The capacity for innovation in industry is a key ingredient in the creation of a productive workforce, which in turn increases industry competitiveness.
The global conversation on the coming industrial revolution centers on the automation of the manufacturing sector, which is envisioned to replace human resources. However, highly industrialized economies have already started to integrate this automation in their processes in a way that complements existing manual labour. In fact, owing to this integration, many have been training their workforce and equipping them with skills beyond the manual labour, which will still render them valuable come industry 4.0.
Since, as I mentioned, these economies are highly industrialized, they are fertile grounds for a technological transition, and their workforce is already accustomed to the inclusion of cutting edge technologies in their daily tasks. Subsequently, the employees regard these newly introduced tools and equipment as assets to enhance their productivity and knowledge ahead of the disruption.
On the other hand, economies that are not quite highly industrialized, such as ours, are waking up to the reality of a dawning industrial revolution, with a bit of consternation. The perceived loss of jobs, in countries, which are currently experiencing high levels of employment, paints a glum picture of the future.
Conversely, as opposed to adopting a deer-in-the-headlights stance, I propose that it is time for us to rethink and quickly turn around crucial aspects of our industrialization plan in order to get back on track. This is especially the opportune moment to do so given our country’s focus on the Big 4 Agenda – for which manufacturing is the number one pillar as the success of all others should be rooted in a thriving industry.
Under the Big 4 plan, the Government has set out to increase the share of Manufacturing to GDP from the current 9.2% to 15%. It has outlined a multi-sectoral approach for this intervention and one of the key areas singled out is the ICT component. According the Budget Policy Statement, plans to install TV, laptop, phone assembly plants with a view of creating 10,000 jobs by 2022. Under this, one of the priority interventions listed is to strengthen the innovation space, that is, by bolstering incubation centers and accelerators.
Yet the question lingers, that if the automated future is dawning, why are we then still trying to create new jobs? The World Bank Development Report 2013 cautioned that the global economy will need to create approximately, 600 million new jobs in the next 15 years, to absorb the young people coming into the workforce. In Africa alone, the study estimates, about 11million young people join the workforce annually. So, in essence, as long as the population in the world increases, we are going to have more and more people streaming into the workforce on a daily, monthly and yearly basis. This does not change because of automation. What has to change however is the way we think about work, and the processes that we attach value to.
So to answer the question above, since we still have to create new jobs annually, it would benefit us to create these jobs in the industry right now so that we can equip the new workforce with futuristic technologies, and provide on-the-job training on the shifting concepts of work and the workplace. This means that if we are indeed going to focus on bolstering innovation centers, we need to do so with this in mind so that we do not train new people only for them to be rendered obsolete in a few years.
In a broader sense, as a country, we need to focus on creating an environment that makes it possible for the existing industry to invest in Research and Development in readiness to supplement efforts to leverage the dawn of industry 4.0. This means giving the sector the space to do what they do best – create and produce. A predictable and stable policy and regulatory environment will do that. It will allow industry to channel its resources and investments towards developing cutting edge excellence centers that are in sync with global trends, making them disruption-ready.
Sudden policy shifts and stiff regulatory frameworks sidetrack the industrialization course. It means that industry is forced to utilize resources, planning and re-planning long term business ideas, trying to keep up with unforeseen changes and eventually suffer losses and decreased productivity. This subsequently affects its competitiveness – meaning it cannot well-absorb new workforce and when they do, their capacity to build and train is diminished.
The fourth industrial revolution is a reality. As we action the Big 4 Agenda we need to do so with this in mind and strategize, as stakeholders – both industry and government, on how to turn it into a positive outcome for our country.