Kathy Gibson is at Satnac in Hermanus – No-one can be blind to the fact that the world is going through a radical transformation, and the changes are happening frighteningly quickly.
“It’s scary to think that many of the changes we live with today were enabled by the smartphone – which has been around for just 10 years,” says Professor Adam Habib, vice-chancellor and principal at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Transformation will be seen in the nature of work, he adds. Technology is quickly showing itself to be better than people at many tasks.
“You can’t stop the adoption of technology because business it going to demand it,” Prof Habib adds. “If we don’t get behind the technology, we will irreparably damage the country and the continent.”
It is this jobs issue that is the global challenge around changing technology, Prof Habib says.
In South Africa, we have our own challenges, mostly brought about by poverty. “We don’t have skills at multiple levels, in multiple sectors within the country,” Habib explains.
And it’s getting worse: South Africa is producing fewer graduates than it needs, so the problem will cascade.
“As long as 80% of the population is excluded from opportunities, we haven’t got a hope for stability. And, without stability we haven’t got a chance to develop.”
Poverty and inequality leads to too few jobs, crumbling infrastructure, a resource-intensive economy, spatial divides, poor education, a high disease burden, poor public service, corruption and divided communities.
Prof Habib points out that technology needs to be developed for the unique circumstances wherein people can use it.
If we are gong to address the many challenges facing us, we need to start think and acting as a collective, he says.
“We have to think how we design the future of work. How can we retrain all the people so they become more creative and are able to do the things that human, emotional intelligence excels at.
“We have to start thinking about how we don’t create systems so people are not excluded; and that we are developing the technology needed to drive industry.”
Prof Habib points out that massive number of jobs are set to be lost in mining alone “What are we going to do with all those people? If you don’t find a purpose for those people, they will break down society.
“So you have to think about the possibilities and the work.”
Of course, we may be thinking incorrectly about the nature of work, he adds.
“The eight-hour working day was an artificial construct. There is nothing magical that suggests it must be there for all time in all places.”
The spatial organisation for works may need to change as well, he says. “We need to look at work, the form of work, how its organised, its spatial infrastructure – all of this needs to change.”
The net result is that we need to re-imagine our society, Prof Habib says.
“Yes, we have a skills crisis but we have it across the systems; from PhD level all the way to Grade 1.
“What is the point of getting 90% access to schooling if we are not achieving numeracy and literacy. And numeracy and literacy are not going to be enough.”
Prof Habib believes we should teach coding at every level of schooling and post-secondary schooling. At the same time, he thinks we should make sure people at all levels of society engage with technology.
The universities, together with industry, should work to create a vibrant research and innovation culture. “If you want innovation, you have to encourage research,” Prof Habib says. “Unless we are able to suck in talent, and use that talent to develop what we want, we won’t progress.”
To make this happen, we have to break through the silos, Prof Habib says.
We have to think about breaking the divides between disciplines, between individual universities, and between universities and industry, he points out.
“So our challenge to industry is that we need to partner: but we need to partner with all of us. If you are a truly international company, then your research partnerships have to be international as well. You need those partnerships across the spectrum
“So I am calling for partnerships that work with international and local industry.”
Prof Habib concludes that the lesson the last 10 years shows us that, if we are going to survive, we have to compete as a collective.