The Fourth Industrial Revolution represents a radical change in the way we live, work and relate to each other. It is a new chapter in human development, enabled by extraordinary technology. Although Africa is developmentally lagging behind, it is worthwhile to discuss how we can prepare for it. Most importantly it is pivotal to discuss how we can use it to our advantage.
The journey through technological development
The First Industrial Revolution, which began in the 18th century, represents the shift from our reliance on animals, human effort and biomass as primary sources of energy to the use of fossil fuels and the mechanical power this enabled. This era caused the growth of industries, such as coal, iron, railroads and textiles. The Second Industrial Revolution, 1870-1914, brought major breakthroughs in the form of electricity distribution, both wireless and wired communication, the synthesis of ammonia and new forms of power generation. Here the electricity, petroleum and steel industry experienced robust growth. The Third Industrial Revolution began in the 1950s with the development of digital systems, communication and rapid advances in computing power, which have enabled new ways of generating, processing and sharing information.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution will knit a closer relationship between technology and human life. Technology will be intrinsically linked to how we learn, think, live and work. Examples of new technology include genome editing, new forms of machine intelligence, breakthrough materials and approaches to governance that rely on cryptographic methods such as the blockchain.
You might be wondering why Africa should be involved in this discussion when she is still struggling to handle the second and third industrial revolution. This emerging revolution can be a blessing or a curse: it can catapult Africa into development or stagnate her progress. Discussions must happen now to plan how to harness and ride the new wave. This new wave of technology can occur simultaneously with the maturing and spreading of the third revolution in Africa.
This new wave will increase availability of products and services that increase the efficiency and enjoyability of our lives, while also reducing costs. Organizing transport, booking restaurants, buying goods, making payments, listening to music, reading books or watching films – these tasks can now be done instantly, at any time and in almost any place. This era will be advantageous to consumers as there will be increase in quality coupled with a decrease in cost of products. However, on the flip side of the coin, the Fourth Industrial Revolution can exasperate inequality in communities. The rise in automation will lead to unemployment. All industrial revolutions create and destroy jobs, but unfortunately there is evidence that new industries are creating relatively fewer positions than in the past. The biggest problem is that future jobs will increasingly require complex problem-solving, social and systems skills. An upward bias to skill requirements will disproportionally affect older and lower-income cohorts and those working in industries most prone to automation by new technologies.
The continent experiences extreme disparities. In Africa, women and youth are most vulnerable in the labour market. Two in three young workers in sub Saharan Africa are living on less that US$ 2 a day (ILO). The World Bank estimates that youth account for 60% of the unemployed in Africa. Young women feel the sting of unemployment more sharply than men. It is easier for men to get jobs than women, even if they have equivalent skills and experience. The jobs prone to automation are jobs typically held by young women and low-middle class women. If these jobs become obsolete, it pulls already vulnerable groups further into poverty. The livelihoods of women and youth are at stake in the wake of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Further this wave will not only affect individuals but also economies of African countries. African countries that are focused on labour intensive goods and services will lose this comparative advantage as advanced manufacturing systems are introduced.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution will usher in a different geopolitical game with the prominence of non-state actors. As stated above, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will increase inequality in Africa. Increased connectivity combined with the grumbles of inequality creates the perfect breeding ground for violent extremism. Between 2011-2016 there were approximately 33,000 fatalities caused by extremism on African soil, with related displacement and economic displacement contributing to among the worst humanitarian catastrophes ever seen in Africa post colonisation. Africa must invest in areas that are prone to extremism to prevent an explosion of extremism when the Fourth Industrial Revolution hits our shores.
Our very humanity will be helped or hurt by the advanced technology in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Africa must get ahead of the wave and engage in the discussion now to avoid being overtaken by technology. African governments must seriously plan to secure the lives of people vulnerable to joining terrorist groups, women and youth to avoid the continent drowning in this eminent wave. It is Africa’s choice to turn the Fourth Industrial Revolution into an opportunity as opposed to a challenge.