Why the 4th Industrial Revolution should be part of our national conversation

Modiri Mogende

How can we be speaking of the 4th Industrial revolution when we barely managed the 1st let alone the 2nd and 3rd, it’s a thought and conundrum that those tasked with issues of development face.
It is however a necessary national conversation we should have. According to the World Economic Forum, the 4th Industrial Revolution encompasses the technological advancements that are moving us from basic connectivity and interaction mainly through the internet to a more complex merger of robotics, automation, Artificial Intelligence (A.I), the Internet of Things (I.o.T), nanotechnology, biotechnology etc. It is an evolution of the first three revolution with the first coming with the steam engine, then came the electrical driven revolution followed by the internet era of connecting the world.
It is to be noted that all that comes with the 4th Industrial revolution dictates to the world the need of a whole new economic model and system. For instance, the more 3D printing advances means that ‘jobs’ through manufacturing will quickly become redundant.
Automation will make the need of thousands on miners obsolete because all those machines are likely to be better miners, work harder and longer whilst the industry will not need to deal with much labour issues. This is also true in the retail market as already South African retailers Pick n Pay who have a footprint of about 20 stores in Botswana have piloted automated checkout machines that could eventually replace tellers. South Africa labour unions were up in arms about the machine trials taking place, sighting a threat to their members’ livelihoods. The retailer’s Chief Strategist, David North played down the threat to jobs. “We see it as an additional service which would complement rather than replace the traditional checkouts. Staff are required to monitor self-service checkouts and there is no impact on employment. Pick n Pay is increasing, not cutting jobs, and is committed to creating 5 000 new jobs each year,” he told South African media in late 2016.
It is to be noted that such reassurance will probably not hold for long as global digital retailer Amazon has already piloted fully automated stores that do not need much labour or human assistances. Add online shopping which is slowly taking foot in Botswana with retail giant Sefalana leading the charge, it’s clear that the market is shifting drastically.
The fact of the matter is the world is moving to a point were mass employment will not be created through large industries and factories. It would be in the best interests of businesses to take on technology as it becomes cheaper and widely available. That is a reality we need to grapple with honestly and deliberately.
The International Trade Organisation predicts that 5 million jobs by 2020 to be lost to technology through robotics, automation and algorithms globally, so it’s an inevitable reality whilst debating job creation, we must be alive to the fact that many of today’s jobs will be redundant at the close of the next two decades.
Speaking at 48th St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland earlier this year, Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry Bogolo Kenewendo said the 4th Industrial Revolution was an opportunity rather than a threat to the job creation efforts. She highlighted that Artificial Intelligence (A.I) was necessary in improving job prospects and productivity for Batswana. “We recognise that innovation and productivity are keys to unlock high growth and catapult us to even become a high income country” she told the gathering.
Kenewendo’s constant focus on A.I and the 4th Industrial Revolution is what is needed to keep technocrats and political leadership cognisant of the fact that the jobs of tomorrow will not be labour driven and mass as those of today.
It will take having uncomfortable national conversations and tremendous infrastructure investments into backbone connectivity, training and development of local talent whilst also maintaining the present.
The reality of the matter is if we fail to improve our rankings on Global Connectivity Index (GCI) and other platforms that enable innovation and development, we will miss this revolution and the consequences will be dire for our coming generations.