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University of Pretoria principal wants varsities to drive 4IR

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Professor Tawana Kupe, University of Pretoria vice-chancellor and principal.
Professor Tawana Kupe, University of Pretoria vice-chancellor and principal.

Professor Tawana Kupe, University of Pretoria (UP) vice-chancellor and principal, believes universities must lead the charge in Africa’s fourth industrial revolution (4IR) drive.

This as the South African government makes huge promises to boost 4IR technologies to grow the local economy.

In her budget vote speech last week, minister of communications and digital technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, said the South African government is looking to develop a blueprint on 4IR.

In April, the Presidency announced the 4IR commission, which comprises representatives of a cross-section of stakeholders, including public sector, business, telecoms, academia and research institutions, finance and SMMEs.

President Cyril Ramaphosa chairs the commission, while professor Tshilidzi Marwala, vice-chancellor at the University of Johannesburg, serves as deputy chairman.

The commission is mandated to advise government on 4IR policies, develop a framework for implementation of a multi-sectoral 4IR strategy; and coordinate, monitor and evaluate multi-sectoral initiatives that will position South Africa as a globally competitive player in 4IR.

Last month, Ndabeni-Abrahams welcomed the first meeting of the presidential commission on 4IR as a step towards achieving its objectives.

Africa’s renaissance

In an opinion piece, Kupe says smartphones have changed the world in just 12 years. “Since 2007, when they were introduced, they have created a technological revolution in society that has changed the pace of human interaction and advancement.

“They are fast becoming the only computer (or companion) we need that keeps us permanently connected, with an exhaustless variety of apps, social networks, information, education, navigation and communication platforms.”

Kupe believes smartphones are a glimpse into the unique opportunity 4IR presents to SA and the continent, and universities need to be a driving force for this.

He points out universities powering Africa's renaissance for the 4IR was the theme at the recent Times Higher Education Africa Universities Forum in Johannesburg.

In the same month, he notes, Africa’s first cloud service, afriQloud, was launched in Uganda, and SA’s minister of international relations and cooperation, Dr Naledi Pandor, appointed a task team to advise the minister of higher education, science and technology on how to manage the 4IR.

Rather than seeing it as something that needs to be managed, Kupe says the University of Pretoria sees the 4IR as a rare opportunity to steer society in new and better directions – and this includes re-imagining and positively transforming higher education.

“To an extent, this is already being achieved through local and global knowledge exchange that is happening to an unprecedented degree, along with international partnerships that are addressing the world’s technological, scientific, economic, survival and societal challenges.

“Rather than posing a threat to our universities, the internationalisation of knowledge enables our institutions to take significant leaps in knowledge by building on each other’s areas of expertise. It also elevates all of our teaching and learning facilities to a new level, including teaching courses across the continent on the use of technology, such as video calling in real-time,” he says.

“We are inviting other African countries, academics everywhere and the private sector to work with us to maximise 4IR innovation and address the ‘wicked challenges’ and stresses that Africa as a continent and Earth as a complex system are facing.”

He notes this includes the disappearance of biodiversity, climate change, a rapidly expanding population of unemployed youth, and growing inequality between those who have access to food, water, energy and education, and those who do not.

Trans-disciplinary institutes

Kupe adds that right now, a range of trans-disciplinary institutes are emerging the world over, with significant opportunities for international collaboration, and it is exciting to be part of this.

He points out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is planning a new $1 billion Quest for Intelligence college of computing, which will combine artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science, and bring together researchers from cognitive science, neuroscience and computer science.

“South Africa is one of about 10 countries in the world affiliated to the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the 4IR network, with an affiliate centre recently launched at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria.

“UP is strategically located in the city’s scientific hub, close to the CSIR, the Technology Innovation Agency, the National Research Foundation, the Department of Science and Technology, the Innovation Hub and other research, development and innovation bodies and agencies. As a university, we are part of what is being called ‘the most innovative square mile in Africa’, comparable with similar innovation spaces globally.

“We constantly talk about the need for innovation in all spheres of society, the economy and higher education. The 4IR is our greatest opportunity to achieve this,” Kupe concludes.

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