We are now in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). Humanity has experienced three other industrial revolutions, yet despite these so-called advances, South Africa (SA) and the world is acutely ill.
What is the point of another industrial revolution unless it actually improves our state of health and well-being?
What are industrial revolutions? These are periods where methods of doing work have been harnessed to improve the lot of humanity. The first revolution used human (mainly women and children, often enslaved) and animal labour; the second used steam energy to concentrate and enlarge industries with cheap labour; the third was electronic and digital. Elements of the 4IR have been with us for some decades, but this was only recognised when Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), coined the term “fourth industrial revolution” at the WEF’s annual meeting in 2016.
SA has contributed significantly to the emergence of the 4IR with many exceptional innovations, such as the computed tomography (CT) scan, cochlear implants, heart transplants, low-dose X-rays, mobile health (mHealth) and community-oriented primary healthcare, all of which interface human biology with technology.
We have been using 4IR tools for decades, in the form of big data, robotics, artificial intelligence and paperless hospitals, but like the rest of the world, we have been doing so sometimes poorly and inefficiently. Our FEW-attending leaders have recognised the 4IR as a political imperative to grow the economy and create jobs. However, we need to take careful stock of this intention.
As previous industrial revolutions, the 4IR has landed in a world with an unhealthy population, plagued by an epidemic of non-communicable diseases, episodes of infectious diseases, environmental degradation and accelerating climate change, as well as violence, trauma and social ills accompanied by vast inequalities.
History and current experience have shown that industrialisation has been exploited to ensure that it benefits only the few. The image of an African woman carrying a load of wood or water on her head is a representation of the majority these industrial revolutions continue to leave behind.
There is a real risk that this trend will be assisted by those who frequent the WEF, a body with few democratic credentials, many of whose supporters would be happy to use the 4IR to further concentrate wealth for the few. This is not an unrealistic risk, past performance is the best predictor of future behaviour.
So, what world do we want? We are part of the cohort of nations known as “BRICS” (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA), a new and increasingly relevant world order. Despite being the smallest member of BRICS, our nation plays a pivotal role.
The concept of “ubuntu” is considered fundamental to human existence and the well-being of all people and not just the narrow interests of elites. The global obsession with economic growth and profit-taking is unnatural, nothing can grow forever. Ubuntu and traditional African culture recognise collective oneness and consciousness, that we are collectively part of a community, world and universe and that if one part is ill, we all suffer.
This is also illustrated by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, all of which have the golden thread of health woven through them. Similarly, the quest for universal healthcare finds expression in SA’s National Health Insurance initiative.
Unlike previous episodes of global warming, the current economic world order has contributed directly to the overheating of our planet. The ills of the world are acute in geological timescales and therefore reversible. However, this window of opportunity is rapidly closing. The extinctions and warming the planet is currently experiencing are directly linked to human industrial and economic activity that is framed in terms of an exploitation-based corporate profit paradigm. Unless this changes and gender, racial and ecological equality and justice are accorded true recognition and restitution, the planet will not recover.
We want our world and ourselves to be as healthy as possible. This vision is attainable. Our political drive for the 4IR must be aimed at achieving optimal wellness for all people and living environments in SA, recognising that health, wealth and the environment are symbiotic.
Nature is forgiving and people and environments can be restored to health, given the opportunity. A new and emerging world order, led by BRICS and driven by the spirit of ubuntu and collective consciousness, using 4IR tools to help us may be just the vehicle to achieve this. We all need to contribute to this vital quest.
* Prof Andrew Robinson is Deputy Dean for Strategy and Business Development: Faculty of Health Sciences at North- West University.