber and Twitter gather so much data from people that it is now possible for these companies to know many of our moves, where we eat and what we eat. They then harvest this data and sell it to marketing companies that use this data to influence our decisions and optimise their bottom-line! The implicit influence has a serious implication on the dimensions of freedom. How can we be free if our decisions are nudged by the information that was collected through social media? The youth of today must find mechanisms for preventing personal data exploitation by multinational companies.

The youth of today should have a global mind-set instead of narrow nationalism. They should understand that the future of South Africa is firmly tied to the fortunes of the rest of the African continent. They should understand the problems facing Africa and craft solutions that tackle those problems. These solutions should be based on scientific principles rather than superstitions. At the University of Johannesburg, we have introduced the Africa-by-Bus project, which takes our students to the rest of the African continent by bus to expose our students to the intricacies of the African continent. These students have travelled to countries such as Mozambique, Namibia, Kenya, and Uganda. Now it is the time for our youth to travel across the length and breadth of our continent to foster unity, collaboration and fight xenophobia and narrow nationalism. Now it is the time for young people to start dreaming about visiting places like Kigali and Nairobi rather than London and New York.

For the youth of today to succeed in the fourth industrial revolution they should cultivate specific skills. These skills should include problem solving. With problem-solving skills, we can find solutions to complex problems besetting our society, such as climate change, unemployment and diseases. The other skill that is important in the fourth industrial revolution era is critical thinking. Critical thinking allows us to look at a problem from many different perspectives and identify proper solutions given all realities that affect the problem. Another fourth industrial revolution skill that is essential is creativity. In an era where information is available in abundance, the necessary skill is how to create new goods and services from such information, and this requires creativity. In the present fourth industrial revolution era, collaboration is essential. If you leave this function without having connected with at least 10 of prominent young South Africans amongst, you are delaying our progress as a society. How are we going to solve difficult problems such as unemployment if you do not collaborate? Now it is the time to embed into our teaching and learning practices collaboration, critical thinking and problem solving skills to tackle serious problems we face in our society such as revitalizing our urban and rural areas, reinvesting into agro processing industry and rejuvenating our health system. The problems we face as the African continent are vast, unique and difficult and they require the mobilization of all our all motive forces especially the youth to think critically, creatively and collaboratively to tackle the problems of bridging the digital divide, technological exclusion and global alienation.

The youth of today must also be innovative. Innovation depends on broad education that spans from the human sciences to the technological sciences. The youth of today must understand matters about intellectual property. Here amongst us Mr Rendani Mbuvha has just registered a patent, which uses artificial intelligence to predict the presence of diseases and price insurance risk. Now it is the time for our youth to begin to understand that knowledge can become intellectual property, which can become a product, which can tackle societal challenges such as unemployment, poverty and inequality. Education in the fourth industrial revolution should equip our youth to ask difficult and intelligent questions. As Albert Einstein put it: “…the measure of how intelligent a person is, is by how many more questions they can pose than they can answer”. Our educational institutions must become dynamic hubs for innovative ecosystems and this can be achieved through embedding critical thinking, collaboration and problem solving into our curriculum.

Furthermore, the youth of today must understand the economy and its interdependency with other economies. We should refrain from economically sabotaging ourselves by making statements that serve no other purpose than discourage investors. When Deng Xiaoping, the leader of modern China, wanted to industrialize China, he realized that he needed foreign technology. In this regard, he established special economic zones which had the responsibility of facilitating the transfer of technologies from the developed world to China. Now it is the time for our youth to be at the forefront of creating a conducive environment for the exchange of ideas and technology for the benefit of our society.

I leave you with the words of Barack Obama, who once said, “change won’t come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change we seek.”

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