Fourth Industrial Revolution - Part One (Defining and understanding 4IR)

October 3, 2019

These days, you cannot avoid hearing the term ‘fourth industrial revolution (4IR)’. In almost every project we do, we are told to make sure we incorporate the 4th industrial revolution and its impact. We’ve been doing a lot of team training on the 4IR and have become quite familiar with what it is all about, the potential opportunities that are presented, and the major threats, especially in relation to jobs. In this 2-part blog, we briefly unpack what exactly the 4IR is, highlight some examples of how the 4IR has already been embraced globally, and some risks that we face in South Africa. 

Before understanding the 4IR, it’s important to provide some context to the preceding industrial revolutions. The First Industrial Revolution occurred in the late-1700s until the mid-1800s and saw a shift from an agrarian to an industrial economy, mainly thanks to the invention of steam power. This introduced industrial mechanisation and steam-engines, which stimulated manufacturing (particularly textiles and steel) and transport via railways and steam-powered ships. At the end of the 19th century, electricity brought about the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution which saw the introduction of the assembly line and mass production. In the mid-90s, just less than a century after mass production started, the Third Industrial Revolution began, fueled by electronics, computers and automated manufacturing processes. This is often referred to as the ‘digital revolution’. So what then, is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The 4IR can be described as a merging of the digital, physical, and biological worlds through the emergence of “extraordinary technological advancements”. Essentially, it includes disruptions caused by advancements in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), automation, machine learning, 3D printing, big data, and the internet of things (IoT). These technological advancements have and will continue to change the world around us, especially when used in conjunction with each other. Globally, industry has already started to transform processes and adapt to opportunities presented by these advancements. The most evident examples exist within transportation (e.g. automated vehicles), logistics (e.g. warehouses operated by robots), manufacturing (e.g. additive manufacturing/3D printing), and the services sector (e.g. augmented reality to view properties and holiday destinations via estate and travel agents respectively).

Within South Africa, the 4IR presents significantly more challenges than opportunities, particularly in relation to the provision of enabling infrastructure (i.e. broadband and communications technology) and education and skills development. Should we not be able to provide enabling infrastructure and develop a sufficiently skilled workforce, we face the risk of technology-driven employment losses. A recent report by Accenture Consulting titled “Creating South Africa’s Future Workforce” highlights that although digital technologies bring about efficiencies, for countries that are less prepared, such disruptions may cause greater job losses than gains. The report indicates that 35% of all jobs in South Africa (equal to almost 5.7 million jobs) are currently at risk of total automation. This can, however, be reduced to 20% of all jobs (or 3.4 million jobs) should we double the rate at which we currently provide skills to the workforce.

Part 2 of this blog provides an overview of the key findings of the Accenture research, focussing specifically on the professions most at risk, new skills required to unlock the potential advantages presented by the digital economy, and the actions required by government and industry to ensure that the workforce is sufficiently prepared.

Paul Jones

Paul Jones