Telecommunications giant Telkom and the universities of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Johannesburg (UJ) and Fort Hare on Wednesday launched SA4IR, which is a national response to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The partnership between the company and the universities seeks to build an inclusive developmental future for South Africans by stimulating a national dialogue and developing a national agenda in response to the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the country.
SA4IR will explore the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the economy and the new digital economy, higher education and the future of work, inequality and society and the State.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is set to dramatically change how humans interact with technology, and how humans express themselves, communicate and engage.
While the potential of transformative technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data, automation, cryptocurrencies and augmented/virtual/mixed realities is immense, it also brings about multilayered and multifaceted changes that reshape lives, work, business and governance.
SA4IR will assess the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s impact on human rights and transformations in human identity, while determining the impact on the economy and social orders.
“We need to train scholars to deal with the challenges of the twenty-first century, some which we may not yet have encountered,” said Wits vice-chancellor and president Professor Adam Habib.
He added that South Africa needs to work across sectors to develop the technology required for it to leapfrog across eons of poverty, unemployment and inequality, “to create a world that prioritises humanity before profits and power”.
It is a moment of great promise and great threat. Disruption in the global economy owing to new technology poses opportunity for enhanced productivity and safety. However, we need to get a handle on this and understand the consequences, explained Habib.
Effectively, white collar labour will change; nations around the world are preparing for it - for example fifth-generation technology is already being introduced.
The biggest challenge with introducing technologies in South Africa, says Habib, is insufficient skill sets at schooling level, technical level and postgraduate level. Inclusive discussions are necessary between universities, government and other stakeholders.
UJ vice-chancellor and principal Professor Tshilidzi Marwala commented that those who master the means and ways of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will thrive. “Those who fail to master this revolution shall be thrown into the dustbin of backwardness. UJ intends to lead this revolution for the benefit of society.”
With previous industrial revolutions, skills were developed amid the revolution. However, with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there is preparation taking place and early incorporation of technologies such as cloud computing, blockchain and three-dimensional printing, which gives South Africa the opportunity to be ready and perhaps ahead of many other countries in terms of harnessing technology.
Fort Hare interim deputy academic vice-chancellor Professor John Hendricks, who spoke at the SA4IR launch on behalf of Fort Hare vice-chancellor and principal Sakhela Buhlungu, noted that, based on the Fourth Industrial Revolution’s core design principles namely interoperability, information transparency, technical assistance and decentralised decisions, the human-sphere will have a highly inter-correlated and technology-dependent environment.
“Apart from its anticipated benefits, we further need to be cognisant of the things that may go wrong, such as job losses, negative impact on human rights, and perhaps even loss of life.
“Thus, as public institutions, we need to train the next generation of highly skilled experts and leaders to assist us to harness the potential that this revolution is going to deliver,” added Hendricks.
Telkom CEO Sipho Maseko said the Fourth Industrial Revolution is transforming the world economy and dialogue around its implementation is imperative to ensure South Africa’s future economic participation.
“When we consider the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is important that we are also cognisant that our decision is narrowing the current digital divide. Lowering the cost of access to broadband will be a vital way that marginalised groups can gain access to the economy of the future.”
In the next six months, as a starting point, SA4IR will host a summit to bring together stakeholders, determine challenges and then start developing a comprehensive strategy for the mining, healthcare, manufacturing and services sectors alike to respond to the revolution.
“SA4IR should result in practical steps forward and not just potent research and journals published. All of the work that the universities will do, should progress into tangible solutions, while attracting companies to support our effort and not monopolise our effort,” noted Maseko.
He added that collaborative and inclusive workstreams will follow between business, labour, government and the private sector to create a manifesto that forms a blueprint for what will happen sector by sector to embrace and make the most of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.