The fourth industrial revolution is well under way and emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, drones, and the Internet of Things are taking the world by storm.
But many are concerned that the rise of emerging tech might displace jobs and deepen socioeconomic inequities.
Indeed, a survey of 10 000 individuals showed that one in three respondents were worried they could lose their job to automation.
In the face of slow economic growth and high unemployment concentrated among the youth, South Africa is at a crossroads as to whether it can embrace the global tech revolution, or be left behind.
What does the fourth industrial revolution mean for South Africa’s top priority of creating an inclusive economy centred on decent jobs?
Arguably, South Africa requires an innovation agenda that anchors emerging tech at the centre of its development strategy.
Three apparent priorities could feature as part of this agenda:
1. Usher South Africans into Stem education
South Africa must build a pipeline of future talent that can embrace the age of emerging tech.
To build an adaptive workforce, early development and basic education play a crucial role to cultivate the essential foundations of reading, writing and mathematics.
Furthermore, in school, further education and vocational training, a relentless focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) is crucial to allow South Africans to take advantage of the wave of emerging tech that is shifting the nature of work globally.
New jobs are emerging for those who create and manage the new technologies, as well as for those learning to work hand-in-hand with them.
Many South African businesses operate at the forefront of new technological trends, which means they can play a pivotal role in helping educators tailor and update their curricula to meet future requirements.
An alliance of business and educators can ensure that education programmes produce young workers with market-relevant skills, especially in future growth sectors.
Furthermore, a mindset of lifelong learning will be crucial to drive South Africa’s competitiveness in the face of continued technological shifts.
2. Foster women in tech
Emerging tech is only as well rounded as the people who teach it.
But the demographic make-up of many emerging tech companies is largely homogeneous, which makes the industry and its products vulnerable to bias.
Fostering inclusivity, and therefore bringing more women into emerging tech and the workforce in general, will help bring new insights, innovations and solutions to emerging tech.
To bring more women into Stem fields, cultivating an interest in these subjects must start as early as possible.
Schools should be proactive in exposing young girls to tech capabilities.
Computer programming or information technology could be included in the curriculum of primary and secondary schools as compulsory subjects for all children.
Given the urgent need to foster the participation of women in our workforce, addressing the reasons that cause women to leave their careers in Stem is vital.
Businesses should support working-mother employees and nurture their careers through implementing flexible policies, allowing sufficient parental leave (for both parents) and promoting advancement programmes in a way that prevents potential biases and provides organisational solutions that work.
The rewards are clear: If we close the gender gap in South Africa in both pay and representation by just 10%, we could generate an estimated additional 3.2% in GDP growth and a 6.5% reduction in the number of unemployed job seekers.
3. Unleash innovators through incubation hubs
In addition to the physical infrastructure of electricity, internet and working space, entrepreneurs and innovators benefit from the networking opportunities that incubation hubs can offer.
South Africa boasts many hubs aimed to support the development of technological innovations and their conversion to viable businesses.
Already by mid-2016, the World Bank counted 173 tech hubs and incubators in Africa, with 32 of these located in South Africa.
Gauteng’s The Innovation Hub and Jozihub, or the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative (CiTi) Bandwidth Barns are just three examples that tech start-ups can consider for a combination of financial and non-financial support.
The surge in incubation hubs in Africa, often led by civil society, academic institutions, governments, or in a hybrid alliance, signals that Africa recognises that tech innovators can thrive in an enabling ecosystem.
Given the challenges that start-ups face in gaining market access and sourcing funding, incubation hubs and ancillary support programmes are essential focal points for public and private entities seeking to deepen the culture of South African innovation and entrepreneurship.
By ushering South Africans in Stem education and training, encouraging female advancement in Stem, as well as supporting incubation hubs, South Africa can make a significant investment towards embracing and reaping the rewards of the fourth industrial revolution.
The economy-wide spin-offs associated with a booming tech sector will almost certainly outweigh the initial investment many times over.
• Maura Feddersen is an economist at PwC Strategy&