This article is written by Rhulani Lehloka, for the July 2018 Edition of the SDG Bulletin South Africa. The SDG Bulletin South Africa is a collaborative product of the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation, the United Nations in South Africa and the South African SDG Hub.
RL: Please give us the context as you understand it of the industrial revolution.
MS: All previous industrial revolutions have essentially been built on three integrating pillars or platforms: first is the energy platform, second is the communication platform and third is the transport platform. When structural changes in these three platforms converge, we come to experience a transformation of the entire industrial production system, which also changes the way in which we interact as human beings at a social, economic and cultural level.
RL: What does the world look like at the start of the 4th industrial revolution? What are some of the issues that the fourth industrial revolution must help us confront?
MS: To answer this question we can consider data available from 2015, which marked the end of the MDG era. This data tells us that despite significant progress in development between the years 2000 and 2015, the world remains with some daunting development challenges. These include climate change, poverty, inequality, lack of access to basic services, disempowered communities, high unemployment rates, amongst others.
The values, perspectives, orientation of how we conceive human relations is at the centre of how this fourth industrial revolution will play itself out. Humanity is not some powerless entity at the face of an all-powerful technological era. It will be human beings that drive the direction of the advances. It will be human beings and their actions that shape whether the 4th industrial revolution will be for profit or will be for human development. For example will technological advances in the health sector be used to entrench existing inequalities in the delivery and access to health care, thereby ensuring that private health care systems serve the wealthy and middle class or will technological advances in the health care sector open up the sector for broad transformation that assists us to achieve the goal of good health and wellbeing for all? In the pharmaceutical industry for example will technological advances improve access to the best drugs and medicine for all? These questions can be asked in sectors such as transport, health etc. the answers are not automatic and predetermined. Humans are at the centre of shaping these answers. Thinking that technology will automatically shape our lives outside of us constitutes what I prefer to call technological determinism.
RL: So what kind of transformation can we expect with this industrial revolution in comparison to the previous ones?
MS: I think that when we consider it in the context of human history and the fullness of time, all it represents is yet another disruption of industry and subsequent industry gains spilling over to disrupt the whole of society in a transformative way. But this time the disruption is at much higher levels than previously experienced, mainly due to the higher technological base generated by the previous three industrial revolutions. We can safely expect the type of transformations to come with this industrial revolution to include: changes in the nature of work, shifts in the investment decisions of private enterprises (with new investments going into new sectors which will see the rise of new sunrise sectors and decline of sunset sectors), transformation in the labour-capital relationship at both micro and macro levels, disturbances in the global location of production centers and transformation in the skills demand within national economies. These are just but some examples.
RL: How do we shape the outcome of this fourth industrial revolution to ensure redistribution of global wealth, eradication of poverty and inequality etc. to help us reach the goals of the SDGs? Will the fourth industrial revolution be progressive or reactionary to the cause of human development for all?
MS: My main proposition is that the answer to that question is not automatic. Technological advances are not in themselves either progressive or reactionary to the cause of human development. That means that there is one factor that remains missing on how the changes that are happening before our very eyes will either help us or further destroy the fabric of humanity. That factor is one that has been at the centre of development from the beginning, and that is human beings and their actions.
One consideration on how we shape the outcome of the new world we enter is how we interact with the configuration of global, continental, regional, national and local power and breaking the power of elites. Left to their own devices I am almost certain that elites, both public and private, will try their best to accrue the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution for either their own consumption or interests.
I think one of the most important instruments of shaping the social direction of the fourth industrial revolution is civil society. This sector will have a big role in advocating for a model where the fourth industrial revolution can actually be modelled towards being progressive and helping us address the most pressing developmental challenges, but beyond that civil society must help us to conceptualise an economic model of sustainability. Interestingly, fourth industrial revolution advances in communication technology can be just what civil society needs to address its own fragmentations that limit it from playing this role.