4IR – The key to our future on Earth, and beyond?

If universities exist in part to solve the most pressing problems of our time, they have their work cut out for them. The reality is that if humans maintain their current rate of consumption, which already exceeds the capacity of Earth to renew itself, we will soon need two planets to live off, National University of Singapore mechanical engineering professor and circular economy guru Seeram Ramakrishna told the annual South African Technology Network (SATN) Conference held in Durban, South Africa, last month, which explored the role of universities in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

Against the backdrop of this shocking but real scenario, Dr Adriana Marais, theoretical physicist and one of the 100 Mars One Project astronauts, not only assumes the role of intrepid scientist, pushing the boundaries of knowledge, but she also becomes a pioneer of a new frontier for human habitation.

Delivering the opening address of the conference, Marais outlined the ways in which the creation of a biosphere on Mars presented humankind with an opportunity to fundamentally re-examine the way it currently uses resources.

Referring to the possibilities of asteroid mining as an example, she said conventional mining beneath Earth’s surface was disrupting delicate ecological systems resulting in dangers to miners and at a huge cost to the environment. “We cannot be increasing population and urbanising without changing our systems,” she said. “We have to change the way we extract resources.”

Describing Marais as “our champion” during his keynote address at the SATN conference, Ramakrishna said humans were eyeing planets such as Mars partly because of unsustainable consumption driven in part by a linear economic model in which resources were mined, used and then discarded, with a strong link between consumption of natural resources and economic growth.

Soaring consumption

“Why do we need planets like Mars? … Per capita consumption is soaring. Food consumption is increasing as well as manufactured products … Humans have consumed more resources in the last 50 years than in the last 30,000 years,” he said.

A byproduct of a linear economy is, of course, waste. In the past 50 years, according to Ramakrishna, humans generated more waste than they have in all of previous history. He said in many countries people were against the idea of repairing goods and sought rather to replace them with new items. The result is that in 2016, 44.7 million metric tons of e-waste was generated – equivalent in weight to 4,500 Eiffel Towers.

But all is not lost. Speaking on the topic of “The circular economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution – Role of universities”, Ramakrishna’s key argument was that the 4IR and the new technologies it brings – robots, automation, the Internet of Things, big data analysis, machine learning, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, 3D printing and nanotechnology – hold the key to future sustainability and are in fact enablers for the circular economy – a model in which resources are kept in use for as long as possible, and then recovered and regenerated.

Ramakrishna, a leading academic in nanotechnology, is also leader of the National University of Singapore’s Circular Economy taskforce with members drawn from across the university, and various national research institutes under the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Singapore. He is an also advisor to the National Environment Agency of Singapore on Industry 4.0 and Circular Economy.

He said innovation and technology adoption will decide which countries succeed economically in the longer term. “While 20% of GDP [gross domestic product] growth is driven by labour and capital, 80% of growth is shaped by how fast you adapt and market them,” he said.

Greater productivity

For Ramakrishna, the idea behind fourth industrial revolution technologies is to make us more productive and effective. “AI [artificial intelligence] will not only mean intelligent automation and machine vision but will influence cognitive systems and deep learning. Currently we learn and use technology; in future, technology will learn about us, and help us to be more productive and responsive,” he said.

Recent changes to the way in which waste was being managed globally – for instance China’s refusal to accept waste from the rest of the world; the European Union’s policies on single-use plastic; and the practice of generating metals from recycled electronic waste through ‘urban mining’ – were changing the dynamics of the global economy and presented major opportunities for emerging economies and their universities, he said.

According to a 2015 book Waste to Wealth, by major management consulting firm Accenture Strategy, the circular economy could generate US$4.5 trillion of additional economic output by 2030. Ramakrishna said it could also create around 65 million new jobs around the world by 2030, all focused on sustainable industries.

These initiatives should be considered by South African higher education institutions, which should adopt principles from the fourth industrial revolution and the circular economy to respond to societal questions and benefit people on the ground, he said.

Cleaner future

“Together, the circular economy and the 4IR are changing the world. They present a vision of a cleaner future, with huge opportunities,” he said.

During the discussion that followed, Ramakrishna admitted that consumerism was “rampant” in parts of Asia – the product of a sense of entitlement that was unlikely to change.

“When you talk to people, they say they are entitled to a better lifestyle and they translate that into access to more material goods. That’s the general perception or mindset of East Asians where I come from. If you tell the population who are the first generation to be born into the technological environment that they can’t have those goods, it’s not likely they will buy into the idea. The best way is to come up with a new way of designing products and services and those new ways are 4IR technologies which need to be embraced.”

Ramakrishna reiterated that South Africa – despite its problems of inequality – was not only included in this revolution but could take advantage of it with positive results. “4IR technology is slowly penetrating a number of domains of human living. In a way, it’s a great opportunity, a great equaliser but we need to embrace it. If you embrace it, you can go the path of equalising. If not, then the gap is likely to be wider.”

For Ramakrishna, the “next way” is the circular economy tied to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “That will be the next way. That addresses issues of inequality, resource utilisation and climate change and changes in living conditions. … Embrace the UN SDGs and the circular economy and fourth industrial revolution will fit in with that. We can only really see 10 to 15 years ahead. We need to contribute to the community and make a difference, get out of our loneliness and be happier.”