Preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution

BY Millard Arnold, May 3 2022



Millard W. Arnold

Chief Executive Officer

The South African Business Schools Association




Lost in the hubris of a failed summit meetings, a declaration of a national emergency and damaging testimony from his previous attorney, Donald Trump recently pronounced plans to sign an executive order to launch an American Artificial Intelligence Initiative.

Like many of Trump’s schemes, this one is slammed by his critics, but this time, strangely enough, for “insufficient boldness.”  No one is for certain as to what drove Trump to focus on artificial intelligence; perhaps he was paying attention to what South Africa has recently announced when it called for nominations to serve as members of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

President Ramaphosa’s initiative is none too soon.  As of July last year, 26 countries released artificial intelligence (AI) strategies or announced plans to do so.  Whilst each country’s strategies have varying objectives, policies and goal, they all seek to address the technological complexity of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), and to establish themselves as the dominant player in the game.  Canada, Japan, South Korea, China and the US are the frontrunners, with Kenya being the only African country on the list.  South Africa is playing catch-up, and while it might aspire to become a leading light in the evolving global developments, realistically, the commission has set its sights on achieving competitiveness and the need for inclusive growth.

Competitiveness is a tall order, and certainly a national strategy is necessary if South Africa is not to be left behind. There is little doubt that in the short term, the commercialization of what a commentator refers to as the “Intelligent Infrastructure” will constitute a driving imperative in the race for dominance.  Competitiveness will be driven by innovation, and meaningful innovation driven by efficiency.  Allon Raiz, the entrepreneurial guru, puts it another way arguing that in a highly competitive market, “changing the means and method of production” ensures that speed and quality are not compromised.   Speed, change and competitiveness are at the heart of the 4IR.

Given the importance of designing strategies that address competitiveness, the concept document which will guide the new commission sets forth a number of objectives South Africa seeks to realize:  advising on strategies, research programmes, and skills development; recommendations on inclusivity and digital divide; interventions to enable entrepreneurship and recommendations on measuring the impact of the 4IR among others.

Not surprisingly, achieving those objectives and becoming competitive are the stock and trade of what business schools offer.  Understanding, utilizing, developing and explaining cogent arguments based on big data, analytics and conceptualization are what business schools teach.

The ability to identify commercial potential in new technologies and to serve as a catalyst in developing new products and services which increase productivity and drive economic growth will require the academic community in partnership with government to convert ideas and inventions into innovative commercial adaptations.

Akiva Beebe, technical advisor to the South African Business Schools Association and a global expert on digital transformation and culture change, has assisted large organizations adapt to the 4IR by reinventing their industry and helping them create value in society. “Business schools,” he notes “offer an established and recognized platform for delivering technologically savvy ecosystems that are both sustainable and Impactful.”

The crucial dilemma that the commission will face will be how best to reconcile the push for competitiveness with ensuring inclusive growth.  Again, problem solving is the hallmark of a business school.  In an environment where dynamic industries are exponentially accelerating, capacity enhancement and the ability to plan and sequence are critical and necessary skills in resolving issues of social and economic complexity.

Of particular concern, in the years to come, is the fundamental question of what impact the 4IR will have on the evolution of a radically different economic framework.  In the short term, the commercialization of intelligent infrastructures will be anchored within a competitive paradigm where scale, cost and productivity will determine winners and losers. However, the relentless compounding effect of intelligent automation will likely have the effect of altering the existing economic model by minimizing the need for human labour.  The technological advances will rapidly exceed the existing social construct of what a marketplace should look like.  The notion of a consumer based economy will wither in the face of a world where employment is largely conducted by robotics of varying capabilities.

Obviously, developing inclusive growth in an uncertain, and diminishing work environment for human activity will be an exceptionally challenging undertaking.  It may well be that the social compact which evolves, will give further impetus to the idea of a universal basic income to address the needs of workers without jobs.  This necessity will be particularly evident given that the ideal workforce of the future will require, according, to Patrick Smith of RBB Economics, “capacity, flexibility and hyper-connectivity” to integrate in a growing and hopefully inclusive economy.  Developing the leadership skills for such a brave new tomorrow is precisely the mandate of South Africa’s business schools.

The commission’s concept document recognizes the need for a participatory framework to build a consensus amongst various stakeholders including government, civil society and academia in determining the 4IR strategy. Given the issues that hang in the balance, business schools should be an essential partner in developing the strategy and framework that will determine our rapidly emerging future.