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Ideas & Debate

Africa needs policy change to reap the benefits of fourth industrial revolution

President Uhuru Kenyatta
President Uhuru Kenyatta participates in a virtual high-level meeting on development financing in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic from State House, Nairobi last Friday. PHOTO | PSCU 

Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that the nature of the universe is flux and in a constant motion of change. He pointed out that all things pass and nothing stays. And comparing existing things to a river, he argued that you could not step twice into the same river.

He concluded in his theory of nature that change is the only real and constant thing and that permanence is only apparent.

Heraclitus’ treatise came to mind when a few weeks ago the historian and philosopher Yuval Harari Noah opined that the world post Covid-19 is the new normal. In 2017, I read the book, the Fourth Industrial Revolution by Klaus Shwab, who argues that technology is going to transform the world. I must admit though that at the time of reading this, his central thesis seemed to be a distant future.

You see, unlike the first, second and third industrial revolutions, which took place over the last 300 years and only improved human labour and livelihood, the fourth industrial revolution will be a new chapter in human development, enabled by extraordinary technological advances. It will blur the boundaries between the physical, digital and biological world and will represent a fundamental change in the way we live, work, relate to one another and educate our children.

It may upend the neo-liberal logic that until now has been the prevailing idea of our existence. Assumptions that had become pseudo truths about the market, role of governments, organised religion, gender roles and other social arrangements may find themselves incoherent and contradictory in the fourth industrial age.

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It appears though that Covid-19 has been the trigger for the human race to make this quantum leap into this new age. Indeed we haven’t seen commercial pilotless airplanes or commercial driverless cars yet but the technology is already here.

What we are, however, witnessing today are churches streaming their services online, lecturers teaching their students from the comfort of their homes, remote working and as a recent report by the research firm Nendo revealed, a rapid rise of e-commerce platforms powered by data and AI technologies. Moreover, we have also observed new vocabularies like Zoom, Stand out, Skype and Microsoft Teams join the human lexicon.

We are all praying, undoubtedly, that this pandemic will be contained sooner rather than later. But one thing is clear, the way we live, work, relate to one another and educate our children will never be the same again. It’s imperative that as a people we embrace the change.

Africa and Kenya in particular, with a youthful population, stand to gain most if accessibility, affordability and ethical application of technology is facilitated. It is expected that of the estimated 2.2 billion people in Africa by 2050, 60 percent will be below the age of 24.

With an aggressive investment in public health and quality public education, Africa can reap a demographic dividend for a better and prosperous future. But it will take a concerted effort by progressive governments, a robust civil society, functioning institutions and active citizenry to make this a reality.

Social policy, which has been frowned upon since the 1980s with the implementation of the structural adjustment programmes, must now take centre stage of development. We must now focus on human-centred development as opposed to the mega infrastructure-focused development framework. If anything, Covid-19 has revealed that people and not things are the centre of development.

Our institutions of higher learning, in particular, must also re-think their value proposition and help drive this change by pushing the boundaries of their triple mission of teaching and learning, research and scholarship and public service and engagement. Because of the convergences of the fourth industrial revolution, universities must also promote interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary teaching, research and innovation, and pursue new modes of knowledge production and collaboration.

Hopefully, innovative and more daring youth will exploit what this new epoch portends and steer our nations forward. Until then, to see our youth survive and get to see 2050 to exploit what the fourth industrial revolution brings we are all called upon to abide by the regulations stipulated, stay safe, wear masks if you must go to a crowded place, keep a safe distance, wash and sanitise your hands.

Dr Kobuthi is a corporate governance scholar.

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