With the world on the verge of "Society 5.0", in which every facet of life is affected by digital technology, South Africa must move to future-proof its enterprises and upskill its people, says the Department of Science and Technology (DST).
Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General of Science and Technology, wants South Africa to gear up towards becoming a super-smart society.
"In Society 5.0, people will be affected by technologies in ways we have never imagined before. The Internet of Things will affect every aspect of our daily lives and, of course, our legal and regulatory frameworks, so we need to have conversations about how we as a society will adjust to these major breakthroughs now," he says.
The DST, long on a path to drive science and technology innovation, believes that its multiple programmes, along with the new White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation, will boost progress in research, development and innovation in South Africa as part of a growing national system of innovation.
"We should not allow South Africa to be left behind in terms of technological progress. Unless we modernise and achieve greater efficiencies across all sectors, we risk being left behind," says Mjwara.
In some areas, such as agriculture, modernisation, automation and the introduction of smart new technologies have become crucial due to environmental change; while in others, such as mining, smart technologies are essential for cost control and human safety, he says. "The next Industrial Revolution is upon us, and if we don't invest now we will be left behind."
"Industry 4.0" brings with it the risk of job losses, he concedes.
"However, it's not practical to think technological progress will ever stop. We must ensure that we introduce this in a way that suits our conditions. New technologies may well replace certain jobs, but we need to put in place policies that allow us to reskill people appropriately. We cannot overlook the impact of development on people in the value chain." He gives the example of countries in which automated systems have replaced petrol attendants at filling stations. "We cannot do this in South Africa unless we upskill these petrol attendants," he says.
Science and technology innovation and development must be supported by both the public and the private sector for the long-term good of the country, Mjwara emphasises. In line with this aim, DST interventions such as a generous research and development (R&D) tax incentive and the Sector Innovation Funds are bearing fruit.
"With the Sector Innovation Funds," explains Mjwara, "The government in effect goes to industry and asks what challenges their sector has that could be solved by research. We then facilitate academic research programmes that address these issues, after which the private sector invests in the R&D and sees real value as a result. Currently, for every R1 we invest, we see the private sector investing about 45c."
He believes that initiatives like these are driving real progress for South African industry and society as a whole.
For such initiatives to succeed, South Africa needs a science aware public. As part of this, the third Science Forum South Africa, being held in Pretoria this week, aims to ignite a public discourse on the role of science, technology and innovation in inclusive socio-economic development. Pan-African cooperation is an important part of the continent's largest "open science" event.
"We hope the general public will follow the discussions – it's not so much about discovery but about demonstrating the value of science to society," says Mjwara. "The forum will also showcase our work and partnerships across the rest of the continent, as well as serving as a platform for global partners to talk about new trends and technologies."
For more information about Science Forum South Africa 2017, visit http://www.sfsa.co.za/