The social impact of the fourth industrial revolution in Africa

The social impact of the fourth industrial revolution in Africa
Jon Foster-Pedley dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.
The social impact of the fourth industrial revolution in Africa
Jon Foster-Pedley dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.

We have had three industrial revolutions and we’ve just crossed the threshold into the fourth. Here in Africa, we have been victims of the first three. The question we have to ask is whether we will be recolonised by the fourth – or emerge victorious.

The fourth industrial revolution brings with it a host of challenges. In reality, South Africa is heroically unprepared for it, so much so that there are some cynics who, looking to Eskom’s woes, quip that we shouldn’t really be bothering with the fourth when we have yet to conquer the first.

The truth though is that our unpreparedness is also our greatest opportunity. I have no doubt that South Africans, and Africans at large, have the necessary intelligence, enthusiasm and motivation to embrace the internet of things and master it. We will have to let go of some of our old habits and enter this new arena with an open and adventurous mindset, but when we do so, we will be making new businesses and being incredibly intellectually stimulated like never before in the process.

But what of the social impact of the fourth industrial revolution? We dare not rush headlong and excitedly into the future without thinking of the ramifications; we will be creating that which is new but as we do, we will render much of what we take for granted today obsolete. We will create new jobs, but in the process eradicate thousands of others, just as the advent of the internal combustion engine at the turn of the last century made farriers, blacksmiths, saddlers almost extinct by the end of World War I.

Studies estimate South Africa will have half the number of jobs in 11 years’ time than we currently have – on top of our ticking time bomb of youth unemployment. The world population is booming. India and China will produce a billion new jobseekers over the same period. Our continent will release 11-million new jobseekers every year from now until 2030.

Our job as business leaders is to manage this transition with as little pain as possible ensuring that we create as many – and more – jobs as those we render obsolete, ensuring we take our staff with us as we move into this new dawn. It’s an immensely difficult challenge, but one that we dare not fail. We must instil confidence in ourselves and those we lead. We must face this challenge in the spirit of opportunity that it is.

We are already halfway there. When you sit on a taxi or look at people waiting in an airport lounge, everyone’s hunched over their phones in supplication – not all of them are on Facebook, many are doing their business, reading the news or even switching off the lights at home, all from their smartphone.

The internet of things is about the relationship between things, between your fridge at home and the sensors within, which speak to the sensors of the products sitting inside. Together they tell you to order – or ultimately place an order automatically for newer, fresher products or to replenish those that run out. The fridge, in turn, is connected to other electronic and smart devices in the home, all of which will be able to be accessed remoted by you on your phone.

The internet of things is like a marriage, not the relationship between the spouses but rather the inter-relatedness of everyone from the siblings to the cousins, grandparents and dotty old aunts. Our job as a business school is to explain what often appears to be a big incomprehensible – and threatening – concept, by unpacking the relationships and to get people not just to understand those relationships but to harness them for the betterment of the people around them.

And that is the key to making 4.0 work. Henley is guided to create an MBA that built the people who built the businesses that built Africa. That meant building on the concept of teaching a person to fish. When you do that you remove the dependence created when you give that person a fish, by returning the agency to the individual. For too long though, MBA students would traditionally see the fish as a short term means to profit and value to shareholders and would overfish until there was nothing left. At Henley, we have always tried to inculcate a triple bottom line; profit to the shareholders, the staff and the immediate community.

So it is with the fourth industrial revolution. It will be terrifying to be left behind but it will be just as frightening to be left adrift in this great sea of interconnectivity, without purpose or a job. We cannot stop the speed of the transition, we couldn’t even if we wanted to because of the sheer scale of value that is unlocked for the individual. Indeed, we see Moore’s law, where technology is becoming exponentially cheaper as the available capacity doubles and doubles again at the same time, happening almost in front of our eyes every day.

But the drop in the barrier to access technology is no excuse whatsoever for us to ever lose sight of our core responsibility. In Africa, and especially here in South Africa that can only ever mean reducing the Gini co-efficient, narrowing the gap between those who have and those who don’t, creating the better life for all that was promised, accepted and now expected, 25 years ago. We have to manage the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, while we build the South African economy.

The MBA programme must mean supplying the emotional intelligence to our graduates who will be harnessing the artificial intelligence of big data and machine learning, because at the end of the day life is all about humans and not machines. Machines do the tactics, while humans do the strategy.

If we get that balance wrong, as South African born entrepreneur Elon Musk himself has warned, the fourth industrial revolution might well be as potentially catastrophic to humanity as the ice age was to the dinosaurs.

Contributed by Jon Foster-Pedley dean and director of Henley Business School Africa