The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) requires a dramatic readjustment to the way we work and live—and it’s a change that may never have happened quite as it did without the uncompromising nature of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The spread of the coronavirus caused economic havoc around the world and a significant impact on jobs. For many economies, however, it may have resulted in the unforeseen benefit of fast-tracking the adoption of new technologies.
Several sectors in South Africa, from health and education to hospitality and retail, have had little choice but to evolve their business models at warp speed to better align with 4IR ideals.
Working from home
The most obvious of these changes was the global work from home (WFH) move imposed by the pandemic, that may otherwise never have been realised.
Early data out of the United States showed that about one-third of its working population had shifted from offices to permanently working from home. Only a fraction of this workforce has returned to an office. A recent poll in France, by way of example, suggested that 71% of employees would prefer to continue working from home.
Some studies, however, suggest working from home might not be as productive as working from an office. Certain employees may need to return to a formal work environment, but it’s clear that a shift in acceptance to more work from home policies has taken place.
Greater acceptance of technology
The impact of the WFH phenomenon has spurred changes in many industries in South Africa.
The health sector has seen the implementation and widespread acceptance of so-called “telemed” methods that help health practitioners consult digitally, without the need to share a physical space.
This greater acceptance of technology in the health sector was spurred on by the need to create distance between doctors and those possibly infected with the coronavirus—but may well live on as a way to reach a far greater number of patients in a safer, and more cost- and time-efficient manner.
Schools with adequate infrastructure to do so, also rapidly adapted. Desperate to keep students learning through the pandemic, they quickly had to find new ways to teach—and many adopted online learning tools previously only trialled in the corporate world and more technologically advanced economies.
The same is true for the legal system—perhaps one of the most conservative environments when it comes to the acceptance of technology. COVID-19 has shown that lawyers can consult with clients—and argue their cases—digitally, and judges can even preside over digital courtrooms.
On a commercial level, many businesses also had to fast-track digitisation strategies to survive. On regular business development timelines, the adoption of widespread e-commerce may have been several years down the road. Many firms, however, were able to set up online stores, process transactions securely, mitigate cybercrime, solve warehousing and logistical issues, and ensure timeous delivery to customers all in record time.
Small independent businesses rallied impressively—coffee shops and craft breweries, more used to in-store purchases, launched online shops and overnight deliveries. Wineries, unable to make money from alcohol sales, started delivering fresh farm produce. Some businesses embraced even more dramatic pivots, from selling non-essential items like swimsuits to delivering vegetable boxes to doors.
For many smaller businesses, the rapid need to digitise was too complex and costly to handle independently. In these cases, however, it’s been possible to plug into the bigger infrastructure of platform economies.
Although the concept of platform economies is not foreign to the South African digital landscape—the likes of Google, Amazon and Alibaba are well-known—the implementation of local equivalents was deemed by some to be unnecessary before COVID-19.
Now, product suppliers and even larger stores can plug directly into e-commerce platforms like Takealot, for example, to sell their products. Takealot’s marketplace platform offers a dual benefit in the form of access to both shoppers, and a suite of tools, to help businesses grow their online sales.
4IR not necessarily at the cost of jobs
Although these advancements are inevitable in many businesses, their implementation does not come without some resistance.
At the core of concerns around increasing technology and automation required to run the Fourth Industrial Revolution is that of job loss. With technology and artificial intelligence now able to perform the duties of many employees, it’s a justifiable concern—but one that’s not necessarily definitive.
The rise of tech-related jobs in South Africa is an often-cited rebuttal to those lamenting job losses at the hand of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. There is already an increasing demand for data scientists, machine learning specialists, and software developers.
Entry-level jobs, for positions like pickers, warehouse staff, and drivers, are also booming as stores try to keep up with demand. Supermarket groups have employed hundreds of workers to ensure they can deliver goods to doors within promised timeframes. In some countries, people like airport baggage handlers were able to be rapidly redeployed into warehouses and fulfilment centres.
Although the full adoption of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will take some time—and its consequences may take many years to realise - it’s an inevitable and necessary step in the progress of the South African economy. And although the global COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating, one silver lining may well turn out to be dramatic acceleration and implementation of much-needed digital policies and strategies.
This post was sponsored by Naspers and produced by Brandstudio24.