Creating a globally competitive economy through the 4IR

11-10-21 USAf 0 comment

The proposed vision for South Africa in the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) era is a globally competitive, inclusive, and shared economy – matched with technological capability and production capacity driven by people harnessing the 4IR to propel it towards a set of social and economic goals.

This was said by Dr Nompumelelo Obokoh, Board Chairperson of the National Research Foundation who served as a commissioner in the Presidential Commission on the 4IR. She was sharing that Commission’s perspectives at Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference, jointly hosted with the Council on Higher Education (CHE) from 6 to 8 October to provide a platform for thought leadership and debate among higher education stakeholders.

Dr Obokoh (left) was one of 32 members of the Presidential Commission (PC) that produced a strategic focus for South Africa to effectively participate in the 4IR. This report was promulgated in the Government Gazette in October 2020.

In delivering its mandate, the Commission divided its work into eight work streams that Dr Obokoh described as:

  • Integration
  • Programme management
  • Social economic impact
  • Science, technology and innovation
  • Infrastructure and resources
  • Human capital
  • The future of the World of Work
  • Capital markets, financing, commercialisation and industrialisation.

“The key was to provide an enabling environment for the 4IR to thrive through policies and a conducive legal framework in South Africa,” she said.

The report made four key recommendations:

  • Investment in human capital: “People are South Africa’s greatest opportunity and most important resource, which is why this investment is critical for the success of the 4IR.”
  • The development or establishment of an Artificial Intelligence (AI) Institute: She said this is based on the understanding that research and development, as well as the implementation capabilities in AI, are critical and must be embedded within the State. “These also enable the generation of new knowledge and creative technology applications in key sectors such as (among others) health, agriculture, education, energy, manufacturing, tourism and ICT,” she said.
  • Platform for advanced manufacturing: The commission recommended the establishment of a platform for advanced manufacturing as well as for new material production. “This, of course, comes from an understanding that these will form part of the revival of the country’s manufacturing sector. For success, in the context of the 4IR, it is imperative that the manufacturing sector be supported by a state-led research initiative. This should focus on advanced manufacturing and the application of new materials to enhance, particularly, the agricultural sector, housing, health, energy storage, environmental sustainability, and the climate crisis.
  • Securing and making available data: The commission endorsed making data available to enable innovation. Dr Obokoh said: “The critical opportunity in the 4th-IR is the storage of large sums of data that are supposed to be reliable and accurate, standardised, integrated and easily accessible. This is citizen data for building an e-government service across sectors such as health, transport and justice.” She was adamant, however, that this opportunity –while essential – should be safeguarded. “This needs to be done by securely organising public data through the bolstering of cyber security capacity and capabilities,” Dr Obokoh concluded.
  • Incentives: The incentivising of future industries, platforms and applications of the 4IR technologies was paramount.
  • Infrastructure: In building the 4IR infrastructure, it was important to incorporate this into the overall planning for infrastructure development and deployment. This included around areas such as biotechnology, 3-D printing etc. “The digital economy will require a stable and enhanced infrastructure base for it to succeed.”
  • Policies: The review, amendment or creation of new policies and legislation was essential.
  • The establishment of the 4IR Strategic Implementation Co-ordination Council was also necessary.

Human capital and the future World of Work:

Dr Obokoh said: “For context, we have 60.3-million people (projected to grow to 66/67-million by 2030) living in South Africa. Currently, two thirds of that number in our population is below 35. “This is often presented as an opportunity because more people are available for productive work. But, as we all know, the greatest struggle facing South African youth is unemployment. Sadly, this has worsened significantly under CoViD-19.” She added that a lot of South Africa youth were, however, ill-equipped to produce productive work in the context of the 4IR.

“A skilled, capable, technologically advanced workforce will be required for South Africa to exploit the opportunities presented by the 4IR. This will require continuous learning and keeping up with the rate of development and change that the 4IR makes the norm.

“South Africa requires a 4IR human capital development strategy that will look at how we develop the future work force as well as looking at the skills needed by those who are neither in employment nor in education.” Dr Obokoh said that when examining the challenges and opportunities, the SA public education system “is severely under-performing”.

The urgent need for appropriate skills

She added: “We are not equipping our learners with the necessary skills to become productive labour participants. “Our schooling system does not have an overt focus on creating learner competency in creativity, critical thinking and problem solving. “Thus, the exclusion of the arts as a priority learning area is also a limiting factor especially with regards to creative thinking and the problem-solving ability of the youth.”

She said that the inclusion of STEAMIE – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics, Innovation and Entrepreneurship – subjects is becoming a focus worldwide as the preparation for 21st century skills. The arts and humanities, she said, would play a big role in facilitating creative thinking and elevate learning of all the STEM subjects. “Here in South Africa, where the STEM is at the beginning stages of being introduced, we have the opportunity to implement a STEAMIE approach from the outset.”

Jobs for the Future

Referencing a World Economic Forum report, Dr Obokoh told delegates that existing jobs that are expected to increase in demand after 2020 will include (among them) e-commerce, social media specialists, data analysts, data scientists, software developers, application developers and technology-based jobs.

Other jobs that will grow include those that require people skills such as organisational development specialists, sales and marketing professionals, customer service workers. She said: “AI, big data, information specialists, security analysts, robotics, engineers… anyone who can be a human / machine interaction designer will be useful in the new specialists roles needed in 4IR era.

“Soft skills such as complex problem solving, creativity, critical thinking skills, negotiation, people management… these core competencies will add value. Machines cannot fulfil those functions.

“Our greatest opportunity and resource is our people and therefore it’s important that we invest in developing a 4IR ready skill sets. The 4IR is giving us the opportunity to redesign, streamline and align the education system through a co-ordinated robust and multi stakeholder process. The purpose for the next vision of our skills and ecosystem will be to leapfrog our youth into productive work and reskill current workers for job retention and on-going productive work in the economy.”

The skills demanded in the 4IR era require competencies that are industry aligned, and that allow people to enter and exit the system at multiple points as part of a lifelong learning process. “Therefore it’s important that we invest in strategic projects for mass skills development which will be scaled for labour market absorption. Upskilling is needed in all sectors, including in agriculture, health, energy and mining, environmental, transport, the financial services and tourism sectors. This is also necessary in the creative industries that provide an immediate opportunity for mass skilling programmes.”

Dr Obokoh said: “All sectors of society need to be prepared not only to reskill, but also to approach skilling as a continuous lifelong process.”

The Presidential Commission’s 4IR Agenda

The Commission proposes a 4IR agenda that looks at investing in people and in the institutions of work, as well as investing in decent and sustainable work.

For South Africa to compete globally, she needs to:

  • Foster an economy that empowers its citizens with the necessary future fit skills.
  • Consider the economic significance of what is happening in the context of low growth and social backlogs (high unemployment).
  • Innovate its curriculum design and adapt the way it creates and prepares young people for the new world of work.
  • Urgently reskill and up-skill its citizens, focusing on strengthening higher education.
  • Use the ‘No citizen should be left behind’ idea to strengthen the labour market for job retention, job creation and the transition from the current to the future ready scenarios.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.