The Fourth Industrial Revolution – implications for South Africa

This is the third in our series on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Having explored What Is the Fourth Industrial Revolution and The Fourth Industrial Revolution – Will It Spell the End of Your Job?, we now look more specifically at the South African context…how our workforce will be impacted – positively and negatively – by automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and the like.

The reality is that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is set to change our world and our lives in much the same way that the First, Second and Third Industrial Revolutions transformed the lives of previous generations. Concepts and technology that were once the realm of science fiction are fast becoming – or have already become – reality.

And while this has created justifiable anxiety for many of us, the shift will bring with it massive opportunities. Just as today we cannot imagine living without electricity or cars, cellphones or online shopping, so too will AI and robotics become the “new normal”.

Losing jobs or learning new skills?

Yes, jobs will change, and low-skilled and routine jobs may become automated, but people will always be needed to operate machinery, analyse data or conduct an interview. So, although mundane aspects of a job could fall away, new opportunities abound for workers to grow and be upskilled. One cannot move forward by staying in the same place.

Economic modelling shows that innovation will create more jobs than losses in just about all sectors of the economy. In South Africa, carbon capture and storage, for example, can provide cleaner electricity and create construction jobs, while Afta, a robot that uses smartphones to connect commuters and minibus taxi operators, makes transport more efficient for drivers and passengers alike.[1]

Other South African success stories such as electronic payment platforms and e-government initiatives have harnessed new technologies and investors have realised the need to not only make technology available to consumers, but to make sure South Africa has the skills and capabilities to build technology itself. South African start-up truID is making the arduous task of obtaining authorised bank statements for credit and other applications fast and easy by securely automating the link between credit provider and the applicant’s bank, with the consumer in control of the process. Gone are the days of spending one’s lunch hour in a bank queue simply to get verified copies of bank statements. truID is a tech enabler, providing the platform for young entrepreneurs to create other financial apps.

In total, medium and high-tech exports now make up 54% of the value of our manufactured exports and, according to the AngelList, there are 1,418 South African tech start-ups looking for funding in the sector.

Even more jobs could be created by transforming the energy and transport sectors, making them more competitive. This would allow us to deliver commodities to international markets more quickly and more affordably and attract more tourists.

Beyond economic benefits

Developments such as these offer both economic and social benefits – links between government, business and people provide easy access to information and bring those who were previously excluded into the formal economy or into the healthcare system.

In the public health space innovative technologies such as hand-held blood analysis machines that deliver results almost immediately and battery-powered monitors to accurately measure breathing rates – a critical symptom for pneumonia diagnosis – are enhancing service delivery and improving treatment outcomes.

The government-led Tier.net is moving patient records onto an electronic platform, linked centrally, so that patients moving around the country can be assured of a consistent standard of care, improving levels of adherence to medication (particularly in the treatment of HIV) and thus having a knock-on effect not only for public health but for social cohesiveness.

Online, on the phone

Likewise, the gap between formal and informal markets is decreasing due to exponential growth in smartphone use and internet access. Of South Africa’s 21 million internet users, the vast majority surf the web on their cellphones, with 40% of the population expected to go online last year says Arthur Goldstuck[2] of World Wide Worx.

In financial services, digitisation means more competitive service offerings and more fulfilling jobs for clerical and branch staff, as routine tasks increasingly become managed through technology.

Organisations that don’t embrace innovation are losing out on enormous opportunities to grow their businesses and increase the bottom line – both financial and social – and at the same time drive more inclusive economic growth.

Education the crux of 21st century skills

Reform of the education system is essential to provide South Africans with the “21st century skills” necessary to thrive and remain employed in a knowledge economy. Our primary and secondary schools are weak and vocational colleges too small, with outdated curricula. Similarly, businesses will be required to invest in developing and supporting low- and semi-skilled staff to transition to the next level of jobs. We must equip people with the skills they need to flourish in this digital world, says Sim Tshabalala, Chief Executive of Standard Bank, and a Board Member of Business Leadership SA.

There is no doubt that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will redefine our world of work and our societies. A profound sea change is ahead of us and, as trend and innovation strategist John Sanei says in his book What’s your moonshot?, it’s up to us to seize opportunities, to reinvent ourselves and prepare for this new world by understanding the digital, networked age and learning how to future-proof ourselves and our businesses. The first step is to become the architect of your future, not a victim.

[1] https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2017-10-06-south-africa-in-the-fourth-industrial-revolution-a-new-opportunity-to-create-more-jobs-and-a-better-society#.

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/tobyshapshak/2017/07/19/south-africa-has-21m-internet-users-mostly-on-mobile/#6463e1d51b2d

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