4IR in SA is too important to remain in the domain of the elite

Since Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum’s announcement in 2016 of the impending Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in his book of the same title, South Africa has been swept up in the wave of global hype around the extraordinary potential for 4IR technologies – artificial intelligence, robotics, drones and blockchains – and the dire fate of nations who fail to embrace these inevitable technological developments.

There has been a disconcerting lack of critical engagement with the concept intellectually, politically and particularly from a policy perspective.  Since the uncritical adoption of 4IR by African National Congress (ANC) at its 54thNational Congress there has been no looking back for the country: it has become the mantra of every official event from the State of the Nation to the presidential inauguration, in the context of economic growth, job creation and the empowerment of women and youth.

As the President explained in the first 2019 State of the Nation Address, the Commission would “serve as a national overarching advisory mechanism on digital transformation” that would “identify and recommend policies, strategies and plans that will position South Africa as a global competitive player within the digital revolution space”.

Certainly, with the fast changing, complex and adaptive communications systems that underpin an increasingly globalised economy a national digital policy is essential.  This will necessitate a shift from the sectoral silo in which digital policy has been traditionally been formulated to a national policy enabling the necessary integration required across the public sector and coordination between the public and private sector to meet the needs of a modern economy.

But  it will need a transversal strategy that goes way beyond artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain and drones. It will require an adaptive governance framework able to  engage the entire digital ecosystem in all its complexity; in its local and global manifestations.

There is nothing inherent in so-called 4IR technologies of artificial intelligence, blockchain or drones that will result in economic growth, job creation or empowerment of the marginalised. Evidence from the so-called third industrial revolution  (of which some see current digital developments simply as an intensification)  tells us we should not take for granted that technology will translate into wage or productivity growth –  unless we develop a good set of complementary policies both as business and government.

On the contrary, unless there are targeted, evidence-based policy interventions that do something differently from what we have done in the past – or implement policies that we have failed to – the introduction of more advanced technologies will simply amplify current inequalities.

This digital inequality paradox is arguably the biggest policy challenge for nations. It is not addressed through the discourse of the 4th industrial revolution, no matter how revolutionary the government tries to dress it.

In fact, undressing the revolutionary connotations of 4IR could start with some historical reflection. Even a cursory glance at earlier industrial revolutions will show that they have not been associated with the interests of the underclasses (despite the  broader benefits to society from the introduction of steam, electricity and digitisation). Rather,  they are associated with the advancement of big capital, through the ‘big’ tech of the day. This industrial revolution is no different.

Further, some consideration of the origins of the concept of 4IR within the World Economic Forum may enable some introspection into how 4IR came to be the centrepiece of ANC digital policy. Might it even course-correct this misguided policy trajectory? Even if not, doing so should at least break with the notion that it is in any way revolutionary or that the technologies are inherently transformative in a political sense. This might also assist with the deconstruction of the militaristic overtones that have been conjured up by country’s leadership on digital development, with reference to ‘commanders-in-chief’ of ‘digital armies’.

The ahistorical and technologically deterministic appropriation of the term 4IR by probably  the most powerful global epistemic community in history, the World Economic Forum, has been arguably one the most successful lobbying and policy influence instruments of global big capital ever.

Organising around the elite annual gathering in Davos to build consensus between the private and public sector on  the future of the world, the privately resourced policy blueprints on the 4thIR – replicated by the big international consultancies whether for Singapore, Rwanda or South Africa – fills a vacuum for many countries, such as South Africa, that have not publicly invested themselves in what they want the future to look like. With visions of global prosperity, packaged with futurist conviction and economic forecasts of exponential growth and job creation, they appear to provide a roadmap in an uncertain future.

The latest report for Government’s lead department on the 4IR, the Department of Telecommunications and Posts (Communications) by the large international consultancy that partners with WEF globally on the topic, claims that 4IR technologies across industries in South Africa can over the next decade amass five trillion Rands worth of social and economic value and create four million jobs, taking into account prospective job losses. There are no sources in the report, no references to methodology, no basic workings on how these figures were derived. It appears that it is uncritically received as the basis for national policy.

The report observes however, that  all we need to make this miracle happen, is get all the other conditions we have failed to get right in the last two decades– improved connectivity, effective regulation, functioning markets, optimised consumer welfare –  and essential to ensuring digital inclusion, redress our poor education outcomes and develop an appropriate digital skills base for the new economy. It does not, assess or explain the lack of digital readiness or deal with what actually needs to be done to realise these preconditions of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

For a quick reality check, the average growth rate has hovered between 2 % and negative growth over the past two years and best long-term growth  predictions under current policy conditions estimate 3.5%.   We have produced 270 000 to 300 000 jobs on average over the past five years and we have about 700 000 new young people entering the job market a year The Centre for Economic Development and Transformation estimate that to absorb them into the economy will require a growth rate of around 10%.

While the leveraging of private resources to deliver digital public goods is  critical for resource constrained states such as South Africa which will need to intensify to meet the challenges of the future – national policy cannot be abdicated to the private sector – global or national.

To fulfil its social contract with its citizenry in an increasingly globalised digital environment South Africa requires a capable state with the capacity to  create the enabling conditions for the country to harness the opportunities arising from technological developments but also to mitigate risks and prevent potential harms to citizens and countries, as evidenced by the recent attacks on national databases or the Cambridge Analytica debacle. Integration into the global economy is inevitable, but it is not automatically beneficial.  It requires the state – in other leading nations this is led by Ministries of International Affairs –  to mobilise multi-stakeholder – not just the private sector – capacity that represents the diverse interests and expertise within the country to influence global governance, in the national and regional interest.

Eliciting national expertise in increasingly specialised domains through specialised commissions are also essential to optimal outcomes, but existing policies and public consultation processes as required constitutionally need to be acknowledged and respected. As a country we cannot perpetually be starting new processes with a blank slate as though existing conditions, the outcomes of past policy, do not pertain. As the 4IR Commission establishes again the same working committees, with similar captains of industry at the helm, as were established for the resource-intensive and protracted process that deliver the Integrated ICT Policy, that has yet to come to legal fruition, what is the relationship between these policy processes? Even if the assessment of the past is that policy or ineffectually regulated markets have failed to deliver on national policy objectives and need to be abandoned, the public exercise of doing so has to be undertaken.

And arguably the bigger question South Africa has to ask itself why as the most sophisticated economy in Africa, with some of the best universities in the world, it has no organic, local research and evidence to inform, indeed provide competing visions of, our digital future. Why do we have so little faith in the outcomes of our own policy processes that we abandon our collective wisdom when the latest cleverly packaged product comes along?

In the Global North, although the few dissenting academia and civil society voices may not be present at the Davos table, their well-funded (though declining) academic and research institutions can with strong publicly available local data, contest the meaning and potential value of global digital initiatives on the basis of independent research that can be interrogated in public policy processes when they are domesticated back home.

In South Africa we have not invested in data collection and where we have, despite the use of public funds, it has generally not been made public. There has also been no public investment in independent academic digital public policy and governance research or capacity building. Sporadic initiatives over the years have been funded by donor or private sector grants.  Public universities have remained locked in their hallowed disciplinary silos, digital governance research being undertaken only in so far as it can be published in international or accredited disciplinary specific journals, rather than being responsive to the multidisciplinary requirements of policy research and practice  and national policy needs.

As South African universities enter  survival mode with cutbacks in state subsidies, fewer fee-paying students, and donor budget cuts, their appetite for the novel or innovative, the multidisciplinary, the unfamiliar national collaboration to compete with international competitors, is non-existent.  State funding through the department of Science and Technology and the National Research Council funding in this area of digital innovation is channelled into much needed STEM research, significant portions of it going to the scientific and industrial councils.

Asked about the failure to invest in national public policy capacity, a senior government official recently conceded that was the case, but pointed out that a solution was at hand with the launching of World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR) to be house at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

The result of such public investment is that while the CSIR owns the largest 3-D printer in the world and Science and Technology deliver the extraordinary world leading SKA project, with all the positive multipliers it has for science and innovation, little is being done to deal with the extreme digital inequality in the country. Labour supply and demand are not being aligned to the needs of a digital economy, from which half the population do not have even basic access, and for those barely online due to affordability or skills challenges, use is entirely and limitedly consumptive; with the productive use of these enabling new technologies only enjoyed by a relatively small elite.

This opinion piece was first published on on Business Day Live on the 4th of July 2019.

For more on this, listen to a recording of our public lecture on “Unpacking the Fourth Industrial Revolution“, which took place on the 17th of July 2019 at The University of Cape Town Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance.