Picture: 123RF/Akarat Phasura
Picture: 123RF/Akarat Phasura

On a blistering hot Friday in Pretoria last week, behind the glass-and-steel architecture of the headquarters of troubled ICT firm BCX, something emerged that may be the beginnings of a coherent SA response to the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

About 40 people from government, universities and public research institutions gathered at the sprawling campus’s multipurpose meeting centre. Among those present were representatives from the departments of trade & industry, telecommunications & postal services, public service & administration, and science & technology. The Reserve Bank, Telkom, the Human Sciences Research Council and the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research were also in the room.

They were invited by the SA Fourth Industrial Revolution Initiative (4IRSA), a new collaboration between the universities of Johannesburg, Fort Hare and Wits. Telkom is the founding sponsor.

This is not the first time such a gathering has met to talk about all things 4IR. But this event was unique.

First, it was convened by neither government nor industry, in the hope that it will result in a process free from the petty rivalries of government departments and the narrow ambitions of private companies.

Second, the prominent role of the universities suggests 4IRSA will favour a research-led process to harness the power of the 4IR.

Last, 4IRSA’s goals are ambitious. Where others have looked at purely sectoral challenges, it aims for a unified national dialogue over the next few months. It wants a single coherent national strategy for the digital age.

"There were definitely multiple synergies between those present, and a willingness by all parties to work together towards a common goal — namely, ensuring that SA defines its own game plan for the way it can prosper from the 4IR," says Brian Armstrong, professor of digital business at Wits Business School and head of the secretariat of 4IRSA.

To understand the sense of urgency that permeated the meeting, one must comprehend the yawning chasm between SA (and other peer economies), and technologically developed countries. The converged technologies that are available and spreading through the global North are transforming manufacturing, industries, consumer behaviour and even the nature and experience of modern living in a manner that seems decades away from the poor of the global South.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) "Readiness for the Future of Production Report 2018" assesses and ranks 100 global economies for their readiness for the economic and social changes wrought by the 4IR.

The WEF ranks countries based on two broad matrices: structure of production and drivers of production.

It lists six main drivers of production and assesses readiness and potential based on performance in these areas.

SA and 10 countries chosen from across Africa’s five geopolitical regions fall into the "nascent" category — meaning they have a limited production base that exhibits a low level of readiness for the future through weak performance of the drivers of production.

Out of 100, SA is ranked 45th on its structure and 49th on its drivers of production.

With only a few countries responsible for the value created in the new digital economy, global inequality could be reinforced.

"Global transformation of production systems will be a challenge, and the future of production could become increasingly polarised in a two-speed world. Of the 100 countries and economies included in the assessment, only 25 from Europe, North America and East Asia are [ranked in the] leading countries [category], or in the best position to benefit from the changing nature of production," warns the WEF.

SA’s dilemma is perhaps best illustrated by the irony of last week’s surroundings. The host, BCX, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Telkom and one of SA’s largest ICT firms, employing more than 8,000 people.

Its Centurion headquarters is an architectural tribute to 21st-century technology, money and ambition. Its core business includes cloud computing, big data analytics and the Internet of Things.

In other words, it is at the cutting edge of the 4IR. But earlier this month it issued employees with retrenchment notices.

Firms like BCX are precisely where we are told 4IR jobs will come from, displacing "traditional" jobs as technology transforms the world of work. Among other things, this dichotomy is at the heart of SA’s 4IR challenge.

4IRSA hopes to gather the country’s best brains and experience — across government, academia, affected industries, civil society and multilateral organisations — to tease out the issues. A set of summits will be convened to this end, starting next year.