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Creating novel 4IR solutions for Africa

The design of 4IR solutions that address Africa’s problems cannot be solved by the application of canned approaches.
Read time 5min 30sec

Academic researchers and industry practitioners working on the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) view the problems they hope to resolve as “wicked” research problems.

The term “wicked problem” refers to those that are difficult to define clearly, with the solutions having unintended consequences.

Although it is hoped that innovative 4IR solutions will have broad universal applicability, given the social complexity of certain contexts, 4IR innovations can exacerbate or generate further unintended problems.

Similarly, the design of 4IR solutions that address Africa’s problems cannot be solved by the application of canned approaches; Africa requires creative 4IR solutions.

Panel at the SAICSIT conference

A panel of academics at the South African Institute for Computer Scientists and Information Technologists (SAICSIT) conference, which took place at Nombolo Mdluli Conference Centre, Skukuza, in September, generally agreed that creative 4IR solutions will be needed for the African context.

SAICSIT is a prominent local association supporting education, training and research in computing and IT. The first SAICSIT conference was held in 1979. This year was a very special occasion as it celebrated 40 years since the first SAICSIT conference.

As the panel organiser and moderator, I explored the issue with four outstanding computing and IT scholars on the panel.

The panel included:

  • Robert Winter, professor of business and information systems engineering at the University of St Gallen, and director of its Institute of Information Management.
  • Paula Kotzé, extraordinary professor at the Department of Informatics at the University of Pretoria and adjunct professor in the School of ICT at Nelson Mandela University.
  • Judith Bishop, extraordinary professor, Computer Science.
  • Kirstin Krauss, professor, School of Computing, University of South Africa.

4IR and prospects for development

Winter spoke about revolutionary technologies that are benefitting the poor. He used the example of the analysis and testing of rice. In South-East Asia, rice is produced and usually tested with high-end and very expensive technology from Switzerland.

In Switzerland, there are no rice fields but for over 20 years the technological advancement has been going on – always smarter machines, always bigger, always more powerful with better functionality, always more expensive machines.

Technology is vital. We cannot stick with observation, surveys and impressions.

The latest innovation of rice quality analysis devices involves a piece of cardboard, a smartphone, and a photo which is sent to an analysis unit, and as a result of the analysis, the rice quality is displayed on the smartphone.

“Now we are thinking about what the people really need, what they have, what they can afford. Totally new things to come out; it is about data, it is about technology – smartphones, it is about the camera, it is about data analysis and about really understanding what farmers need, what they can afford and how they can be supported.

“And that is really revolutionary. If we bring together the technology view and the business view and the data view in a customer-centric way, often radically innovative, lightweight solutions can be found. A totally new enablement. A decent service that they can afford to buy.”

Bishop emphasised the value of using research to design and build innovative technologies. “We need to go further than observation in our research and insert technology into what we do.

“The technology should be relevant and chosen in collaboration with industry. That’s where the joy is going to happen, and where the satisfaction of the project as you see it with consortia. Technology is vital. We cannot stick with observation, surveys and impressions.”

4IR and the African realities

Some members of the audience felt that while we should not ignore 4IR, we need to think hard and deep about the African response.

For example, drones delivering organs for transplants assumes that qualified surgeons are in place, or hospitals are not in disrepair. Therefore, it was proposed that Africa’s preparation perhaps calls for a more unique response.

Krauss briefly spoke about what people are saying about the fifth industrial revolution and that it is principally a response to some of the perceived risks of the fourth industrial revolution.

The fifth industrial revolution is about being more humane – using technology for the betterment of humankind. For Krauss, there are social and ethical implications of the fourth industrial revolution.

Krauss cautioned that we must not reproduce the mistakes of the past. Academia has a responsibility to help make sure issues we observed from history do not repeat in new waves of tech-driven innovation.

“And I believe this is the role we have as academics to articulate these sorts of issues to people that are at the forefront of innovation with the fourth and fifth industrial revolution,” noted Krauss.

“We need to be the moral ethical compass in a sense, by being more critical than we are.”

Africa needs creative 4IR solutions

For Kotzé, there’s not a one size fits all solution. It’s a case where we need to look at our issues, our problems and we need to address them and see what technologies we can use, and if they do not exist, develop them, to solve our own problems.

“Nobody else is going to solve our problems; we are going to have to solve them ourselves.”

4IR readiness at the University of Pretoria

The Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology at the University of Pretoria has already begun steps to prepare for 4IR.

From a research perspective, these include a new Future Transportation and Sustainable Future Smart Cities infrastructure and research programme, and a world-leading Big Data and Data Science Institute.

In the School of Information Technology, the Department of Information Science has launched a state-of-the-art research, teaching and learning facility through its new virtual reality and interaction) lab.

The Department of Informatics has a mobile development lab and a user experience lab that provide students with a creative space to learn about and experience current trends in technology design.

The Department of Computer Science has already added a stream in big data science to its Masters degree offerings.

Rennie Naidoo
Associate professor, School of IT, Department of Informatics, University of Pretoria.

Rennie Naidoo is an associate professor at the School of IT, Department of Informatics, University of Pretoria. He has served a number of clients on several IT projects in both the public and private sectors over a 20-year period. Naidoo is also a NRF-rated researcher. His research interests are broadly about information systems and organisations, with a particular focus on IT value, IT human resources development and end-user issues. He has published articles in leading international outlets such as the Journal of Strategic Information Systems and the Information Society Journal. He lectures topics on IT value and enterprise systems to postgraduates at the university. He is passionate about collaborative research with industry - that is, using applied and basic research techniques developed in academia to solve problems related to information technology in organisations.

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