The Centre for the Future of Work (CFoW), launched by the University of Pretoria (UP) on May 17, will be Africa’s centre of excellence on the future of work, producing scientific and popular publications, advisory services and training, said CFoW director and UP Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences Professor Natasja Holtzhausen.
The CFoW is a key connector between UP and the public and private sectors, and will encompass the concept of Society 5.0, she said.
“We are living in a continuously changing environment, and we need to create an inclusive, diverse, human-centred Society 5.0 that can prosper within an environment of technology and change.
“We are already living in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, whereas Society 5.0 is a system where the combination of human skills, collaborative robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) complement one another in the service of humanity and the planet,” she explained.
Further, the centre can help any organisation or institution to future-proof their workforce and determine what they would need to help employees reskill and upskill for the future of work, as well as reimagine what the workplace of the future will look like.
“We have a variety of research instruments, quantitative and qualitative studies and analysis, as well as forecasting and AI-driven tools, which help leaders to evaluate the challenges and opportunities in automation, brought on by AI and other technologies,” she said.
In line with this, the CFoW is working with one of the largest mining groups in South Africa to help the organisation rebuild its training for artisans, as about one-third of the group's current training is no longer appropriate.
Digitalisation, meanwhile, can fuel a giant leap, in the same way that mobile phones fuelled the communication leap from fixed lines in a short period. It needs intensive mega-scale planning and resources, as well as governments to commit to universal connectivity and freeing bandwidth.
“We need new technologies and approaches that advance humanity at every level and that take us into future worlds of work, and UP has been working hard at this. For example, in 2015, the UP Department of Mining Engineering modernised education with the Kumba Virtual Reality Centre for Mine Design, which features a 360° cylinder that immerses students in an underground or any mining scenario. The mine of the near future will automate most activities to improve productivity, safety and working conditions.”
A cultural change needs to happen to create a strong work ethic, which starts with a strong educational ethic, Holtzhausen said.
“We live on a continent where digital access and connectivity are seriously limited, and where millions of children do not own even one book. This is a vast issue, and it requires reinventing our public, school and university libraries in every village and city.
“Across all fields, we need to innovate and explore what makes us human, what inspires us, and what makes the future of work and life better for all,” she added.
UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe said it was imperative for South African organisations to prepare their people for the future, to alleviate the unsustainably high level of unemployment and to bring South Africa's talented people, young and older, into the next era of work.
“We are already seeing the arts and humanities integrating with science, technology, engineering and mathematics to an unprecedented degree. New professions and jobs require us to be entrepreneurial, creative and innovative, and the CFoW taps into this,” he said.
Stevie, UP’s gender-neutral telemedicine mobile robot, is a good example of human and robotic collaboration. Stevie joined the Faculty of Health Sciences at Steve Biko Academic Hospital in July 2021, and its digital screen assists in the treatment of intensive care unit (ICU) patients through instant live discussion and communication with ICU teams in Germany and South Africa, Kupe said.
Another robot, library assistant Libby, joined UP in 2019, while the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology has acquired smWoef, a quadrupedal robot, or robot dog, that will be used as a Smart Alternative Transportation Platform to enable data collection in hard-to-reach and at-risk locations, and for routine data collection efforts, he highlighted.
“We want all of our students to develop generic skills across all disciplines and they need to be digitally literate, with all students taking modules such as data analytics and data sciences. UP believes in the principle of lifelong learning, where there is learning, unlearning and re-learning,” Kupe said.
The future of work requires universities to make provision for several different knowledge systems feeding into one another, UP Academic Vice-Principal Professor Norman Duncan added.
“While the centre is situated within the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, it is all about advancing inter- and transdisciplinary research and multidimensional skills. The CFoW will offer a range of short learning programmes, while its PhD students and postdoctoral fellows will make the future of work their research focus,” he said.