Kathy Gibson is at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town – African leaders are keen to get on board the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) – but a lot needs to be done to make the dream a reality.

“Globally we are witnessing heightened human and political tensions compounded by unprecedented climate change challenges,” says Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum.

“In this challenging time we need the renew frameworks of co-operation among all stakeholders to help shape an inclusive and sustainable future for Africa.

“The 4IR is fundamentally disrupting how we live and work around the world,” he adds. “Africa cannot afford to be left behind.”

Prof Schwab stresses that 4IR is not an isolated thing, or a new wave. “It is an amplifier and accelerator of the second and third industrial revolutions,” he says. “To reach the benefits of these, a transition to 4IR is necessary.”

He adds that the 4IR can solve many of the issues that came with the first, second and third industrial revolutions. “It can serve as a catalyst for Africa to leapfrog into the 21st century, and is very much predicated on new technologies.”

Africa has signed into being the world’s largest trading bloc with the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, he adds.

“Earlier this year in Davos, participants discussed the need for a new type of globalisation that respects diversity, accepts that different nations have different approaches to development and how economies are engaged.

“This should not stop us from looking for common solutions to shared challenges.”

Tito Mboweni, finance minister of South Africa, delivered a speech on behalf of President Cyril Ramaphosa.

“We are all confronted with the same question: how to harness the potential of the 4IR in pursuit of development and economic growth,” he says. “And importantly, how to ensure that as we take this quantum leap into the future, we do not leave society’s most marginalised behind.”

As disruption changes the way we work, do business and govern, it’s important to respond with agility in crafting a roadmap for the new environment.

“We must ensure that our citizens are prepared, and, if necessary, that they are shielded from any adverse consequences.”

Among the interventions that are required are preparing young people for jobs not yet created; and adopting incentive programmes for industries that will experience disruption.

“At the same time there is much we do know,” says Ramaphosa. “We know that the free flow of data is at the heart of this revolution. So consideration will have to be given to privacy, data protection and intellectual property rights.

“We know that workforces in just about every industry will be impacted by automation, possibly resulting in downsizing and redundancies. So employers will need to make substantial financial commitments to ongoing upskilling and reskilling in response to labour market needs.

“We need to stimulate entrepreneurial activity because many of the big conglomerates that are the lifeblood of the economies of today will be displaced by leaner and more adaptable small and medium-sized businesses.”

The response must be collaborative, multi-sectoral and inclusive, he adds.

African countries must work with one another; and collaboration must extend to the private sector, academia, policy makers and other stakeholders.

In South Africa, the Presidential Commission on the 4th Industrial Revolution aims to identify strategies and action plans that will position our country as a competitive global player in this new space.

“Our response to the 4th Industrial Revolution should not merely be defensive,” Ramaphosa says. “We must harness these tectonic shifts to solve some of our most pressing economic and developmental challenges.

“Africa can and must take advantage of technological advances to industrialise, to pursue inclusive growth and to attract investment.

“We must be open to new ways of thinking. We must be prepared to take risks, or risk being left behind.”

The president’s speech touched on the need to extend broadband access, and using it provide healthcare and education to more people.

Amina Mohammed, deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, agrees that we are at the dawn of new era brought about by technological change and advances that simultaneously promise to add uncertainty to a world already unsettled by politics, climate change and more.

“As we come to terms with these uncertainties, partnerships will be critical.”

The shared challenge is to further the good that the 4IR can bring while better managing its potential to undermine development and curtail human rights.

On the positive side, she points out that technology has helped to bring previously marginalised people into the economic mainstream.

“Digital technologies connect people across the world and give them access to information. For instance, in the last 10 years millions of people in developing countries have opened their first bank account.”

Technology has also contributed to improving the quality of education and healthcare.

“At the same time, automation and robots have substituted capital for labour, and we now have fewer workers.”

Meanwhile, despite the increase in technology adoption, there are still millions of people living in poverty who don’t benefit from it at all.

“If we can’t better manage the digital divide, 4IR could exacerbate inequality and make growth a lot less inclusive.”

Just because Africa is a developing market doesn’t mean it cannot benefit from 4IR, Mohammed adds. “The debates we often have about developed countries are equally relevant to Africa.

“Half of the population of Africa will own a smartphone by 2020.”

The vast majority of African businesses – 95% of them – are small or medium enterprises (SMEs), many of which are harnessing 4IR and the technologies it represents.

“The advances we see are important and exciting, but the picture of impact has shadows as well,” Mohammed cautions. “The new technologies could exacerbate existing inequalities, and it could worsen if not managed properly.

“For a country to reap the full benefits of 4IR, national policies, laws and regulations need to give direction to an enabling environment.

Also critical, she adds, is the need to include the youth in all 4IR discussions and strategies. “Our large youth population is an opportunity to attach to a source of creativity and innovation.

“We have a high level of unemployment and under-employment among the youth,” Mohammed points out. “There is a glass ceiling for women – but the youth have a concrete ceiling that they are chiseling away at.”