Fourth Industrial Revolution – Keeping people at the core

Is the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) merely the latest buzzword describing inevitable technological advancements, or is it a phenomenon that will fundamentally change the way the world works, the way we educate students, and what it means to be human?

These were among the critical questions debated during the opening day of the South African Technology Network’s (SATN) international conference held in Durban, South Africa, from 11-13 September. The conference is aimed at exploring the role of universities of technology in the 4IR.

Nomusa Dube-Ncube, KwaZulu-Natal provincial minister for cooperative governance and traditional affairs, said innovation linked to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and knowledge production has become a “critical instrument through which global competitiveness of any society will be measured” and praised SATN, a consortia of universities of technology, for choosing the focus on the 4IR as its conference theme.

“As government we are committed to maximising the opportunities presented by 4IR to achieve our goals,” she said.

Keynote speaker Adriana Marais, who is also head of innovation at SAP Africa, said whatever people chose to call the current era of “information inundation” and unprecedented developments in technology, there was a danger that individuals might feel they had lost a sense of personal agency, that their capacity to play a meaningful role in society was being eroded, and they were being swept along by change or, worse, left behind.

“But the reality is quite the opposite in fact,” she told the delegates.

‘The grandest adventure of all time’

Marais, a theoretical physicist who is also one of 100 potential candidates for the Mars One project that will see a group of humans chosen from around the world travel to and settle on Mars in the next decade – without the technology to return, said she felt privileged to be born at a particular moment in the long history of humanity at which it was possible to undertake the “grandest adventure” of all time. If chosen to travel to Mars, it would give her the opportunity to do unique research on the origins of life.

Marais drew parallels between the technologies needed to set up a human settlement on Mars and the kind of technology that can help Earth deal with current challenges relating to population growth and urbanisation, such as water shortages, sustainable energy sources, as well as efficient manufacturing and agricultural methods.

Highlighting the opportunities for South Africa to pursue globally valuable research through the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope project, she said: “Who knows what inventions and ideas will come out of that research?”

The circular economy

Professor Seeram Ramakrishna of the National University of Singapore said, in his view, the circular economy – a concept that was “intertwined” with the 4IR – was more central to the current South African situation because it offered a sustainable alternative to the linear economy currently powered by consumption and waste.

He said humans had consumed more resources in the last 50 years than they had in the previous 30,000 years. Similarly, in the past 50 years, humans had generated more waste than in all of previous history and per capita consumption of both food and manufactured goods was rising.

The circular economy, with its emphasis on extracting maximum value from resources, and recovering and recycling materials used, together with the new technologies of the 4IR, offered the best chance for a more sustainable future.

He said universities, including those in South Africa, would do well to participate in a soon-to-be launched Times Higher Education global ranking system analysing the sustainability of university institutions.

Human-centric approach

Later on in the day, concerns raised by Technology Innovation Agency CEO Barlow Manilal about the “dark side” of technology produced consensus on the importance of putting people at the heart of any technological advances. Manilal was facilitating a roundtable discussion on “How to prepare for the 4IR”.

For Dr Joseph Ryan, CEO of Technological Higher Education Association in Ireland, this meant equipping educators and academics to be more “flexible” in their responses to changing conditions within a coherent framework.

For South Africa’s Central University of Technology Vice-Chancellor Professor Henk de Jager it meant recognising the “great opportunities” presented by technology but applying a balanced approach when it came to society. For Professor Ronald Quincy, academic director of the Rutgers Civic Leadership Institute in the United States, there was a need for universities to forge new and original partnerships.

For Imraan Patel, acting director general in the South African Department of Science and Technology, who said he preferred to think of the 4IR as part of broader technical changes, the issue was “both philosophical and practical”.

“We need to be technology-enabled rather than technology-led. Our approach needs to be human-centric and sustainable,” he said.

Watch out for our in-depth Special Report on the SATN conference in our upcoming editions.