4IR: threat or an opportunity?
The fourth industrial revolution, defined as a fusion of technologies and a blurring of the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres, has been dominating news headlines in recent years. But on a continent where not everybody has access to clean water, electricity, education or access to quality healthcare, where internet penetration in many countries is below 20%, and where some rural communities remain largely agrarian, what does the fourth industrial revolution really mean for Africa?
Futurist Craig Wing says whether Africa is able to leapfrog and take advantage of the fourth industrial revolution will depend to a large extent on the collective decisions made by governments and leaders.
“Whether or not they ensure every citizen has access to a reliable supply of electricity, see connectivity as a basic human right and prioritise last mile connectivity to include even remote rural areas will be just the start,” he says.
Correctly managed, he believes the fourth industrial revolution has the potential to unleash the continent’s potential. However, given that many of Africa’s cities have yet to be fully mechanised and digitised, there is still much work to be done.
Education systems across the continent will need to be completely redesigned, prioritising qualities such as creativity, imagination and empathy over rote learning, says Wing.
Alison Gillwald, adjunct professor at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town, cautions nothing inherent in fourth industrial revolution technologies will necessarily result in economic growth, job creation or empowerment of the marginalised. Writing in The Conversation, Gillwald says we should not take for granted that it will translate into growth in productivity or generate “decent work”.
On the contrary, she argues that layering these advanced technologies over the existing structural inequality in SA will worsen social, economic and political inequalities.
Instead, she says, countries must first develop a good set of complementary policies, both as business and government, to reap the benefits of these increasingly pervasive advanced technologies.
“It is not that advanced technologies cannot be mobilised for developmental purposes,” she writes. “But technology, in and of itself, cannot change or disrupt existing modes of production. It also cannot determine positive or negative outcomes. The interests that mobilise behind or drive certain innovations, and the uses to which the resulting technologies are put determine their social, economic and political outcomes.”
A shining light when it comes to the adoption of technology is Rwanda. Its government has relaxed regulations pertaining to drones, which allowed drone start-up Zipline to make medical deliveries of blood and vaccines to remote areas.
Zipline has since extended its services to Tanzania.
“Governments need to have a forward-thinking approach and build congruent regulation if they are to take advantage of available technologies to improve the lives of their citizens,” says Wing. Africa’s future will be determined by the choices it makes today, he adds.