Picture: 123RF/POP NUKOONRAT
Picture: 123RF/POP NUKOONRAT

Due to Covid-19-related pent-up demand, the outlook for global economic growth is mostly positive, and the possibilities open to entrepreneurs pioneering fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies are increasing. However, this recovery will not come without pain, and growth prospects for economies worldwide are inextricably linked to the creation of new jobs, reskilling large parts of the workforce and improved equity within and between nations.

In SA, given the bloodbath of jobs in the formal economy from Covid-19-imposed restrictions, this will be an arduous journey. Significant opposition to the introduction of further job-eroding technologies should be expected. To survive this onslaught of technology, unprecedented in both velocity of evolvement and depth of impact, the global workforce must be reskilled urgently. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 1-billion jobs — almost a third of all jobs globally — are set to be transformed in the next decade.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that as early as 2022, 133-million new jobs in major economies will be created to contend with the advances offered by the 4IR. The opportunity cost of not reskilling is staggering. According to Accenture, Group of 20 countries could forfeit $11.5-trillion in potential GDP growth over the next decade should they fail to adequately respond to this skills challenge.

As the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 has hastened the adoption of technology, history has shown that major societal upheaval is primed by pandemics. In his book Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, Frank M Snowden illustrates how disease outbreaks have shaped politics, revolutionised socioeconomic systems and entrenched racial and economic discrimination, saying: “Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning.”

The bubonic plague of the mid-1300s decimated populations on a continental scale and hastened the advent of the first industrial revolution, rolling back centuries of slavery and serfdom. Nowadays, pandemics, such as cholera and tuberculosis, are found to move along fractures precipitated by poverty and inequality. Social engineering, as was contemplated by the apartheid regime in SA, entrenched these fault lines along demographic and geographic classifications, stymying well-intentioned and orchestrated responses by the democratic government post 1994.

Social contract

The Covid-19 pandemic, now manifesting itself in devastating waves, is part of a multipronged assault confronting the earth. The real and urgent effect of the climate crisis, the global shift to an energy mix favouring renewables, as well as the relentless march towards the exponentially growing 4IR, has shrunk the window for proper reflection and planning. This collusion of disruptive forces has provoked panic, uncertainty and, in some cases, apathy within the ranks of global leadership.

The confluence of these global challenges compels leaders to urgently and proactively lay the foundations for a new social contract. Economies require reconstruction to correct current and past injustices and uneven distribution of resources, root out rent seeking and provide inclusive growth opportunities.

This will require an overdue shifting of paradigms, deployment of imaginative and underappreciated technological advances, trans and interdisciplinary pedagogical integration, and shaping of new thought patterns. On the upside, this upheaval provides fertile ground for crisis-precipitated transformation — the type of transformation in which proactiveness supersedes and outpaces voluntarism and ideological ennui.

The 4IR has been characterised by a fusion of technologies, blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological realms. Connecting billions of people with mobile devices that have unprecedented processing power, storage capacity and access to knowledge provides almost unlimited access to advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage and quantum computing.

Job growth

Evolving at an exponential pace, disrupting every industry, the threat of the “uberisation” of core and value chain activities is uppermost in the minds of business leaders of large and established companies. The transformation of entire systems of production, management and governance offers leapfrogging opportunities to the developing world, which has trailed earlier revolutions.

The WEF finds that job growth will mainly come from the following professional areas: care; engineering and cloud computing; sales marketing and content; data and AI; green jobs; people and culture; and specialised project managers. While there is an acute need for everyone to sharpen their technology skills, there is a growing appreciation for developing specialised skills for how people interact with one another. Future leaders must thus be able to act holistically and develop the requisite skills to integrate engineering, change management and creativity as the lines between disciplines start to blur.

For a country like SA, having to contend with large-scale unemployment, the implications are sobering. Social fissures are worsened by the degree to which youths in particular are excluded from formal education and meaningful employment.

Stats SA’s recently published Quarterly Labour Force Survey reveals that unemployment among the country’s youth — those aged 15-24 — stands at more than 63%. Under the expanded definition of unemployment, which includes unemployed people actively looking for a job together with the unemployed who have given up finding work, the rate climbs to a staggering 74.7%, with graduate unemployment growing.

The fostering of entrepreneurship, sustainability and growth of small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) are cited by many commentators as the panacea for job creation, promotion of equality and amelioration of poverty, and rightly so. Deepening digital inequality, on top of the intractable and growing economic inequality in SA, is unquestionably poised to further delineate and entrench social divides. In SA, the diagnostics have been done, problem statements have been formulated and budgets set aside to stimulate employment through entrepreneurship and SMME development.

Maximise collaboration

This investment by the government is still to bear fruit. Looking at global trends, the successful elevation of start-ups to the mainstream economy is predicated on the effective deployment of smart technology. Globally, it has proven that technopreneurs can disrupt traditional operating models to the extent that seven of the 10 fastest-growing companies are technology based.

The pervasiveness and speed of technological advancement requires a step change in SA in the adoption of innovation, to maximise and realise the gains offered by investment in SMMEs. With appropriate architecture and leveraging of these technologies, a digital ecosystem for SMMEs can be engineered to enhance access to markets, negotiate better financing and facilitate and maximise collaboration across value systems.

SMMEs participating in an ecosystem can exponentially increase networking, offering a real opportunity for platform economies of scale and elevation in size and scope of their businesses. For example, 100 networked SMMEs constitute 4,500 relationships, jumping up to close to half a million if the network is increased to 1,000.

A senior adviser at the World Health Organization, Bruce Aylward, cautions: “We have to work together as a human species to be organised to care for one another, to realise that the health of the most vulnerable people among us is a determining factor for the health of all of us, and, if we aren’t prepared to do that, we’ll never, ever be prepared to confront these devastating challenges to our humanity.”

The necessity of creating social stability through the establishment of meaningful and future relevant jobs has never been more critical, along with bridging the widening digital divide that the pandemic has so starkly highlighted.

• Dr Carolissen is dean of the Johannesburg Business School, University of Johannesburg.

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