Africa must collaborate on 4IR


Dr Andrew de Vries | GM: Smart Industries | The Innovation Hub Management Company | mail me |

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is here. It is evident in the way banks have started offering their digital services and disrupting the modus operandi of traditional banks; it is evident in schools, where books are being replaced with tablets and it will roll-out in almost every sector in the country.

The distinguishing factor of 4IR is the scale and speed this revolution takes place and the fear that arises from the advent of 4IR is the fact that it will also be disrupting the workforce, as in Standard Bank’s case, where it is now planning to close 91 branches and retrenching 1,200 employees.

Emerging new types of jobs

In a country where the latest figures from Statistics South Africa, released in April, shows that the country is now sitting with around 6.2 million unemployed people, around 60% of which fall under the youth, the disruption that 4IR could bring is a frightening concept.

Let us be encouraged by the fact that new types of jobs will emerge from this revolution and focus our efforts and resources on up-skilling and re-skilling our labour force. Let us continue to promote and support local innovation for the benefit of economic growth.

However, we need to reframe the way we think about the industrial revolution and start asking how this revolution can answer the questions we have around economic growth, both as a country and as a continent.

Industrialisation is about employment creation and economic growth, but what is possible in South Africa?

What questions do we ask ourselves around the challenges and opportunities that this industrial revolution brings forward?

Further, we also need to be mindful of the people we are trying to solve problems for.  People from a technical background often design technology to suit their immediate needs, with companies then dumping their technology in other economies.

These innovators believe that because a technology works in, for example, the United States, China or Europe, it will also work in South Africa. The idea is to ‘just go and sell’ the product.

However, this does not meet the local culture and local needs and often, this technology fails. But keep in mind, in Kenya there are hardly any automatic teller machines. Everything is done through mobile phones and technology.

Will that technology work in South Africa? Firstly, there will be zero cash in transit. Yes, again it disrupts employment, but it brings other benefits, such as improved safety and deterring cash in transit heists.

Science parks and hubs

Science and Technology Parks play a critical role in meeting these needs and answering these questions, one such example is the Innovation Hub, the innovation agency of the Gauteng Province that has a unit focusing on smart industries particularly looking at the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Additive Manufacturing, amongst others, that relates to the 4th Industrial Revolution.

To correctly understand the opportunities that this revolution has to offer, these parks and hubs have to source diverse opinions, from all over the world, speak to the people that are impacted by the pain that we are trying to resolve.

Science parks and hubs also have the potential to close policy gaps around 4IR by entering into partnerships on incubation and enterprise development, while also facilitating incentives to answer these questions.

One opportunity that arises locally is the space around our mobile operators. South Africa currently has four mobile operators with 87 million subscribers. Combined, these operators share a R200 billion a year turnover. Therein lies the opportunity for local innovators and science parks for future positive disruptions.

We have to think how those digital forces can be used to change the mindset of the people that are participating in them to ensure that whatever impact happens, it disrupts positively.

Let us scale, let us have urgency and let us use the digital enabling forces to make a dent in the unemployment numbers plaguing South Africa.



  1. This is a great article Dr De Vries. I am a young entrepreneur in technology industry. I founded a drone manufacturing company called iPhiko UAV and Automation because I realized the importance of embracing such 4IR technologies. Like most tech start-ups we are still struggling to get the right funding and support. We have already made our application at the Innovation Hub.

    We look forward to the response.


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