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4IR : South Africa's Digital Gold Mine

Conferences love it, politicians love to pretend that they understand it and whether you like it or not, you can’t escape it: The Fourth Industrial Revolution. 4IR has been a buzzword for several years, touting technology that is going to revolutionize the way we live, but in the post-Covid world, 4IR is no longer a distant concept that has the potential of changing our world. 4IR is a reality. A reality that has the potential to digitally transform South Africa and create a globally competitive and inclusive economy. The surge in technological advancements should coincide with the surge in entrepreneurial endeavours, however, unless entrepreneurs can see the opportunities that come with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, they cannot capitalise on them. Entrepreneurs see the hidden potential in things, they are trendsetters, visionaries and masterminds who create the future. Think about how Facebook is creating the future through the Metaverse or how a little over 50 years ago, Dubai was a desert city covered by sand until someone (or some people) saw the potential of the desert mecca and created the future which is now modern-day Dubai: one of the most economically viable cities in the world. South African entrepreneurs need to see the viability of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in a literal sense.

From education to agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing and more, the 4IR propels industries forward. Technology consulting firm, Accenture estimates that by 2026, 4IR could “…unlock around R1.4 trillion of value in South Africa across agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing, and financial services” – GetSmarter. However, only 37% of South African companies had a digital transformation plan prior to the outbreak of the pandemic. So South African companies had heard of 4IR but they were not prepared for it. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, and if the pandemic showed us anything, it is that digitalization was the difference between businesses surviving or dying. So, what exactly is this 4IR and what potential does is hold for South African entrepreneurs?

In layman’s terms; the Fourth Industrial Revolution is the inevitable evolution of human life which affects how we live, work and relate to one another and the world around us. It is preceded by the first three industrial revolutions and is characterised by digitalisation. As with the previous revolutions, the Fourth Industrial Revolution has its own elements/characteristics i.e. artificial intelligence, virtual reality, blockchain technology and robotics amongst others. These individual aspects of the revolution each have tremendous business potential for South Africa. Afterall, business is about solving problems and 4IR can solve a lot of problems…

We can look at Artificial Intelligence (AI) as an example of how 4IR can improve productivity and efficiency within the Agricultural sector through the use of drones. Drones can be used to help farmers to, “…achieve higher crop yields as well as have greater price control and increase their income” – Financial Market Journal. This can be done by planting and fertilizing seeds and South African start-up companies such as Aerobotics, MySmartFarm, DroneClouds are already creating this technology. The AI sector in the country is accepted to see a continued investment according the Financial Market Journal: “Over the forecast period (2019-2025), spending on AI in South Africa is expected to record a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 35.4 percent, increasing from USD 119.2 million (R1.788 billion) in 2019 to reach USD 994.0 million (R14.910 billion) by 2025. How can entrepreneurs use this knowledge? They build businesses that are relevant to the country’s goals and investments.

Virtual Reality is another example of how 4IR benefits South Africa. Virtual reality and augmented reality have great potential in the classroom. Think about a biology classroom where students need to learn how to dissect an organ, through virtual reality, scholars have the opportunity to dissect an organ in the classroom in a simulated and safe environment. The immersive nature of virtual reality can be used in the training of police officers, pilots and a host of other professions and it can increase the understanding that scholars have in the classroom. This can be done safely. And safety is one of the most significant benefits of 4IR.

In the age of the POPI act and every website asking us to accept its cookies, data safety is a valid concern that we should all have. The Fourth Industrial Revolution may have a solution to this in the form of Blockchain technology. Blockchain technology is a secure means of decentralizing and sharing data across organizations. It protects your organization, traces your data and can have permission blocks that ensure that every transaction has an encrypted record meaning your business and business data is protected and secured. The safety offered by 4IR extends beyond computer screens and data networks but also to individual lives. Through robotics, mining companies can use robots like Spot (a mobile robot that looks and “acts” like a dog) to inspect areas of mines that are safety hazards, they can lift heavy weights, and have “infrared and stereoscopic cameras, gas monitoring, acoustic sensors and autonomous capabilities” that enable them to be used in no-go areas in mines, which benefits the mining industry without causing any human casualties.

Technology transcends sectors and the Fourth Industrial Revolution will impact every sector and with its impact comes several benefits. Entrepreneurs are not only trendsetters, visionaries and masterminds who create the future, they are also opportunists who capitalise on great opportunities and the Fourth Industrial Revolution is exactly that. It’s not coming, it’s not far off, it is here and as entrepreneurs one question should be lingering in your mind: How can my business use and grow because of 4IR.

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