Creativity is potential currency in the fourth industrial revolution


Johannesburg - Today a state of flux is the new normal as economic systems stagnate, people migrate and the leadership gaps widen.

Debates about the future are maps of uncertainty rather than clarity.

Driving this insecurity, in part, is the momentum of the fourth industrial revolution and technology.

At such moments, the creative and cultural industries, along with the arts, culture and heritage sectors, are positioned to play a powerful role in shaping, framing, communicating and influencing the future.

In fact, it is our responsibility – as it has always been – to reflect, question, resist, review and rebuild when and where necessary.

In short, it is our duty to reimagine the future.

While the first two industrial revolutions focused on mega infrastructure and mass production, the third revolution has centred on electronic information technology and the internet.

The fourth marks a giant leap forward, characterised by a technological blurring of the lines between physical, digital and biological realms.

This revolution has seen artificial intelligence, machine learning, 3-D printing, smart robotics, mass automation, driverless cars and the internet of things transform futuristic concepts into present-day realities.

As these changes gain momentum, governments and industries are largely uncertain of exactly what this revolution means for the future as humans learn to adjust to increasingly complex and automated ways of life.

However, one thing is clear: work as we know it will change forever.

While science, technology, engineering and maths undoubtedly remain the focus of many career paths, the critical role that arts and creativity will play in this unprecedented new world is also gathering recognition.

“Creativity capital” is central to today’s thriving economies and is set to become even more influential as we progress through the fourth industrial revolution.

It is the new currency.

In fact, the World Economic Forum has suggested that by 2020, creative thinking will be third on the list of the most important skills needed to survive and thrive in the fourth industrial revolution.

This means that now, more than ever, the creative economy needs to be considered a powerful addition to the current world of work.

Conceptualised by British author and speaker John Howkins in 2001, the term ‘creative economy’ refers to economic systems in which value is derived from creative and imaginative qualities, instead of traditional sources such as capital, land or labour.

As the traditional bedrock of economic development continues to transform, and machines and automation become standard practice, people need to reflect strongly on the role that creativity can play in shaping, framing, communicating and influencing economic and related occupational changes.

While new technologies and automation may eliminate the need for certain forms of work and labour, they will also open up previously unimagined opportunities in industries that thrive on creativity and innovation.

If society invested in creative occupations, can you imagine the problem-solving and thinking about design that could emerge from a populace embedded in technology but supported by imagination?

Picture the new economies that would spring up in response.

A recent study by Oxford University in England found that up to 47% of jobs in the US could be replaced by machines within the next 20 years.

With the number of labour-intensive industries keeping South Africa’s economy afloat, our prospects are similar.

In late 2015, the US property billionaire Jeff Greene caused a commotion by arguing that robotics and artificial intelligence would kill not just blue-collar factory jobs, but also many white-collar careers – including those of paralegals, journalists, airline pilots and even surgeons.

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has also warned that artificial intelligence and increasing automation is going to decimate middle class jobs and worsen inequality, and result in significant political upheavals.

As a developing economy, South Africa needs to prepare for the inevitable effects of automation and digital technologies.

But it is not all doom and gloom.

The UK-based charity think-tank, Nesta, recently released a research paper, titled Creativity vs. Robots, in which it maintains that 86% of “highly creative” jobs in the US, and 87% of them in the UK, have a low risk, or no risk, of being displaced by automation.

The finding that creative industries are somewhat immune to automation – for now – is good news for South Africa, where the creative economy currently employs close to half a million people and contributes about 2.9% to our GDP.

This, according to the SA Cultural Observatory, which presented these findings in its Cultural Employment Report, released in May.

However, for a creative economy to grow and remain viable, artists, practitioners, consultants, researchers, administrators and others involved in it need to start behaving like an industry.

The sector needs to manage its evolution into this undeniable future and, in a sense, future-proof itself – otherwise, it risks becoming progressively irrelevant.

We cannot begin to talk about a South African creative economy if the very creatives operating it do not see the bigger picture – or worse, are sceptical of the “industrial side”.

While not unproblematic, the creative economy exists. It makes money – sometimes a lot, sometimes a little.

It inspires and revolts.

It brings people together and tears people apart.

It creates.

It manifests in products and delivers services.

It serves a need and a want.

This industry is not perfect by any means, but it is productive.

It also has a distinctive advantage in that it is flexible and dynamic, more open to change and willing to embrace new ways of work than more structured industries.

It is for this reason that the creative and cultural industries – and the arts, culture and heritage sectors – offer not only opportunities for viable and long-lasting occupations, but also “vocations” or “pursuits of passion”.

Because machines lack passion, they cannot dance or write a moving play or analyse the world and distil it into an abstraction that resonates with audiences.

The time is ripe for us to express our fundamental humanity – our creativity, ingenuity and compassion – and make it a future currency.

Haines is CEO of the SA Cultural Observatory and Mangope is CEO of the National Arts Council

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