Opinionista Goitse Konopi 1 June 2017

We speak of a revolution as though revolutions are quiet and non-disruptive

Unless South Africa achieves sustainable and balanced technological development and spreads the benefits of the said development to all citizens widely, we are doomed.

I find it interesting that politicians, pundits, policymakers and entrepreneurs constantly refer to the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” as the magic pill that will miraculously solve our socio-economic woes.

In a no-growth environment, there is a need to thoroughly interrogate the possibility of a jobless future. Some would think that what I’m about to highlight is something out of a science-fiction novel, but it isn’t. Major advances in a number of technologies are creating an opportunity for a fundamentally different future to the one we expect.

The sluggish growth of the South African economy (in my opinion), largely due to an inability to diversify when there was room to do so, is an opportunity to reorientate the entire system. And no, I’m not referring to slogans and conflated statements, I’m talking about real disruptive change.

Amid the growing concerns over the outlook for the nation’s economy, the Department of Science and Technology with the support of the relevant state institutions should be the leading department in preparing for a technology-driven economy.

In order for our society to achieve the NDP targeted growth rate of 5.4%, our national goal should include the speedy adoption and use of technological changes so as to comprehensively build a prosperous society. Unless South Africa achieves sustainable and balanced technological development and spreads the benefits of the said development to all citizens widely, we are doomed.

It will become increasingly difficult to grow the economy in a traditional way as more economies begin to modernise and adapt to the growing changes in the technological landscape. Growth that relies on cheap labour and capital is not sustainable as we in South Africa are well aware; as new approaches are adopted so too should the economy.

Over the medium to long term, government should adopt plans and strategies that will prepare society for an uncertain future. The creation and acceleration of action plans that not only facilitate access, but promote connectivity, should be part and parcel of our infrastructure planning.

Part of the work that national government should be embarking on requires a thorough understanding of the unfolding trends in the technology sector. South Africa has the potential to accelerate the development of new technologies across the continent. This is an important opportunity for government and the private sector to adopt a collaborative approach and prioritise the national interest while reshaping the way our people live, work, communicate and move. What should not be forgotten however is the importance of finding ways to integrate the areas in technology that are identified as being central to the nation into the broader economic and social development of the country.

The expectations that are created through public statements about “opportunity”, “benefits” and “inclusive growth” are all great; however, we have not even begun to scratch the surface of what is possible. Advances in cloud computing, communication infrastructure, robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing will each reach their own inflection points. The above-mentioned technologies will not only be prevalent in ordinary devices, but will be easily accessible as they reach critical mass.

A co-ordinated approach would require us to have serious conversations about collaboration, national priorities and whether the management that exists in government and the private sector is appropriately equipped to lead us into the new economy. The Post Office is an example of a state institution that should be supported as it repositions itself to be an active participant in the future. There is a need to support the restructuring efforts that are currently under way; part of the approach that government could adopt would require utilising the Post Office as a critical component of a comprehensive national e-commerce strategy. The Post Office has the potential to become an e-commerce hub for the continent. The infrastructure and experience at the institution are invaluable, and if all goes according to plan, we will soon see the Post Office becoming an enabler of continental e-commerce. This will support the creation of a new wave of e-commerce start-ups, in which South African entrepreneurs will be able to expand their businesses beyond our market.

Keep in mind that the ability to build and deploy interesting technologies has reached the point of no return. Enterprise and consumer start-ups alike are now able to compete on an almost equal footing to tackle new and old markets alike.

It is paradoxical that I quote Fidel Castro in highlighting the real potential of a jobless future for South Africa; however, in his speech commemorating the second anniversary of the triumph of the revolution in January 1961, he famously said: A revolution is not a trail of roses.… A revolution is a fight to the death between the future and the past.” It is with this quote in mind that I question our collective response to the waves of tech innovation that we see today. And we speak of a revolution, as though revolutions are quiet and non-disruptive.

The real conversation should be: how do we prepare our relatively unskilled nation for a world that will eliminate their way of life? How can institutions like the Post Office be used to reshape the workforce? The success or failure of any government will be in its ability to weather the storm by systematically skilling and preparing the new generation for roles that are yet to exist.

What politicians and policymakers aren’t telling us is that as much as the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” is an opportunity to reach a new and heightened level of productivity and efficiency, it is not a foregone conclusion that jobs will be created.

As part of the solution to this problem, I propose that government, labour and business begin to conceptualise a social protection grant that could potentially take the form of a universal basic income. Universal income should become one of our priorities.

Hope is not a strategy. Any assumption that winter will be kind should not prevent us from preparing for the worst. DM

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