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Evolution as revolution: Covid-19 in the time of the Fourth Industrial Revolution

The period we’re living through is the first one ever where the conscious actions of a single species will decide its fate. It’s also one of many, when a single microorganism might just do the same. In other words – it’s the Anthropocene Era. And it’s all about punctuated equilibrium.

So what do these two arcane concepts have to do with track and trace, nano-materials, rapid diagnostics, drone deliveries, big data, thermal-based imaging, 3-D printing, sustainable industry, or remote working, learning and teaching? Well, with the very nature, balance and composition of our planetary home being determined by homo sapiens, perhaps it’s the ‘sapiens’ part that needs a little further investigation. That’s because it comes from the Latin word meaning all of “rational”, “sane”, “of sound mind”, “wise”, “judicious”, “understanding” anddiscreet”. And if that doesn’t ring enough alarm bells when talking about humanity, then perhaps we need to look at those other two words – punctuated equilibrium.

This is a theory propounded in 1972 by biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, and it holds that populations of living organisms tend to experience a significant amount of evolutionary change in short, stressful bursts. In short, what they were saying is that evolution is not a gradual process, but one which takes sudden leaps when the environment is faced with a crisis.

And that brings us to track and trace, nano-materials, rapid diagnostics, drone deliveries, big data, thermal-based imaging, 3-D printing, sustainable industry, and remote working, learning and teaching. All of them are aspects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

The University of Johannesburg (UJ), as an academic and research leader in Africa, is at the forefront in looking at 4IR, and what it means for our societies, our economic pillars, our concepts of social justice, our approach to teaching and learning, and our environment. And UJ has understood that 4IR, as a fact of life in the 21st Century, is watershed moment – a revolution in our societal evolution.

Moreover, it understands that what we’re living through now, on a global scale, is the coalescence of two revolutionary tidal forces – a combination of, on the one hand, technologies that are in the process of radically changing the way we do things, and on the other, a pandemic that has already rattled the very foundations of our social, economic, cultural and health structures.

A mere seven or eight months ago, no-one anywhere could have predicted that hand-washing, social distancing and self-isolation would become not only everyday words, but fundamental concepts by which we live. No-one could have said that whole industries, like aviation, entertainment or hospitality, that were once simply taken for granted, would be threatened with extinction. No-one could have imagined that simply by shaking hands with someone, you could be putting their life, or your own, in danger. That’s the bad news. The good news, is that this is not just the era of the pandemic. It’s also the era of 4IR.

That means that the positive connotations of the word sapiens – “wise”, and “understanding” – can truly come to the fore. It means that with the phenomenal technologies that are daily leaping further forward, we have the tools for ameliorating the very real personal distress and societal stress, brought about by the coronavirus.

We can use cell-phones to track the movements of infected people, and trace the people they have met. We can use substances that work on the nano-material level to protect us. We can use 5G and other platforms to conduct diagnostics at a distance when speed is of the essence, or when access is difficult. Moreover, it can be done with the aid of artificial intelligence (AI) which can scan millions of cases to automate diagnosis. We can use drones to deliver food and medicines. We can use big data to rapidly understand areas and trends of infection, and predict new ones. We can use 3-D printing to quickly produce protective equipment. And we can use endless iterations of channels like Zoom to stay in touch, work in teams, teach and learn, without exposing ourselves to the threat of personal interactions. Most importantly, perhaps, we can use high-speed computational and molecular capacity to speed up therapeutic interventions that could lead to treatments and vaccines in a fraction of the time it once would have taken.

In other words, while humanity may never be able to cure all its ills, it certainly, for the first time in history, has an amazing range of tools to make the world incomparably better.

Many of us will have already become used to some of these tools and technologies. Many more of us will become used to even more of them very quickly, as solutions to problems that never before existed become part of our everyday parlance and experience.

And that brings us to the other aspects of the word sapiens – “rational”, “sane”, “judicious” and “discreet”. UJ, as an African thought leader interested in, and committed to, equitable progress, is aware that all too often our societies fall short in these qualities. With all the benefits that technology brings, there is also the threat of inequality, unfairness and injustice. That’s why UJ hosts its successful series of Cloudebates – online panel discussions to which everyone is invited, in pursuit of a better future for all. Never before has such a world crisis – such a punctuation in equilibrium – been so accessible to discussion, solution and resolution.

So, UJ invites you to join in this free discussion on 5 August at 18:00, by clicking here. Add your voice to the question of how the coincidence of Covid-19 and 4IR can, in the end, bring solutions that will work to the benefit of humanity, and deal with issues as diverse as health, work, privacy, collaboration and the rebalancing of the environment.

It’s just a question of finding the right way to do things, and agreeing on ethical ways of adapting. It’s about mapping a route for society, that while acknowledging that the world we thought we knew may radically change, will nevertheless bring hope, confidence and continuity for all. At UJ it’s called reimagining the future. DM


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