Using 4IR technology for the greater good

For the developed world, the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) brings with it celebrated innovations such as cardboard beer bottles and driverless cars – both of which originated in a university and have clear benefits to society. In the developing world, the implications of the 4IR are perhaps a little less clear, as a recent conference on the role of universities of technology has shown.

According to Professor Thomas Thurner, research chair in innovation and society at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology in South Africa and professor of the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia, technological development was a “serious force to be reckoned with”, but the use to which technology is put should still be decided by society with a keen eye on how it will benefit the greater good.

Speaking on the topic, “From innovation studies to industry 4.0: Universities of Technology as Change Agents”, at the South African Technology Network (SATN) conference held last month in Durban, South Africa, Thurner said that both the cardboard beer bottle by Carlsberg and the autonomous car by Volvo followed the principle of open innovation: the notion of collaboration between innovators and other partners along the innovation pipeline, based on what people need.

He noted that the governments of three of today’s most innovative societies – the United States, China and Germany – had implemented policies to stimulate innovation as a collaborative activity. “The idea behind this is that all collaborators have areas of strength and contribute unique inputs that benefit the result.” However, Thurner said it was necessary to be smart about how these partnerships and collaborations are approached in order to secure the desired outcome. “The process works best when energy and resources come together,” he said.

Three key roles for universities of technology

Against this backdrop, universities of technology had three key roles: as knowledge providers, knowledge multipliers and drivers of the educational agenda, he said.

The first involved making use of the opportunity to provide accurate information relevant to policy-makers. As an example, he said data-mining studies analysing keywords in millions of documents could help to identify technological trends, information that would be useful to policymakers.

As knowledge multipliers, universities of technology could focus on bringing knowledge and actors together to exchange ideas and spread knowledge through the use of technology platforms.

He said universities could play a role in improving the way that people view and understand new, innovative technology. Companies may need support in this regard and universities of technology could be valuable partners.

As drivers of education, Thurner said universities of technology should guard against confusing skills-oriented training and holistic education. There was a need for a broad range of educational offerings and universities of technology could help industry to identify those online educational offerings that will benefit people in the long term and increase their quality of life.

The understanding of which technology enriches our lives is vital, he said. “Programming languages come and go but understanding of which technology enriches lives and which does not, does not,” he said. “This is the skill that we need to give our students."

The main point, he said, was achieving a mixture between intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. “If we make sure people understand the true potential for technology to improve the quality of life, the intrinsic motivation of students is likely to be supported.”

Limited access to technology

Locating the debate in South Africa, the Council on Higher Education CEO Professor Narend Baijnath responded by saying that the vast majority of South Africans had limited access to technology and connectivity and were in reality still grappling with the third industrial revolution.

“At many of our universities our students struggle simply to gain access to the institutions, and then to pay fees (although this has been addressed recently) and to access basic amenities, let alone getting a [ICT] device,” he said.

“The biggest obstacle we have is the cost of bandwidth and connectivity … vast numbers of students don’t have sufficient access and affordable connectivity and that’s going to be a continuing problem until government policy gets it right and there is more social responsibility sentiment among corporate citizens.”

Baijnath said a real challenge for universities was that the current model for producing students of higher education had not changed in hundreds of years, and the model was no longer resonant with the 4IR.

“In reality we will be losing jobs through automation; populations are growing; there is less need for skilled people and more need for skills that our graduates do not have and are difficult to produce. So universities have to rethink their activities.”

Baijnath said that as a developing nation, South Africa should be at the leading edge of the industrial revolution but he was sceptical about whether it was possible, given the needs and the contestation in higher educational institutions and society as a whole.

“We can produce an Elon Musk and a Mark Shuttleworth, but they both left [the country]. Are we not creating or leveraging synergies because there are no synergies, perhaps? You have to go abroad to achieve your dream. What are the prohibitive factors preventing visionaries from fulfilling this locally?”

Curriculum reform

He said higher educationists had a challenge to explore, on an ongoing basis, what the implications of the 4IR were for curriculum reform and the kinds of graduates produced.

“Can we use artificial intelligence in South Africa to create the next Netflix, Uber or Microsoft? I’m sceptical,” he said. “The best universities in the world with the best intellectual capabilities are producing them. We need to focus on producing good quality graduates with high level capabilities.

The almost 200,000 graduates we produce [yearly] have to be equipped to go out into society, into the business world, become productive citizens, contribute to the betterment of all, and be happy in their work.”

Baijnath said for South Africa it was a political choice to put resources into addressing inequality. “We have bigger developmental priorities. We should rather produce good graduates who can leverage technology and extend quality services to people. Take a big crisis such as the pollution of the Vaal River system. For me that’s a major priority for the local university. If it’s a choice between dealing with problems on our doorstep or investing in 4IR – for me, it’s a no-brainer."

He cautioned the conference not to be “driven by hype” around the 4IR.

“What can we realistically respond to and leverage? Every one of us, either as a student, a teacher or a leader, needs to look at how to be locally responsive to the enormous challenges that confront society.”

Baijnath’s comments about Musk and Shuttleworth leaving the country proved to be prescient. The following day, local entrepreneur Richard Hardiman, founder of RanMarine Technology, was given a slot to talk about his WasteShark, an autonomous water drone that collects waste and other non-biodegradables, while gathering data about the environment.

After creating a prototype of the water drone in his garage at home, Cape Town-born Hardiman said he couldn’t find anyone in South Africa willing to invest in its development.

Eventually, he was invited to the Netherlands where he secured both government and European funding. Now that the product has been developed, he says inquiries come from South Africa “all the time”.


“It really disappointed me because I wanted to build it here. I wanted it to be a South African company – it happened for [pool cleaner] Creepy Crawly – but ironically I could get no university, government department or any investor to bite.

“It irritates me that even though South Africa has so much to offer, so many people have to go overseas to prove something. And then bring it back.”

Hardiman said he had the idea of an automated waste collector after he watched a couple of men in a boat trying to pick up waste from water with an ineffective pool net. He had no formal engineering skills but as an entrepreneur, he “went for the gap” and tried to solve a problem of inefficacy. By removing waste from water courses and producing data on the quality of water, the WasteShark now serves a useful environmental purpose – with clear benefits for broader society, as advocated by Thurner and, in a different way, by Baijnath too.

The day before, when asked by a member of the audience why Africa hadn’t produced its own brand of motor vehicle, Thurner said there was no doubt Africa could do it, but it wouldn’t make economic sense to compete against established manufacturers such as Germany.

“Focus rather on something with competitive advantage. Don’t reinvent technologies. The future of the car is up for debate – the future will be about self-driving cars and you’ll have a subscription service. You won’t own a car. It will be less about the hardware and more about the software and payments,” he said.

In his conclusion he chose to return to the idea of a motor car when he said the onus was on each of us to see what works and where technology can uplift students. “We are talking about a fast-changing labour market. And we don’t know what it will be like in five years or 10. In the drive towards industry 4.0, there is a tendency to forget the importance of humanity. That’s like driving a car with your eyes closed.”