Let’s get cracking with IT

“South Africa says it is pushing ahead to grasp the many opportunities presented by the fourth industrial revolution”

Dear Mr President

It was with great excitement and enthusiasm that I learnt about your decision to set up a presidential commission on the fourth industrial revolution.

I believe it is a positive step in the right direction for our country, even though many people say it is too late.

I agree that it is a bit late in the game, and many opportunities have been missed, but I also believe that there are still countless other opportunities out there, waiting to be tapped.

That is the beauty of technology: it always brings unexpected opportunities. All it takes is an innovative and entrepreneurial mind to unearth them.

And I think we have plenty of those in South Africa.

“As we have seen in the past 25 years there have been moments of rapture, regression, disconnect, and lull, and I think the youth has been very important in operating in those spaces,” Mosa Phadi, a researcher at the Public Affairs Research Institute

SA’s unemployment rate is one of the highest in the World.

The trouble is, there is still rampant youth unemployment and severe poverty in our country, despite the tremendous opportunities that technology provides.

The reason is that most of our great minds have not yet been tapped and many of our future great innovators and tech entrepreneurs have not yet realised their true potential.

There are literally tens of thousands of South Africans who are still digitally illiterate, despite finishing matric.

I was shocked recently when a colleague at a tertiary institute mentioned to me that some of his staff were not even able to prepare a CV on a computer because they lacked basic computer skills.

Similarly, at a talk I did recently to a group of about 40 young people, all of whom were between the ages of 18 and 25, and studying at tertiary institutes, no one really knew what the term “fourth industrial revolution” actually meant, much less the impact it is going to have on their future lives and careers.

I was truly shocked.

In direct contrast to this, I had the opportunity to visit Istanbul in Turkey recently and was fortunate to be invited to visit a number of schools.

I was completely bowled over at one high school where a group of students were building their own electric car. Yes, sir, they were literally building it from the ground up.

Another group of students at the same school were building a drone from scrap materials like plastic bottles.

The parts they could not find in the rubbish, they 3D printed using a printer they built themselves. It was a surreal experience.

The chemistry students at the school developed a mosquito repellant which won an international award.

The school is now bottling the chemical and selling it to countries in Africa.

All this, I experienced in just one high school and I was both inspired and envious. I wanted so badly to bring that level of science and technology to our schools back home. I wished every child here had opportunities like that.

When you look at some of the most well-known tech entrepreneurs, you will notice they all started very young: Bill Gates was exposed to coding from the tender age of 12, while Mark Zuckerberg’s father taught him coding from 6.

The late Steve Jobs mentions in his autobiography that his first inspiration for working with technology came from a visit to the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre when he was just a child.

This is a recurring pattern in the tech world: most of the brightest innovators and entrepreneurs started very young, and this is what South Africa needs.

Where to from here? 

As such, I think the key focus area of the presidential commission should be to tap South Africa’s brilliant young minds by giving them exposure to technologies like coding, robotics and artificial intelligence from a primary school level. I understand plans are in place to start teaching coding in schools, but I think this should be done sooner rather than later.

Not only that, but I also feel we should provide our kids with entrepreneurship skills so that they will be able to translate their tech innovations into viable businesses. I met a number of young people who had amazing tech skills, and created great products, but were unable to get those products to market because they lacked the requisite skills.

Focusing on the long term, I believe, will be far more fruitful than trying to play catchup.

I see you have brought together some of the country’s most brilliant minds to serve on the commission, and I firmly believe that such a high-powered team will undoubtedly be able to formulate an effective long-term strategy.

After all, we have everything going for us: brilliant and eager young minds, a robust technology infrastructure, and a visionary leader.

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