The pivotal aspect in dealing with the long-lasting and life-altering changes that will be ushered in by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is how we prepare for them as a country. I wrote last week that if we are to seamlessly merge with a tech-dominated world, the wait-and-see approach will be fatal to South Africa’s development. Read the column here.
It’s understandable for one to feel anxious about government’s ability to anticipate change when assessing the current state of play. Unemployment is rife as a result of the declines in mining and manufacturing, and graduates are unable to find jobs because their qualifications are ill-matched to the needs of the private sector.
The way in which Japan used its technological advantage after its 1990s bubble is an experience SA can learn from. It illustrates how intentional leadership in both business and government worked together to refine what was working and discard whatever obstructed progress (including policies that delayed business) – and in so doing created an environment that allowed technology to thrive.
Twenty years later, Japanese technology continues to advance, and with it comes the skills and relevance needed in the face of the advancing 4IR.
Admittedly, we are not Japan. However, nothing is stopping our policymakers and private sector partners from identifying areas of low-hanging fruit and starting there as they work to prepare our economy for the technological revolution.
One of the weaknesses in South Africa’s economy is productivity, and while labour may not want to hear this, reports issued by StatsSA are full of evidence that the country’s productivity has been on a steady decline.
As we face the inevitability of a world economy characterised by a machine-dominated workforce, we must ask one of the most central questions of the economy: how will productivity be increased? If we can increase productivity, and if wages rise, along with profits, the economic machine can start again – and this could become the much-needed incentive for big companies to invest more of their capital.
For a country with an increasingly young population, productivity growth matters because it drives innovation, it can increase real wages, and it can enable the economy to grow.
I cannot emphasise this enough. As the 4IR begins to take hold, South Africa cannot find itself on the wrong side of the revolution due to a stalled economy, low productivity and unpreparedness. When machines become more prevalent and work is shared between them and workers, policymakers must have a plan; they must know how they are going to adjust and evolve.
The changes brought about by accelerating technology, and the prospect of robot workers in particular, creates and presents significant opportunities and risks for South Africa. To stay ahead, public policy must be agile and receptive to the speed of change. If there is one thing our political principals and their policymakers must fully realise, it’s that 4IR technologies will be a defining political and social issue over the next 10 years.
It can be daunting to look at South Africa’s numerous government policies, political declarations, and even economic and social features, when trying to prepare for the future. Solutions often become complicated and can take years to develop.
I’ve always said it: countries that are able to improve their lot or turn their luck are those that do one simple thing – become flexible.
Yes, flexibility. Or adaptability. It’s now more critical than ever for government and its leaders as they plan for the future.
This is what they must do:
* Given the need for faster and more agile responses to never-before-seen changes in work, and the interlinked and dynamic nature of 4IR technologies, those leading government must realise that policy development can no longer be the domain of government alone. A multi- stakeholder approach that includes companies and innovators and disruptors must be adopted. Policymakers must work with the private sector and get to know about the technologies that are being developed, and what impact they will have on the labour market.
* Government must collaborate with employers in sectors that have high automation potential and come up with policy that will proactively mitigate the negative impact that automation can be expected to have on thousands of workers – including how to reskill, and where to reassign displaced workers.
* An education system that makes the biggest contribution is one that is agile, fosters innovation, evolves as work changes, and can transition in line with the advances of technology. Current attempts at fixing the education system are archaic and indicate how unprepared we are for the future.
* A highly skilled labour force will always be the driver that determines how fast an economy adopts accelerating technologies. It is a precondition for lift-off: the better and more highly skilled the worker, the more likely it is that they will be able to adapt and work side by side with machines.
If business doesn’t put its cards on the table and work with government, everyone will be affected.
There is opportunity – and even poetic beauty – about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For a country like South Africa, it necessitates that business demonstrate that it is part of the solution and not just an observer.
As with previous revolutions, 4IR technologies will come with unprecedented forces of disruption that will have economic, political and social implications. Let us not be found unprepared or worse, to not to see it coming because our Palaeolithic leaders were ignorant of the great things technology can do.