SA’s leap into the technological future
BY Duduetsang Mokoele (DM) and Nomaqhawe Moyo (NM)
It’s supremely important that South Africa, and other developing countries, position themselves to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). South Africa is proactively gearing for this historical event in different ways, one of them being research. The country waits with bated breath as the Presidential Commission on the 4IR handed over the final report to President Cyril Ramaphosa with recommendations to ensure that the needs of all stakeholders are met. The report could not be more timely as the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) embarks on its new project aimed at harnessing the opportunities presented by this revolution and addressing the challenges it poses.
The 4IR is seen as an extension of the previous technological revolution, the so-called ‘Third Industrial Revolution’ which saw the introduction of digital technology. The 4IR captures the idea of the confluence of new technologies and their cumulative impact on our world. To put this into perspective, in 2016 the late Professor Calestous Juma said that it would be more useful to think about the 4IR as a system-wide shift, rather than a shift confined to a single sector. The latter downplays the profound impact that this era of technological advancement will have on the way we govern, think, socialise and ultimately on the totality of the lived human experience.
For this reason, research projects relating to the 4IR should be transdisciplinary, i.e. should transcend boundaries between different disciplines and methodologies. For scholars and practitioners who have adopted transdisciplinarity, a zoonotic disease such as COVID-19 was not a black swan event but was rather an eventuality on a long list of global risks. Such research would enable policy makers and implementers to capture the nuances and complexity of the 4IR. MISTRA has embarked on a research project on 4IR aimed at meeting this need. The research seeks to ascertain what the 4IR entails for South Africa and to assess the country’s readiness to harness the opportunities presented by the 4IR.
The MISTRA research project sets the scene by revisiting the three past revolutions (namely, the first and second Industrial Revolutions of the 1700s and 1800’s, and the first technological revolution mentioned above) and notes that the three revolutions were not a universal occurrence. They did not occur everywhere at the same time and they were not linear in nature; rather Africa was excluded and to date is still attempting to catch up. This is despite the fact that Africa has a rich historical record of science, technology and innovation. For example, the Dogon people of Mali are renowned for their knowledge of astronomy, particularly the Sirius star system. They knew that Sirius A had an invisible companion, Sirius B, centuries before Galileo invented the telescope. Furthermore, they were aware of the solar system and the characteristics of planets such as Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s four main moons.
There are many such awe-inspiring stories of African ingenuity. However, the innovation systems of the continent have been punctuated by ruptures due to internal and external developments which have inhibited consolidation of the continent’s systems of innovation.
Similarly, the 4IR is not occurring at the same rate in Africa as in other parts of the world. There are some parts of Africa where the 4IR is taking shape, but most African countries are still trying to catch up with the previous three industrial revolutions.
In South Africa, the pattern is uneven. Some sectors are taking the lead in the implementation of 4IR and others are behind. This is reflected in the literature within South Africa, which reflects widely differing views. In the discussion about unemployment, for example, labour sees the 4IR as having the potential to exacerbate unemployment in South Africa while academia and industry present 4IR as an era pregnant with opportunities for innovation and growth that require exploration.
In addition to the research discussed above, MISTRA will convene a platform titled LEAP 4.0 in September 2020 to catalyse policies and actions in relation to the 4IR. ‘LEAP’ is intended to convey the notion of helping our country and continent to ‘leapfrog’ towards a digital future. This day-long convention will be open to the public and will bring together people across generational, social and sectoral divides to formulate strategies to mitigate the risks, adapt to the challenges and leverage opportunities presented by the 4IR. This is particularly important in the context of rapidly shifting technologies because far-reaching and fast-paced innovation can induce policy paralysis known as the ‘policy pacing’ problem. LEAP 4.0 will avert this danger, ensuring practical strategies for change.
The MISTRA research project and LEAP will be some of the many research activities that will be required if we are to develop a South African understanding and interpretation of the 4IR. It is only through this understanding that we can hope for a leap towards a new revolution - for the people and by the people.
*Duduetsang Mokoele and Nomaqhawe Moyo are with the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra)