Davos’ future digital revolution dreams — what’s SA to do meantime?
by Gavin Weale (@gavinweale) Behind the pantomime of whether US president, Donald Trump, would appear in Davos this year at the World Economic Forum (he didn’t), it’s easy to forget that, at the core of the event, are serious discussions about the world’s most-pressing socioeconomic challenges. Globalisation 4.0 was the 2019 theme.
Globalisation 4.0 takes an optimistic stance on the opportunities for a planet surfing on the rise of the internet and its transformation of society (otherwise known by the ubiquitous buzz phrase of the moment: “Fourth industrial revolution”). It’s hard to disagree with the sentiment that the digital economy should, indeed, be a force for improving global inequality.
For example, the WEF white paper on New Economic and Social Frontiers is part-crystal ball, part-manifesto, compiling competing narratives around the emerging threats and opportunities that the new digital economy is creating. Some of its tone is downright radical, if not revolutionary, floating such cosmic shifts as “rethinking the fundamental definition of value”.
It talks of the need for a “new social contract” at a time when the global political climate seems to be drifting further into frightening places. Or, in its words, “how can we leverage emerging technologies to advance economic prosperity and human flourishing while keeping in check the host of polarizing forces unleashed by the recent technological transformations?”
In another WEF opinion piece called “How Millennials Can shape the Globalization 4.0”, Julia Luscombe, director of strategic initiatives for Feeding America and one of WEF’s contributors, calls for greater investment in the strengthening of local and regional economies, innovating the education system to close skills gaps and focus on more-vulnerable populations, as well as building a movement focused on equity (and, of course, stopping climate change). Again, these are noble sentiments that we can all get behind.
In my almost 20-year career working in development, particularly focused in job creation, I’ve been accused many times of being overoptimistic or idealist. But reading all of this, while I find it hard to disagree, makes me feel that many of these shifts are lightyears away from the reality on the ground. The discourse naturally starts with the sharp end of technological development, and then throws its gaze forward to the utopian future we hope will emerge in the decades to come. My question, therefore, is what happens in between?
This question is particularly relevant to South Africa’s current situation. We have spent years thinking and working around “Enhancing Job Creation”, and the unique opportunity that the fourth industrial revolution has to create more jobs than it kills.
The good news is that, according to the report, “in 20 key economies, between 2018 and 2022, 75 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines, while 133 million new roles may emerge.”
In our work, we see these jobs being created already. Young people, for whom digital platforms have been a part of the majority of their lives, even when they are from limited economic means, are able to progress into valuable digital careers even without a tertiary degree. As every organisation, big and small, grapples with digital transformation, new roles are emerging in SA that are accessible without doctorates or 10 years of experience. This applies to large corporates as much as it does to small businesses.
And while it is the bigger companies which may be leading the hunt for the digital workforce of tomorrow, the informal and SME sector may have the better chance of creating livelihoods that are accessible to all.
Data must fall
If data does indeed fall, and every strata of society becomes connected, new business models and new demand dynamics could generate local digital economies that currently don’t exist. If, for example, every small township business needed to be searchable and attractive online, that creates a need, however small, for someone to teach them how or do it for them. We aren’t there yet, but there’s a clue here in how the benefits of the digital economy may be able to reach beyond the big cities and middle classes.
What needs to happen right now, when countries like SA still seem mired in a high unemployment rate that has changed little in a decade, and may be set to head even further in the wrong direction with industries such as mining and energy in decline?
The truth is that, on the ground, such changes happen slowly and incrementally. In an economy like SA’s, unless some fundamental conditions change, the steps towards the Davos vision of social change will be halting.
Risk of falling behind
Luscombe argues for the need to “innovate educational institutions and aggressively close the skills gap”. If, as she says, by “By 2022, at least 54% of employees globally will require re- and up-skilling”, then surely SA is at risk of falling behind. The lack of basic digital skills education in schools, a condition further hampered by the limited access to technology and limited levels of digital skills among teachers, needs to improve dramatically.
Ramaphoria in SA has brought with it a welcomed focus on the potential benefits of the fourth industrial revolution for this country, and some bold statements of intention from the president, Cyrl Ramaphosa. But, as well as a bold vision of the future, we also need to meet people where they are already.
My team and I have worked across this country and the continent over the best part of the last decade, trying to take alternative educational approaches to upskilling and job creation, and we see some urgent changes that need to happen to unlock the possibilities of WEF’s vision.
Fixing access (lowering data costs) and introducing basic levels of digital education in schools must be the first priority. Without the digital economy being freely available to all, widely used, and part of basic education, children will be starting out at a huge disadvantage.
Added to this, we need to think of tertiary-level digital education in terms of being demand-driven: an institution that tracks and responds to the changes in key skills (from technical to soft skills), the changing world of work, and the overarching trends in skills shortages, will produce candidates who are ready to work. A university degree, already no guarantee of a job in SA, risks becoming increasingly less valuable against practical experience or skills that can be self-taught free of charge online. Media and marketing degrees, with curricula written many years previously, become redundant as tech trends evolve too quickly for textbooks.
We need to take an economist’s view of future demand and train the future supply of young people who will fill new job roles. This demands that SA employers be proactive and come together to pool their knowledge of future demand for skills in their organisations — something that is far easier said than done in a competitive market. Government could play a key role here by bringing the key players in the supply and demand chains together, and helping corral the often-disparate funding landscape towards specific industries where digital skills shortages are identified. Education and training providers, formal and informal, could be working more in partnership to augment traditional learning with just-in-time skills and practical experience that would give graduates the edge.
Public and private partnerships
We need such public and private partnerships that help organise these dynamics of supply and demand to learn the ropes of the new digital economy. Most importantly, we need the data and insight of the skills shortages and new jobs coming down the line, month by month and year by year.
A vocational-based learning focus tailored to emerging digital skills would allow us to plan the training of future professionals — from coders and analysts to content creators, social media freelancers and user experience designers. These may sound like lofty careers but, through training programmes, we have seen firsthand how young people without tertiary education, given a few months of immersive learning, can occupy and thrive in junior professional roles in all of these growth-area careers.
And by doing all of this, employers would have a direct route to the talent they need in order remain competitive, while tackling unemployment by creating jobs for unemployed youth. This process inevitably adds huge value to the organisations which embrace it, as well as tackling transformation sustainably.
Absolutely reason for hope
There is absolutely reason for hope. You would be insane not to believe in the potential of African youth, given the right opportunities. Our company is built on the premise that young people are a valuable natural resource and the digital economy promises to let them unlock their talent in new and exciting ways. Digital platforms promise to give anyone from anywhere equal access to information and opportunity. This is not the case at the moment in SA, where large swathes of the population have little or no access to the internet.
Until such time as that revolution comes to pass, we have to collectively roll up our sleeves and wrangle for progress on the ground for the millions of unemployed young people who need access to a livelihood now. Otherwise, we risk growing the digital divide, rather than closing it.
Gavin Weale (@gavinweale) is an award-winning social entrepreneur and publisher originally from the UK, and a Shuttleworth Fellowship alumni. In 2010 Gavin won the UK Young Publishing Entrepreneur Award for his work on Live Magazine UK, which brought him to South Africa and the launching of Livity Africa (now Digify Africa) as a social enterprise operating across SA. A major project is the digital skills accelerator programme, Digify, in partnership with Google, Facebook, the Rockefeller Foundation and the British Council. Digify has trained almost 85 000 young people in in-demand digital skills in the last 18 months.
“Motive” is a by-invitation-only column on MarkLives.com. Contributors are picked by the editors but generally don’t form part of our regular columnist lineup, unless the topic is off-column.
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