Since the introduction of the smartphone, the world has undergone and continues to undergo a fundamental shift.

Applications have become the centre of many of our lives, be it Twitter or email. Beyond apps our lives have become digital and with this comes a danger of sorts, especially in the African context.

Speaking at the annual South African Telecommunications Networking and Applications Conference (SATNAC) 2018, vice chancellor and principal of the University of Witwatersrand, Professor Adam Habib urged attendees to collaborate rather than compete.

Many of us are aware of the fourth industrial revolution that technology is championing. While this leads to the onward push of humanity it also has dangers, the most prominent of which is the loss of jobs.

“During the industrial revolution blue collar jobs were wiped out, the same thing will happen to white collar jobs,” says Habib. “Jobs that exist today may not exist tomorrow.”

The vice-chancellor’s words have become a common narrative among experts talking of the fourth industrial revolution. Where once factory workers were made obsolete the same risk now comes to lawyers, accountants and other white collar jobs.

While many will proclaim that technology needs to be curbed this is not really a solution explains Habib.

“Without technology we cannot compete with our peers,” says the professor. The result of not pursuing technological innovation may spell disaster for South Africa and Africa at large.

But it’s not as simple as buying some tech, training a few people and holding thumbs that things will pan out.

Locally speaking poverty and inequality are a challenge that cannot be ignored.

“We don’t have skills at multiple sectoral levels. From basic coding skills to high level masters and PHDs,” explains Habib.

The professor explains that we produce approximately 1 800 PHDs per year but given the size of the nation we should be producing at least 6 000.

The skills shortage is perhaps the biggest challenge facing South Africa as we pursue the fourth industrial revolution.

“If we don’t get at the front end of the challenge we will be stuck. As long as 80 percent of population is facing those challenges of poverty and equality, we don’t have a hope in hell,” says Habib.

So everything is over and we should throw in the towel? Not exactly, in fact there is an opportunity for Africa to capitalise on the fourth industrial revolution but it requires something a few folks won’t like to hear – collaboration.

To address the challenges we face as a nation South Africa must start acting like a nation rather than a collection of institutions all working independently.

In addition to that South Africa must work with the rest of the continent to overcome the challenges we all face on the continent.

How to avoid getting left behind as the world advances.

For Africa to really come out tops in the fourth industrial revolution a number of fundamental shifts must be addressed. This includes the way we work, how we work and where we work for a start.

The 9 – 5 work day was created during the industrial revolution and for many sectors in 2018 this model doesn’t make sense.

Education must also be changed. Coding will need to be taught during the early stages of schooling and when it comes to head to university disciplines will need to be more collaborative.

Habib explains how forcing engineers to work with humanities students forces engineers to be a bit more creative and humanities students to think more critically. Indeed, the Wits VC points to Semblance as an example of this sort of collaboration.

Habib concludes by stating that three main silos must be broken down if South Africa wants to have a hope of coming out of the fourth industrial revolution:

  • Breaking different disciplines within universities,
  • Between universities,
  • Between universities and industry.

The crux of the matter is that we have work to do and we cannot shy away from this work.

When the industrial revolution came and went Africa was left behind, should we not do the work that is needed to innovate South Africa, and Africa may risk falling behind once again.