Business Day

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.

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