Last Friday, about 500 people gathered at Gallagher Convention Centre to discuss the future of the SA economy in the digital age. The gathering was the result of the work of Fourth Industrial Revolution SA (4IRSA), an initiative between the universities of Fort Hare, Johannesburg, Wits, the government and major private-sector players such as Telkom and Deloitte SA.

The digital economy summit was the first of its kind for SA, though similar gatherings have become commonplace in many other countries across the world. Which is not to say that South Africans do not talk about the digital economy, or the broad set of economic, sociopolitical and technological changes commonly referred to as the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). We do.

The challenge of 4IR for all our societies is how to spread the benefits of the first outcome and mitigate and control the effects of the second.

4IR has possibly been one of the most trending topics of public, policy, and media conversation over the past few years in our country. But talking does not always result in conversation, and trending does not always mean important. So, many conferences happen, plans are produced and pledges are made. But most of these, unsurprisingly, tend to be sector- or industry-specific, or tend to be tech-focused, zeroing in on the foundational underpinnings of 4IR rather than the far-reaching, nontech outcomes we are already beginning to see.

It is therefore no exaggeration to say that the digital economy summit was SA’s first attempt to deal with the 4IR phenomenon in its entirety: the technology, the economics, the policy landscape, the infrastructure requirements, the sociopolitical and the geopolitical changes, and even the ethical and moral challenges posed by such rapid and fundamental changes to how we have traditionally done everything.

At its most basic, that is the definition of what industrial revolutions are: technological developments lead to simple yet profound changes in how the most basic goods are produced and consumed, which in turn lead to new forms of economic organisation that may end up changing social relations and the political systems societies have chosen to govern themselves.

What we call the fourth industrial revolution is no different to the first, in that it will have two key outcomes for all of us: rapid (but uneven) economic development and growth in prosperity on the one hand, and social and political upheaval on the other. The challenge of 4IR for all our societies is how to spread the benefits of the first outcome and mitigate and control the effects of the second. That challenge is particularly stark for a relatively small developing country such as SA.

President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the inaugural Fourth Industrial Revolution SA Digital Economy Summit at the Gallagher Convention Centre in Midrand, July 5 2019. Picture: GCIS/JAIRUS MMUTLE
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the inaugural Fourth Industrial Revolution SA Digital Economy Summit at the Gallagher Convention Centre in Midrand, July 5 2019. Picture: GCIS/JAIRUS MMUTLE

To meet it, we need the collaboration and participation of the best and brightest of our country from all walks of life. That is precisely what the digital economy summit attempted to achieve: among the 500 at Gallagher were the CEOs and executive leadership of some of our country’s largest companies, global corporations invested in our economy, representatives of small business, senior labour leaders from our largest unions and federations, business innovators, cabinet ministers, civil society leadership, politicians, academics and researchers, and key multilateral partner institutions.

All these men and women were welcomed to the summit by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has made 4IR planning a centrepiece of government planning since taking office in February 2018 and announcing the formation of a presidential commission on 4IR.

In his opening address, the president reflected on the importance of the gathering: “In years to come we will reflect on this summit as having enabled us to imagine SA and for setting us on a path of inclusive and shared growth and development. At this summit we will define and redefine our society and explore the future of a digitally enabled economy that is transformative, fair, sustainable and competitive. Given the spectrum of participants in this summit today, we are justified in asserting that our nation is forging a digital compact that is a critical contributor to our development as a nation.”

So the summit was important, even historical. But in itself it is not the dialogue South Africans need to embark upon to craft a coherent and workable national response to 4IR. That happens in the weeks and months following the summit, which was only a launch pad, an open public invitation to everyone to get involved in co-creating the digital future we want for our country.

In his 2019 state of the nation address, Ramaphosa defined seven priority areas for his government and our country, and made clear that without significant wins in these we cannot succeed in building the SA we all want to live in. Among the things we need to do are accelerate economic transformation and job creation; improve education, skills and health; consolidate the social wage through reliable and quality basic services; achieve spatial integration in human settlements and local government; enhance social cohesion and create safe communities; build a capable, ethical and developmental state; and promote a better Africa and world.

Of course, all of these must be pursued and achieved within the confines of a rapidly changing, global landscape and the advent of the digital age. The new landscape is characterised by exponential advancements in technology; the growth of automation in production; the primacy of information as the world’s most valuable commodity; increased interconnectedness; and technologies that break down the barriers between the mechanical, the virtual and the biological.

But there are other developments that go far beyond technology or even the economic system. These changes are sociopolitical and geopolitical, and require careful management to protect the cohesion of our societies in the digital age:

  • Workplace automation may lead to large-scale economic and social displacement of the most vulnerable in our society.
  • The globe may be turned into a pseudocolonial arrangement of high-tech producer economies and low-tech consumer economies.
  • Increasing economic concentration may lead to a rise in inequality, both between and within nations.
  • If our education system does not encourage the rapid development of 4IR-linked skills, we may face a new, and worse, era of economic exclusion.
  • Lastly, the growth of mega-corporations that operate across the globe without setting up shop in any country presents new challenges for nation states regarding regulation, taxation and the enforcement of nationally determined standards.

These are just some of the discussions that were on the table at the summit and will continue to be at the centre of the thinking of 4IRSA and its partners as they chart a post-summit path to define an SA national response plan. In the months to come, SA must define how it will use the technologies of the digital age to solve our problems, both historic and new.

Telkom and our partners in 4IRSA look forward to working with all sectors of industry, the state, our research institutions, innovators, workers, community activists and others, to define and construct the SA future we all deserve.

• Maseko is group CEO of Telkom SA and a founding partner of the 4IRSA initiative.