Young citizens must be enabled to access the opportunities of the 4th Industrial Revolution

Friday, July 1, 2016

By Mr Kingsley Makhubela

Brand South Africa CEO

Follow Mr Makhubela on @klmmakhubela

The second annual Vision 2030 Conference has just concluded and many views were expressed on how to maximise national efforts to ensure the implementation of the National Development Plan.  There was unanimous and unequivocal agreement that there is great urgency for the plan to be implemented.

From the perspective of the nation brand, we must ensure the involvement of young people who will ensure the durability of the interventions which will be put in place.  This will also be critical to ensuring that young citizens actively participate in their own development and that of our country.

The conversation around the importance of involving young people in the country’s journey towards transformation also coincides with the 40th anniversary of the 1976 student uprisings which were aimed at achieving equal education opportunities for all young people in this country.

Forty years later South Africa has made strides in providing equal education opportunities to the vast majority of our young people.  Our success in reversing the legacy of apartheid in this regard is recognised in a range of international indices, including, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Index, the Mo Ibrahim Index, the Institute of Management Development’s competitiveness index.

While progress has been made, more needs to be done to ensure quality education outcomes which would enable young citizens to claim their places at the forefront of driving the development our country. 

The National Development Plan therefore puts young citizens and their development at the centre of South Africa’s developmental agenda.  Its strong youth-centric focus responds to the country’s demographic make-up with consists largely of young people: those who are below the age of 35 years constitute about 66% per cent of the total population.

When young people can claim their right to health, education and decent working conditions, they become a powerful force for economic development and positive change.  Equipping young people with the education and skills and ensuring that they are healthy is key to building national competitiveness. 

Recognising this, the NDP has proposed, amongst others, universal access to two years of early childhood development and the improvement of the school system towards increasing the number of students achieving above 50% in literacy and mathematics, increasing student retention rates to 90% (by 2020) and bolstering teacher training.  Vision 2030 also calls on government and the private sector to strengthen youth service programmes and introduce new, community-based programmes to offer young people life skills training, entrepreneurship training and opportunities to take part in community development programmes.

Through the NDP we have opportunities to fully develop the potential of youth so that they can contribute effectively not only towards the national agenda, but also to the world’s development agenda. 

Ensuring that national economies absorb young people and create meaningful work opportunities is a challenge the world over.  In 2013 the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that, at a global level, 73.4 million young people who want to work and are actively looking for a job cannot find one.  The same ILO report states that the world is facing a worsening youth employment crisis, where young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults.  In South Africa our unemployment rate is described as a ticking time bomb.

An additional challenge is introduced when one considers the current discourse on the 4th Industrial Revolution.  According to the World Economic Forum, the 4th Industrial Revolution “is a technological revolution that could profoundly transform humanity for the better.”  It will equally be a social revolution, “as both society and technology become more and more tightly coupled.” 

An article published in Forbes Magazine in April 2016 suggests: “In this fourth revolution, we are facing a range of new technologies that combine the physical, digital and biological worlds. These new technologies will impact all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenge our ideas about what it means to be human.  [They] have great potential to continue to connect billions more people to the web, drastically improve the efficiency of business and organisations and help regenerate the natural environment through better asset management, potentially even undoing all the damage previous industrial revolutions have caused.”

While the 4th Industrial Revolution can indeed positively impact on society, one of the significant challenges will be that many of the jobs that are currently in existence will become obsolete in the face of innovation and technology.  What will happen to those who are already marginalised and on the periphery of society due to the inability of the labour market to absorb them?  

It is at this point where the National Development Plan and the 4th Industrial Revolution converge.  If we are collectively to achieve the outcomes outlined in the Plan to build our national human capital, from infancy to early adulthood, we will be ensuring that our young citizens are able to find their place in an increasingly borderless society characterised by disruption and innovation.

A fundamental skill required to prepare our young citizens for a society driven increasingly by technology will be to build agility to respond to disruption.  This refers to a culture of game-changing innovation that provides the framework and motivation to generate those ideas and execute those solutions that enhance corporate, social and ultimately national competitiveness.

Solutions will necessarily have to be innovative and inventive if they are to be competitive and give organisations, and indeed nations, an edge.  This will require substantially greater focus and investment in research and development (R&D) as an enabler of this culture.  According to Minister Pandor, investment in R&D had improved in both the higher education and the business sectors with investments totalling R4.5 billion and R6.5 billion respectively.  In addition, innovation expenditure and activities undertaken by the business sector have a more direct and immediate impact on gross domestic product growth, exports and employment than innovation expenditures and activities in other sectors.  This affects citizens, job seekers and the employed in real time and has an immediate benefit for communities.

To support and create an enabling environment for investments in R&D, South Africa will maintain policy stability on government assistance for R&D for the business sector.  This includes continuity and certainty on the R&D tax incentives and other direct R&D incentives to encourage both local and foreign investment in R&D performed by business.

As we have this conversation around science, technology and innovation enabling growth, development to catapult South Africa into the knowledge economy, I am inspired by the words of the internationalist and world renowned revolutionary, Che Guevara who said in 1963 – fifty three years ago – “Never forget that technology is a weapon.  If you feel that the world is not as perfect as it should be, then you must struggle to put the weapon of technology at the service of society.” Technology should benefit “the greatest number of human beings possible so that we can build the society of tomorrow.”

The 4th Industrial Revolution will bring many challenges and perhaps some unintended consequences but it will certainly bring the opportunity for the growth and development of society.  I am confident that South Africa, through the implementation of the National Development Plan, will be able to respond to the opportunities presented by this Revolution in a manner that puts our people, and particularly our young citizens, at its centre.  A key success factor will be our ability to collectively implement this plan.  Are we ready to play our part?