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Society 5.0: The future is now, and we need to bridge the digital divide or get left behind

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We live in a society in which knowledge and information are used without sharing, whereas in Society 5.0, the internet of things will connect all people. Data, information and knowledge will be shared and new value contributions will be possible.

We live in exciting times that present us with numerous new innovations and opportunities. However, as a society, we also face many challenges, such as global warming and unequal resource distribution. In this era of challenges and opportunities, Japan has introduced a new concept, “Society 5.0”, which refers to a society that, “through the high degree of merging between cyberspace and physical space, will be able to balance economic advancement with the resolution of social problems by providing goods and services that granularly address manifold latent needs regardless of locale, age, sex or language”.

Society 5.0 follows on from the hunting society (Society 1.0), agricultural society (Society 2.0), industrial society (Society 3.0) and information society (Society 4.0). Confusion often arises regarding the question of whether Industry 4.0 actually did precede Society 5.0, and how they interlink. In 2019, Society 5.0 was acknowledged by the World Economic Forum and it was stated that “as for the problems to solve, Society 5.0 aims to answer both the future economic and societal challenges faced by humanity at its present and future stage, by using all the advances of Industry 4.0”.

The question that arises is: What will be different in Society 5.0? We live in a society in which knowledge and information are used without sharing, whereas in Society 5.0, the internet of things will connect all people. Data, information and knowledge will be shared and new value contributions will be possible. Society 5.0 will overcome social disparities with regard to access to goods, for example, by using drones for distribution in rural areas. People will not be overwhelmed by information, as technology will be used to analyse large datasets, and other information and recommendations will be made based on the findings.

In 2019, Nakamura Michiharu, senior adviser to the Japan Science and Technology Agency, linked the vision of Society 5.0 with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 4 focuses on education, with an emphasis on using technologies such as e-learning systems to make education affordable and available to everyone. In 2020 the use of e-learning systems became highly pertinent during the worldwide Covid-19 lockdown periods when teachers and students had to adapt to remote teaching and learning. The question that arises now is how technology can be used to further assist education. What will the future of education be in Society 5.0?

In line with SDG 4, which states that no one should be left behind, and education should be affordable and freely accessible to everyone, Society 5.0 potentially offers education for all. There is a close relationship between the skills that need to be acquired, the use of technology in acquiring those skills, and the use of technology in the teaching model used by lecturers when teaching students.

Education in Society 5.0 faces many challenges, the most pertinent being that although the underpinning foundation is to do things for the greater good, care should be taken to ensure that solutions do not create new problems. For example, access for everyone via online systems might provide access to the majority of students, but for those who do not have access to fast internet, it might be a challenge to access the content needed for education.

Focusing on the potential of technology in the domain of education, there certainly are numerous opportunities. Online education offers even students in remote locations access to education and enables them to interact with lecturers and fellow students. By using simulations and models, students gain access to scenarios where practical experience might be gained to prepare themselves for coping with real-life scenarios.

In a simulation or modelling environment, mistakes cost nothing and skills can be practised several times before they are finally applied. One example is the medical field, where surgery can be practised in a simulated environment prior to exposure to actual surgery.

South Africa faces unique problems relating to the use of technology in our education system. One of these is how universities can overcome the digital divide. A potential solution is a low-synchronisation model that allows students who really cannot work online to attend classes, while those who prefer online teaching will be allowed to study online.

Different teaching models will need to be considered. Programming, data science and artificial intelligence should be included in skills training and should be combined with traditional disciplines such as mathematics, philosophy and languages. In preparing them for the world of work in a technology-enhanced environment, students will have to acquire digital literacy. Student success will continue to play a role and higher education will have to rethink the teaching model: in the first year, the focus should be on skills, and once real talent has been identified, students will advance to more focused educational programmes.

Society 5.0 has the potential to enable many students. The use of technology could facilitate training and assist students, especially those enrolled in training programmes where skills training through repetition is needed. It is imperative that lecturers remain informed on new technologies and understand how they can be effectively used in their different programmes.

We are aware of the challenges, but believe that it is more important to spend our energy on researching the potential of the use of technology made available in Industry 4.0 to establish how it can be used to the benefit of a South African society in which education is affordable and freely available. DM

Professor Alta van der Merwe is Deputy Dean: Teaching and Learning at the University of Pretoria and Deputy Dean of the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology.

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