By Department of Science and Innovation
The industrial revolutions are epochs in our social and economic history that are based on disruptions in innovations and technological developments, leading to advanced forms of production and service delivery. Patriarchal attitudes, systematic barriers and entrenched practices and norms combined to exclude women from the research, scientific and technological developments that are the engines of industrial revolutions.
The first industrial revolution disrupted the existing agricultural and craft economy, replacing it with an industry-driven, machine building economy. Whereas women had played an important role in the agricultural economy, this revolution relegated women to the periphery with the creation of industries based on heavy machines. Oil and electricity discoveries ushered in new forms of mass production in the second industrial revolution, and information and communications technologies (ICT) gave rise to automated production in the third industrial revolution.
With each subsequent revolution, entire industries were reshaped, and new ones created, and existing occupations and job categories were fundamentally transformed, with far-reaching consequences for societies. Unless managed carefully and proactively, revolutions come with threats to societies.
The fourth industrial revolution (4IR) has been defined as involving technological development that blurs the lines between the physical, digital, and biological domains. It integrates cyber-physical systems and the internet of things, big data and cloud computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, and additive manufacturing. Compared to previous industrial revolutions, this one is evolving at an exponential rate, with potentially significant impacts on human dynamics. The humanities and social sciences are therefore as important as the natural and engineering sciences in the 4IR discourse. It is crucial that the potential of all of humanity is unleashed to ensure that we all benefit from the 4IR.
The 4IR presents a unique opportunity for women. Not only has the number of women researchers and scientists been increasing, but women excel in one of the key skill sets required by the 4IR, namely soft skills. This time around, women will indeed “hold up half the sky”, and this will be a real revolution for women.
The latest (2019) South African Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Indicators Report reveals that, at 43% of the total number of researchers, South Africa boasts one of the highest rates of participation of women in research in the world. Further, the profiles of this year’s South African Women in Science Awards (SAWiSA) finalists speak of the mark that our women scientists are already making in research areas aligned to the 4IR.
The research work outlined in these profiles is extremely broad and impressive, with areas covered including the following:
• An assessment of the socio-economic impact of the 4IR on marginalised communities and small and medium enterprises.
• Biomedical engineering – including medical imaging, computer vision and health technology innovation – for low-resource settings.
• Investigating the nature and prospects of personalised medicine (PM), taking into account the importance of harnessing big data in medicine to realise the promise of PM.
• The symbiosis of electronics, computer science and optics in land surveying, through the application of versatile beam-shaping devices in conjunction with modern computing software.
• The identification of robust controls to help mitigate and respond to cyberattacks and prevent data breaches in a world in which dependence on ICT is increasing across all aspects of daily life.
• Investigating the ways in which smart technologies such as microgrids can be used to improve the resilience of power systems against extreme events such as natural disasters.
In March 2019, Cabinet approved the White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation. The new White Paper focuses on harnessing STI to help the country benefit from the rapid technological advancements of the 4IR and to respond to the threats associated with these global shifts. The White Paper will be implemented through a series of decadal plans, which will be developed in partnership with the relevant role players in industry, academia, civil society and government. The core themes of transformation, inclusivity and partnerships are pervasive throughout the White Paper, which aims to ensure that, this time around, no one gets left behind.