There is thinking and then there is blue-sky thinking. The latter is defined by how industry and individual can look at a situation through the eyes of what could be, or what might be achieved. The former should be defined by innovation and opportunity. When it comes to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), it is blue-sky thinking that may yet allow South African organisations to sidestep the hype and the fear and instead achieve the potential.
“The blue sky starts with a drastic improvement to the quality of life for everyday South Africans by making decisions that optimise our assets’ outputs,” says Phathizwe Malinga, managing director of SqwidNet. “It gives us the opportunity to increase our life expectancy by giving us the practical ability to optimise the assets that improve the quality of our lives. In 3IR, this translated as a 30-year improvement to the Asia-Pacific region’s life expectancy and now we can do the same thing in Africa, using 4IR. And this is just one part of the 4IR equation.”
This is why leapfrogging matters.
This is why Africa sits on the cusp of potential not as a victim, but as the leader of the digital pack. There are infrastructural, cultural, economic and social issues that have to be overcome before the continent can leap anywhere, but these hurdles are not insurmountable. Rather, they are an opportunity for the entrepreneur, public sector and enterprise to explore new ways of working and reshaping the future.
“Our economy has slipped back from being a level two economy to a level one economy, where level one is using the land for mining raw materials and growing things and level two is manufacturing finished goods,” says Malinga. “This is primarily due to our education system as it isn’t designed to produce the kind of workforce that can manage knowledge towards finished goods. This skill has degraded over time and isn’t helped by the so-called ‘brain drain’. However, 4IR gives us the technology that levels this playing field.”
With 4IR, there is the ability to create algorithms that can mine the vast quantities of data being produced at multi-terabytes per second, to generate actionable insights for the workforce. These algorithms can restore the wisdom that has been lost through our flawed education system, allowing for the South African economy to become relevant again. This is the kind of blue-sky thinking that can reshape how Africa perceives 4IR, and how the rest of the world perceives Africa.
“The human workforce will always be required to provide critical and creative decision-making,” says Malinga. “This is what we should focus on, ensuring that Africa is teaching the skills that will allow for the future workforce to do meaningful and fulfilling work. Skills like critical thinking and design thinking will create the kind of workforce that won’t be threatened by technology. In 2050, the UN predicts that the world’s workforce will be Africa’s youth, 830 million strong.”
This is perhaps one area where Africa leads the way. The challenges that permeate the continent are unique to its landscape, vast spaces, and complex limitations. These are also the same challenges that have seen remarkable innovations that have changed the shape of the global landscape and introduced significant disruption. The Kenyan M-PESA solution developed by Safaricom has redefined how financial institutions manage micro transactions and the unbanked. In the country that created it, M-PESA has become a language of its own, the terminology part of local vocabulary and conversation. Few people know that the CAT scan, a lifesaving medical innovation, was developed by a South African, or that Ashifi Gogo, an app designed to combat deadly counterfeit drugs was developed by a Ghanian student. Innovation isn’t a dull glimmer on the African horizon, it’s happening every day.
“It is essential that we use 4IR and technology to create an environment that’s conducive to the entrepreneur,” adds Malinga. “The pace at which technology can be used to disrupt traditional business is phenomenal but this can be outpaced with the right kind of entrepreneurial mindset. One that encourages innovative thinking and makes it easy to do business.”
In South Africa, the rules and regulations for the smaller business are prohibitive at best. They are limiting the potential of a country that could be at the forefront of the digital revolution. It is essential that governments across the continent look to how they can make working conditions highly desirable, encouraging collaboration, investment, and economic growth.
“We are almost at GMT, our geographic location is central and desirable, we have people who are genetically predisposed to work collaboratively, and our weather is amazing,” concludes Malinga. “However, the rules and regulations that we have in place make it near impossible for entrepreneurs to start businesses that create jobs. If we want to unlock the potential hidden in the African blue sky, then things need to change, not least of which being the belief that Africa can leapfrog itself into being a global superpower in our lifetimes, by harnessing the tools of 4IR.”