There is little doubt that there is now a mass understanding, or at the very least, mass awareness, of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Paradoxically, that is thanks to the global Covid-19 pandemic. However, there are some serious 4IR policy considerations that do not seem to be getting the right levels of attention and focus on the African continent. 4IR has to be a matter of national agenda; national economic and political sovereignty and national security – necessitating commensurate prioritisation.
Well, an analysis of the first industrial revolution shows how emergent industrialisation created and expanded a chasm between agrarian-based economies and the nascent industrialising ones (Overton, 1950). With it came the ability to create new factory-based production technologies. Habitually, progress builds on progress and so the first industrial revolutionists rode the curve of development at a significantly faster pace than laggards.
What stands out as a corollary of this development was economic, military and political dominance. Not only that, less industrialised nations became mostly consumers of high-value factory-produced products and the self-same consumers exported low-value raw materials, and the cycle has continued. The correlation between industrialisation and imperialism cannot be ignored.
In comes the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The industrialisation phenomenon still seems to follow the same formula. “He who has the better machines holds sway over the ones with less advanced tools”, and this is the crux of this article.
Industrialised factories are no longer soot-covered, red-faced bricked buildings shaded under clouds of smoke billowing out of their furnaces. Of course, physical factories still exist but the new world’s digital industry factories are technology platforms and the main ones are, yet again, from western countries that led the previous iterations of the industrial revolution.
The following are the major tech industries that are generating astronomic economic value:
Cloud computing – with some of the main players being Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Alibaba.
Social Media – yes, Social Media, because of its network effects and associated advertising value, not to mention its efficacy in disseminating propaganda. The main players include WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube and TikTok.
Videoconferencing – The main players include Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet.
Artificial Intelligence , Machine Learning and Internet of Things – the main players include Amazon, Microsoft, IBM , Google and Alibaba. These tech behemoths have created platforms for scaffolding Machine Learning, Blockchain, and Internet of Things solutions.
With none of the above technologies owned by African countries, how different is this from the previous industrial revolutions?
Think of Google’s contribution to nations’ Gross Domestic Product (GDPs). How many people use Google every day to generate economic value through either searching for solutions to a myriad of problems or finding customers and/or suppliers? If Google decides to switch off Africa’s access to the world’s number one index of web content, what is the recourse?
With Artificial Intelligence (AI) becoming ubiquitous and a source of competitive advantage across all industries and sectors, and its Intellectual Property disproportionately owned by non-African entities, does this not pose a threat to national sovereignty and security?
Ownership of all these technologies creates economic, political and military leverage, just like the ownership of nuclear and manufacturing technologies had similar leverage in the past.
Below are 3 steps that could reverse this current trend;
1. National Agenda
Some African countries have set up 4IR commissions, mandated with policy formulation to stimulate and govern 4IR developments. These commissions should extend beyond committees and demonstrate infusion of the mandate into schools, colleges, universities, entrepreneurship ecosystems and communities. A leaf can be taken out of the page of the Asian Tigers’ (the high-growth economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) focus on building national competencies around certain industries in the 1970s, and the policies that they instituted to galvanise purpose and resources (Shirley, 2014).
2. Structural Reforms
Coupled with the pronouncement of a national agenda to digitally-industrialise, deliberate structural reforms could be the chassis to provide essential support, structure and direction. There has to be a deliberate reconfiguration of the economy to harness 4IR capabilities, and this should be across all major sectors of the economy. Tax incentives for specialist digital industries, subsidised digital technology business parks, educational policy kneading, etc. More importantly, the reforms should be synergistic.
3. China-esque protectionism
China, notwithstanding its controversies, has demonstrated an enviable template. China has ensured that they have a home-grown version of all these digital industry factories alluded to, ditto. The economic value generated by the consumption of their digital services is retained within their nation, which also removes dependency-risk on foreign digital industry factories. Governments should actively capacitate the creation of home-grown social networks, cloud platforms, and AI/IoT/Blockchain platforms, as well as promote and incentivise their local adoption.
A look at how 4IR technologies have permeated through the fabric of society should make the need for national, concerted capacitation, indubitable. It should be a matter of concern that, we “Google” to search the internet, “Zoom” to videoconference, “Whatsapp” to chat, “Tweet” to microblog, “Facebook” to advertise… and none of these are home-grown infrastructure. What happens if they are all switched off one day?
- Vusa Nyathi is a Business and Technology strategist