Placing science, technology and innovation at the centre of our development agenda

It is now more than twenty years since the adoption of the 1996 White Paper on Science and Technology. Though the country has shown good progress in the implementation of the 1996 White Paper, however, South Africa has yet to fully realise the potential of Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) to advance the objectives of the National Development Plan (NDP). The gains realised in the period since 1996 include the expansion of the STI, a three-fold increase in publications, significant growth in the participation of black people and women in the research and development workforce, and a rise in doctoral graduation rates. However, challenges remain. The National System of Innovation (NSI) is still not fully inclusive, and since 1996 South Africa’s innovation performance (measured in patents and products) has been relatively flat.

According to recent reviews, the main factors constraining NSI performance are the inadequate and non-collaborative means of STI agenda setting for the country, insufficient policy coherence and coordination, weak partnerships between NSI actors (particularly the insufficient involvement of business and civil society), inadequate monitoring and evaluation, inadequate high-level science, engineering and technical skills for the economy, a too small research system, a poor environment for innovation, and significant levels of underfunding.

As the department of science and technology, we are responsible for ensuring that the NSI improves its performance. This means that together with all the stakeholders we have to confound all the constraints that are limiting our NSI performance. It is against this background that we are finalising a new White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation, and have commissioned the National Advisory Council on Innovation to work on a framework for a new decadal plan. The premise of our new White Paper is that science, technology and innovation are central to inclusive and sustainable development for shaping a different South Africa. But most importantly, the White Paper recognises that inclusivity is central to the national system of innovation, in terms of promoting social justice, sparking economic growth and fostering a system in which creativity and learning can flourish.

The world, driven by science, technology and innovation, is changing rapidly and fundamentally. The main drivers of this global change include socio-economic and geopolitical (demographic shifts, urbanisation, rising inequality and youth unemployment, and the rise of China and India as economic powers), scientific and technological (for instance the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) revolution and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) blurring the lines between the physical and digital spheres), and environmental (with climate change having serious consequences for the world’s most vulnerable people). This is the world that South Africans must strive to make sense of.

The technologies associated with the 4IR will revolutionize all the spheres of our lives. In this new era, the World Economic Forum estimated that by the year 2020, more than 7.1 million jobs will be displaced, and by 2050 half of the jobs that currently exist will have disappeared. It is also estimated that 65% of the children that are entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that do not currently exist.
The report further estimated that 90 per cent of future jobs will require ICT skills, and millions of new jobs will be created in the computer, mathematical, architecture and engineering fields. In the era of the fourth Industrial revolution, technical and ICT-related skills across industries also need to be supplemented by broader, stronger collaborative and social skills – such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and the ability to learn and teach others.

Evidently, these changes will require a skills revolution, not only in South Africa but across the globe. With a burgeoning youth population, South Africa is either sitting in a ticking time bomb or a demographic dividend. How well South Africa responds to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, not leaving people behind through technological progress, will depend on our success in exploiting the pivotal role of ICT and harnessing the potential of big data. Among other things, these developments mean that our country must step up efforts to develop mathematics and science education at the foundational level of basic education in order to maximise the role of science and technology in the promotion of growth and development to improve the quality of the lives of South Africans.

The fourth industrial revolution will consist in technological advancement that will lead to increased productivity however, with greatly reduced human labour absorption in repetitive mechanical tasks and some of the cognitive tasks. These machines will spawn new industries. Humans will be left with performing complex and innovative tasks. This means that the introduction of machines for the time being may not be to eliminate jobs, but redefine them, changing the tasks and the skills needed to perform them. “The argument isn’t that automation always increases jobs”, argues economist James Bessen, “but that it can and often does” citing the example of the introduction ATMs which led to fewer tellers but more bank branches. Could the same thing be said about the introduction of autonomous machines?

The White Paper has also proposed the intensification of inter- and transdisciplinary knowledge production which is increasingly becoming important, as research is becoming increasingly data-driven, requiring an Open Science approach to allow greater access to the benefits of science. The new White Paper is a proposal for a shift to a new paradigm for Science, Technology and Innovation in South Africa.

As part of the white paper process we will be convening a summit on 09 November 2018 that will bring together, government, business, academia and labour. The purpose of the summit will be to share ideas on how to ensure that there is coordination across the various stakeholders on how we carry forward our national system of innovation.

By Comrade Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane. ANC NEC member and the Minister of Science and Technology in South Africa

Posted in Phambili
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