Message from NSTF Executive Director


Industrial revolutions and saving the planet

NSTF discussions on minerals and the SDGs

NSTF has held three discussion forums this year to unpack issues related to minerals. We used the Periodic Table (the United Nations’ theme for 2019) as a window through which to see minerals and materials in relation to new technologies, mining, nutrition, safety from poisonous minerals, energy, water, food security, and education. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were then added to the mix to have an additional lens through which to see critical issues. The knowledge that was shared ranged from well established facts and practices, to cutting-edge technological research and ideas. In hindsight it was important that we looked at sustainability too, although we were only scratching the surface of this complex discussion.

The 4th Industrial Revolution

I was interested to read about a Report of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), which makes the connection between the 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) and sustainability.

Underlying all science and technology related discussions nowadays is a keen awareness of the 4IR. People in general seem to be increasingly aware of this phenomenon, and President Cyril Ramaphosa has placed it firmly on the government’s agenda, even before the new administration took over. He first announced his intention in the 2018 State of the Nation Address (SONA). Now a 4IR Presidential Commission has been established to coordinate South Africa’s response to the 4IR and develop a comprehensive strategy and plan.

In September 2018 NSTF held a discussion forum on the 4IRImplications for science, industry, society, and education. The Deputy Speaker of Parliament attended on one of the days and parliamentary researchers were in attendance every day. It was clear then, that government is concerned about the implications and the lack of awareness amongst the public and their representatives in Parliament. Since then much has happened. Almost every speech now contains the key phrase ‘4th Industrial Revolution’. It has become a slogan or a band wagon and everyone is on it.

I am still not convinced that people are grappling with the major implications. Hopefully the Commission will do so and be proactive in curbing the negative effects and nurturing the positive.

The digital future and the ‘Great Transformation’

The Report of the WBGU is currently being finalised. See the well written summary of Towards our common digital future. This is well worth reading.

“‘Digitalization’ is often described as a huge upheaval facing our societies to which we must adapt. The WBGU opposes this interpretation, saying that digitalization must be shaped in such a way that it can serve as a lever and support for the Great Transformation towards Sustainability, and can be synchronized with it.”

What’s in a name?

The authors relate the ‘revolution’ to the climate crisis which is, in fact, a crisis of existence facing humankind. Instead of the 4IR, they call it ‘digitalization’. This is understood to be a combination of digital and other technologies.

There was some discussion of the term ‘4IR’ at our discussion forum as well, and we concluded that we need a term that everyone agrees on, just so that we can communicate clearly and move on to what needs to be done. In the SONA of 2018 the Presidential Commission was still being referred to as the Digital Industrial Revolution Commission. South Africa is now in agreement and the term used is the ‘4th Industrial Revolution’ as government measures are institutionalised under that term by the President. However, it seems to me that we are indeed in the ‘digitisation’ phase, the beginning phase if you like, of the 4IR. Fully blown, parts of the 4IR society would have been taken over by Artificial Intelligence (AI) without need of non-digitised (i.e. human driven) technologies.

A case in point is newly appointed Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola stating his intention on 3 July 2019 to digitise the court system, thereby saving on the costs of paper storage, purchases of books, and replacing physical delivery with electronic communication. Digitising the judicial system is long overdue. Attempts had already been made to develop skills relating to this digitisation in about 2004. Unfortunately the initiative died at the time as Government was not ready for it. South Africa is still in that phase of commencing digitisation of government systems, and I wish Minister Lamola much success in this endeavour.

History of industrial revolutions

Referring to an industrial revolution has historical connotations – which is why I prefer the term 4IR to others. I venture to formulate a definition and description of any industrial revolution as follows: Dramatic changes in society brought about by totally new types of technology that open up new opportunities and innovation activity. Manufacturing and other sectors of the economy become more efficient, faster, and better at making money. Those owning the means of production and access to the knowledge required, benefit the most, leading to huge inequality gaps in society. The societal changes happen faster than people can adapt to or mitigate, so that the destructive effects are only realised when much damage has already been caused. Every aspect of life is affected. There is both hope for a better future, and despair, as most people do not see their lives being improved. There are implications for the workers, the marginalised parts of society, the environment, and the health of the population. There is always unemployment as a result of an industrial revolution. The current one is expected to be so disruptive to employment that a universal wage is being considered in other countries. The natural environment is now referred to as the planet, because we finally realise that destruction of the environment has global implications.

The WBGU Report makes it clear that this kind of upheaval will have further negative effects on the natural environment and society if measures are not taken to mitigate these as a matter of urgency.

“…new digital infrastructures, products and services are driving up energy consumption and the demand for resources; waste and long-lived anthropogenic pollutants (e.g. electronic waste, new chemical compounds and alloys) pose environmental and health risks.”

The role of the state

This industrial revolution will be just like the previous three, just more ‘revolutionary’ – its impact will be overwhelming, and the challenges to manage it will be enormous. Due to the speed of the changes, legal and other measures should be put in place now, at the beginning phases of the roll-out of disruptive technologies.

“… it might be inferred from the history of innovation that there is such a thing as a ‘retarding moment’, i.e. that disruptive technological innovations are initially more of a curse than a blessing for society as a whole. It would be naive to think that everything will be different this time, especially since the digital revolution will probably eclipse all earlier phases of technical progress in terms of reach, range and speed. Instead of hoping for voluntary self-restraint on the part of technology developers and political-economic interests, common-good-oriented democratic states must not only build up a strong anticipatory capacity, but also create a strategic bundle of institutions, laws and measures.”

The authors argue that the digital technologies must be harnessed to address the most pressing global problems: the climate crisis, adaptation and mitigation thereof, and the inclusion of marginalised people in the societal benefits brought about by technologies. If this is not done, social inequality will grow exponentially and climate change will become disastrous very soon.

(For detailed explanations of the urgency to take action against further climate change, see the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report 2018 – Summary for Policymakers.)

In conclusion:

The context in which new technologies are introduced is highly significant. The disruptions of the 4th Industrial Revolution will bring about both improvements in our world and destructive impacts. Which of these two possibilities will dominate, depends on what is decided and initiated now. Countries should join hands to develop policy frameworks, institutions and partnerships to manage these changes. South Africa’s Presidential Commission will have to identify the negative impacts of the 4IR and mitigate these.  It must find ways to mitigate the effects of climate change on the people of the country – possibly employing 4IR technologies.

The opinions expressed above are those of the Executive Director, Jansie Niehaus, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Executive Committee or members of the NSTF.