Business Maverick

The Gathering 2020

4IR: First, SA has to get the basics right

4IR: First, SA has to get the basics right
Wits Professor Brian Armstrong delivers the keynote address at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering on Friday, 6 March 2020. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

From the president’s State of the Nation Address to the minister of finance’s Budget review, there is no doubt that the state has been talking the talk. But it is yet to walk the walk.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Networked Readiness Index, South Africa falls smack in the middle of the technology readiness spectrum, coming in at number 65. The country hovers around average to below average in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Technological Readiness Ranking and the Digital Evolution Index published by the Harvard Business Readiness Review.

But according to Professor Brian Armstrong, the chair of digital business at the Wits Business School (WBS) the talk of technology creating employment will lead nowhere if South Africa does not have the fundamentals in place. 

The former Telkom executive was the keynote speaker on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering 2020 at the Cape Town Convention Centre on 6 March. 

Armstrong said that if South Africa wants to fully embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it has to go further than just digital readiness. “Fundamentals matter,” he said. The five fundamentals are: 

  1. Stability
  2. Macro-economic policies
  3. Skills
  4. Infrastructure
  5. Rule of law

Armstrong further stated the real challenges for South Africa are unemployment, corporate concentration, inequality, the lack of trust, ethics and security. 

“The digital divide will become a downward spiral if the state continues to try solve these problems without having a strong foundation in place. So, how do we respond to ensure we achieve a virtuous cycle rather than a downward spiral?” he asked.

It all comes down to skills development. “We need to establish a digital framework,” he said. 

There are various schools of thought on what these critical skills are. 

The Wits Business School (WBS) established the chair in Digital Business through a five-year funding commitment from Telkom. 

The flagship programme of the chair is currently a master’s degree in Digital Business, but there are and will be other offerings, including a postgraduate diploma, and online and executive education courses.

But the debate is not purely academic or bureaucratic. Armstrong says corporate boards currently are filled with accountants and lawyers who look at governance and the numbers, but there is nobody at the table to keep an eye on the changes of appetite in the market. Kodak is the poster child of the cost of this linear construction. 

It is not just about the technology, he added. It is also about having an innovative business model. Uber, Airbnb and Amazon are in essence a transport, a hospitality and a retail business. 

“Technology was just the enabler of evolution.”

The pace of change has become so profound that if we don’t start paying attention now it will pass us by. Just ask Nokia and Blockbuster where they are, and see where Apple and Netflix have already gone. DM

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