South Africa and the World Economic Forum (WEF) have signed a host government accord to establish an affiliate centre of the WEF's Fourth Industrial Revolution Centre (C4IR).


The WEF established the C4IR in San Francisco in the USA in March 2017, as a hub for global, multi-stakeholder cooperation to develop policy frameworks and advance collaborations that accelerate the benefits of science and technology.


The accord paves the way for South Africa to join China, India and Japan in launching an affiliate centre as the world prepares for the unprecedented transformation of the 4IR, enabled by the convergence of digital, physical and biological technologies which are disrupting existing industries and the production and consumption of goods and services.


Affiliate centres focus on issues of local concern, but also contribute to the overall research and thought leadership processes of the C4IR Network.  Processes are under way to expand the C4IR Network with affiliate centres in several other jurisdictions.


The South African government, through the Department of Science and Technology, intends to establish its affiliate centre as a public-private partnership based at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).


South Africa will launch its affiliate centre during the WEF Africa meeting in Cape Town in September.


Speaking in Pretoria today at a breakfast meeting with the Head of the WEF's C4IR Network, Murat Sonmez, and attended by industry and multinationals representatives, the Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, welcomed the signing of the accord.


"This is the culmination of extensive negotiations that started a year ago, and marks a very important milestone in the partnership, and the beginning of a long and exciting journey together," said the Minister.


"It is no longer possible to discuss economic development without factoring in the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution on the economy as whole.  Any effort we make as a country to grow our economy will now largely be shaped by how quickly we are able to embrace and master the technologies associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution," said the Minister.


She said this irreversible global transformation was taking place in the context of a South Africa faced with poverty, inequality and unemployment, and that our approach to the 4IR had to be responsive to these developmental challenges.


The Minister said the establishment of the South African C4IR affiliate centre would provide a platform for stakeholders in South Africa to work together on the evolution of new technologies.


Addressing the gathering, Sönmez said the world could not continue to rely on history to tell us what was happening; it must get things done.  He described the WEF C4IR as a "do tank and not a think tank".


He said that technology in the 4IR environment was advancing rapidly, and that countries and their regulatory frameworks could not keep pace with developments. 


"We need interoperable data policies to protect all stakeholders," he said.


Sönmez described data as the oxygen of the 4IR, saying that artificial intelligence and machine learning had led to machine insights becoming more accurate than human insights. 


The WEF C4IR Head urged South Africa to make sure that 4IR technologies benefited all communities, particularly the poor.


"South Africa has the potential to contribute to all these developments in the global network and have a seat on the C4IR advisory board, helping to shape what we are intent on achieving. We are therefore looking forward to hosting this affiliate centre in South Africa," he said.


University of Johannesburg Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Prof. Tshilidzi Marwala, advised South Africa to embrace artificial intelligence as it could bring impressive results to the country's medical care sector.


Prof. Marwala said that there was also a critical need to increase the number of data scientists in the country to improve what he called "imperfect" data.


"We should also start reflecting on the amount of data that leaves the country and gets exploited outside," he added.


He called on government departments to develop strategies so that they were able to deal with the impacts of 4IR in the areas of work.  For example, the Department of Social Development should work towards plans to address inequality in the country. Likewise, the Department of Science and Technology should revisit its Advanced Manufacturing Strategy, which was developed 10 years ago, when artificial intelligence was not an issue.


The CEO of the CSIR, Dr Thulani Dlamini, said the council was ready to partner with the private and public sectors to develop relevant technologies for 4IR.


He said the CSIR's focus areas for 4IR included applying technologies for improved service delivery, training the future workforce, and developing and implementing scalable FIR infrastructure.


The WEF has seven prescribed focal areas, including the Internet of Things, precision medicine, blockchain and distributed ledger technologies, artificial intelligence and machine learning, but the selected pilot projects should be focused on South African and African priorities.


Issued by the Department of Science and Technology.


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