Gillwald calls on SA academy to pool resources to meet country’s digital policy needs

In an online workshop organised by the Council for Higher Education on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, RIA executive Director Alison Gillwald, who is also Adjunct Professor at the UCT Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, called on the South African academy to pool resources to meet the digital and data policy needs of the country. 

This was urgent and essential if the country was going to be better prepared to face the next inevitable pandemic and for a wider inclusion in post-COVID-19 economic reconstruction, she said. 

As indicated by the United Nations Secretary General, ‘digital’ was a central pillar of post-CoVID-19 social and economic reconstruction and a lever for a more equitable global order. 

She cautioned against diverting attention and resources to the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, particularly advanced technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, robotics and drones, at the expense of the second (power) and third (ICTs) industrial revolutions, which, despite being the general purpose technologies of the 20th century, were far from universally available. She said although the public investment in science and technology, over the last two decades, was laudable—without almost any public investment in digital policy and governance research in higher education and the national research framework, these investments would continue to serve only a small elite rather than redress digital inequality in the country and contribute to social and economic inclusion. 

Such research and education was required to provide the evidence base for an integrated digital and data policy and governance framework, and education and professional training that could ensure capacitated and agile institutions suited to the increasingly complex and adaptive global information system, that presented one of the intractable  global governance challenges.  

“Overlaying access and the production of advanced technologies over existing structural inequalities will simply exacerbate digital inequality. Further investment in higher education and research in these areas, without the development (through transdisciplinary research and education) of digital policy and governance of the processes of digitalisation and datafication that characterise the online economy,  to ensure social value and restrict potential harms, would continue their service to an increasingly miniscule global elite.”

She argued the 4IR, as conceived of by the World Economic Forum and uncritically adopted by South Africa, “… with its visions of global prosperity, packaged with futurist conviction and fantastical economic forecasts of exponential growth and job creation”, appears to provide a ready roadmap in an uncertain future –  especially for those countries, such as South Africa that have not invested in what they want their own digital futures to look like.”

Without public investment in independent, local multidisciplinary digital policy research there has been no base to prepare policy makers for the 4IR.  Public interest research and education in the field of digital (ICT) policy and regulations  has long been dependent on the vagaries of donor funding. 

“It is not surprising that South Africa relies on the blueprints of international lobbies, global industry associations and private foundations representing the interests of what have become global monopolies, for direction.”

In the process, critical research on creating the necessary conditions in developing countries for inclusive digital economies and societies, had not been met, prior to minimal resources in developing countries, including South Africa, having been diverted to a global business agenda. 

She called for a national project to develop a dynamic transversal digital policy based on a local evidence-base arising from a virtual, organic multidisciplinary research and education programme across all South African universities.

This would include:

  • a virtual national digital policy institute drawing together specialised research expertise from different areas at different South African and African universities;
  • develop national evidence base of multidisciplinary research integrating traditional economic regulation of infrastructures, competition regulation, and new information and data governance;
  • capacity building: transdisciplinary professional development, post graduate education and doctoral research for international relations, trade and industry,  communications, science, technology and innovation; and
  • which could be co-ordinated by the National Research Foundation with buy-in from CHE/USAF, funded with the $1million set aside for the WEF Centre on the Fourth Industrial Revolution at CSIR.