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Emerging Tech

Research Bites: Lack of 4IR knowledge a cause for concern

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— This article is part of a series produced in collaboration with the African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation and Development

There is an old adage that says "knowledge is power." It sounds like a cliché, but the reality is that the more you know, the better you're positioned to control events and leverage opportunities.

There is little doubt that in recent times, the world has witnessed the arrival of a new technological revolution that is set to change our lives – the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

From critical advances in science and technology to the launch of customized products for customers and the optimization of production chains, these technologies have created opportunities for underdeveloped markets, in particular, to gain a competitive edge.

4IR awareness in SA

The 4IR marks an important stage in human history as it will have an increasing influence on the way we work, live and interact with each other. Awareness and knowledge of these technologies will therefore be crucial to succeeding in most fields.

The purpose of our study was to understand the level of knowledge of the 4IR among South African citizens and the factors influencing awareness.

We focused on determining the extent of participant's knowledge on five key technologies: Internet of Things (IoT); multilevel customer interactions; big data analytics/advanced algorithms; advanced human machine interfaces; and location detection technologies.

Socio-economic barriers

Our findings revealed that knowledge about the 4IR was a lot lower than we expected and was directly linked to the socio-economic background of participants.

Knowledge of the Fourth Industrial Revolution was higher among citizens with better socio-economic status – such as higher education and earnings of above R6,500 (US$425) household income per month. With higher earnings, these participants had the opportunity to access uncapped Internet data or could afford to spend more than R150 (US$10) on data per month (more than 1GB).

Employment status also played a significant role. Participants employed full-time were the most knowledgeable about the 4IR, whereas those who were employed part-time indicated that they did not have much knowledge. The slightest knowledge and understanding about the 4IR was reported by the self-employed and unemployed.

The overall low knowledge, especially by entrepreneurs and the unemployed (non-students), is alarming as these groups are the main target for economic emancipation.

This outcome further entrenches the challenges of inequality in South Africa, which is classified as the most unequal country.

Although groups from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are key to the country's development and growth, those with a higher socio-economic standing will continue to have a significant advantage in the 4IR. The paradox being that some of these technologies could help to buffer the adverse effects of environmental and economic uncertainty.

Knowledge sharing for equality

We urge the policymakers, business and society at large to collaborate to increase knowledge about the 4IR.

Our study serves as a baseline for the policymakers and other development agencies or stakeholders to effectively set a national agenda to respond to opportunities and challenges emerging with the 4IR.

The question is not whether South Africa, and Africa at large, is ready for the 4IR. It is how the continent can acquire the necessary knowledge and work to leverage the opportunities that are offered by the 4IR. This will help the continent to be prosperous during the era of the knowledge economy.

The 4IR is critical and should be on all nations' national agendas. South Africa has started on the journey, with President Cyril Ramaphosa creating a Presidential Commission on the 4IR (PC4IR) with the intention of employing 4IR technologies to elevate South Africa's developmental agenda in line with the National Development Plan Vision 2030.

The need to morph toward the 4IR is expedited by the fundamental shifts in the workplace and in society that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic. Stakeholders should collaborate to make 4IR a reality for all the citizens irrespective of socio-economic status.

To read more about this research, you can access the full academic research paper here, published in the African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation and Development.

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