In South Africa we have traditionally had a system where government, business and labour all sit around a table and talk about issues of mutual benefit in a spirit of co-operation.

In these days of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), its good to know we have indeed learned some lessons from the First Industrial Revolution. Trade unions were only legalized after riots in Scotland and a strike of 60,000 workers there back in 1820. These riots were partly incited because factory automation was causing unemployment. Now, 200 years later, we are facing a similar situation. In any industrial revolution, there is the fear that automation will put people out of work. 

As BTs Niall Dunne put it: People love to take the robot out of the human. In other words, we like to automate things that robots or machines can do, which means if people were doing those routine tasks before, they will indeed be put out of work. 

Fortunately, South Africas culture of co-operation may help us unlock the opportunities of the 4IR. 

According to our research, one player that can play a crucial role is academia.

When Aerospace company Lockheed Martin looked at the skills they would need in the future to exploit the 4IR, they realized they would need over 100,000 differently skilled people. When thats the number of skilled people you need, one thing is clear: you cant hire your way to being adequately resourced. Theres only one way to acquire those skills, and that is to build them internally. 

Lockheed Martin partnered with several universities to create what they call badges. These badges are based on competency and skills, not theoretical knowledge, and they allow individual workers to start learning new skills that will be useful to the company in the future. The universities also started offering nano-degreestertiary qualifications that are shorter than the standard three-to-five year university degrees, but still equip people with the knowledge and theoretical frameworks that will be useful specifically to Lockheed Martin. 

Different countries have brought academia and business closer in different, highly specific ways. 

We have seen individual companies partner with our universities and business schools. By extending and formalizing these partnerships, there is an opportunity for everybody to win. 

Business, civil society, organised labour, government and academia have an opportunity to shape a new ecosystem through partnershipsone that serves everybody. 

This should be done in a way that is neutral, apolitical, mission-oriented, highly connected, solution-driven, people-centered and sustainable. 

Here is a diagram from the World Economic Forums White paper entitled “WEF Leading through the Fourth Industrial Revolution showing the opportunities that multi-stakeholder collaboration create. 

The key shift in thinking needs to be from co-operation to collaboration. Traditionally there is a tension between unionsbusinessgovernment and workers. Opportunities can be unlocked when each stakeholder thinks beyond its own boundaries and starts collaborating for the good of the whole ecosystem. 

The opportunity is enormousand urgent. Our research entitled Creating South Africas Future Workforce, found that 35% of South African jobs were fully automatable in 2017. When we look ahead to 2022 and 2035, we find 5,7m jobs are at risk. White collar and blue collar jobs are equally at risk.  

To start unlocking these opportunities, South Africa will need to recalibrate its economy and its workforce for digital, developing an environment in which humans and machines work together to engage with customers and to create entirely new products, services and markets. This will drive demand consumption within the economy, boosting growth.  

The advantages are potentially huge. According to our research, AI has the potential to boost labour productivity  by up to 40% by 2035. By embedding AI and making it a factor of production, this research indicates that South Africa could potentially double the size of its economy five years earlier than would otherwise be the case.  

This will need political will from all stakeholders. Revolutions are, by nature, disruptive and disorderly. With our young digital-ready demographics and our culture of people first or ubuntu, Africa is uniquely placed to renew its social compact and launch a multi-stakeholder collaboration to unlock customer value, increase production and consumption and grow GDP.