President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni launched the Expert National Task Force on the Fourth World Industrial Revolution (4IR) on 8th April 2019, at State House Entebbe.  The president’s message to the team and Ugandans was, be optimistic but cautious:  Move carefully as we embrace the New Technologies popularly referred to as Disruptive technology or the Fourth World Industrial Revolution.

This coincided with the Annual National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Trade Show – The World’s largest Digital Media and Entertainment Event in Las Vegas that displayed technological advances in broadcasting, Artificial Intelligence (AI) managed systems and services. The president’s message was intriguing, timely and impressive as was the NAB exhibition that brought to life the convergence of media, entertainment, and technology

There’s apparently “a hole in the future”, and we need to be on the watch. The President is right; if not used wisely, these technologies can disrupt working patterns, national economies, and international relations. The 4IR is digitally disruptive, signalling a tumultuous time of the Internet of Things.

We are drifting toward a world that we neither quite understand nor want. There seems to be a sense of fear and powerlessness, and a lack of trust in institutions and ways of life abound. This is hardly surprising because, as one sage put it, many people are dominated by the fear of the unknown: “Man is nostalgic of the past, hates the present and is suspicious of the future”. In effect, people tend to hate, or are cautious of, change.

Many examples abound in history about such initial reactions. When Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus formulated a model of the universe that placed the Sun rather than the Earth at the centre of the universe, the Catholic Church dismissed him as a heretic and sentenced him to death. Similarly, the democratising technology of Johanne Gutenberg’s printing press was equally seen to be undermining the centuries-old authority of the Catholic clergy. For many sixteenth-century folks, the future appeared profoundly broken. Modern cosmology and theology seemed to have transformed them in a footnote.

Similarly, the 4IR era heralds exciting times, where fast-paced technologies are changing the way that we interact and how companies will do business. Advances in biotechnology, cybertechnology, robotics, and artificial intelligence – if pursued and applied wisely – can empower us to mitigate development challenges in health, education, communication and deal with climate change.

The power of this revolution in a digitally-connected world seems to threaten our existence, institutions and know how. The 4IR has just begun, and we are a long way from fully capturing the benefits of this Revolution in an inclusive and holistic approach.

This fear of the unknown significantly affects innovation, adaptability and progress. As responsible citizens and leaders, we ought to embrace the 4IR, using a test and learn methodology, and adopting the new technology across the broad spectrum of our society. This can be realised through change management. The first step in fixing the future is to avoid the trap of either idealising or demonising technology. There seems to be a wave of concern about the ill effects new technology echoing fears of earlier innovations, including Television and the printing press.

The transition from analogue to digital broadcast transmission in Uganda was decided in court which speaks to how we perceive change. The second step is drawing lessons and inspiration from other radically disruptive events in history.

The Technological Revolution/Mass Production (the 1870s), and Industry  Automation (1969), Machine Learning/Internet of Things (2000s), were successful forerunners of this latest technological revolution. We are now experiencing automation to the nth degree with automated machines, able to communicate with each other as cyber-physical systems.

However, the 4IR extends much further than industry (The Industrial Internet) more commonly termed the Internet of Things (IoT). It extends to many applications for Internet-connected devices. Kevin Ashton invented this term in 1999 around RFID “radio-frequency identification” technology, but it gained currency a decade later as IoT technology as applications, and use cases became ubiquitous.

We should embrace the 4IR for the socio-economic development of Uganda as will be guided by the Expert National Task Force on the 4IR. Applied wisely, science and therefore technology offers us a bright future while mitigating negative consequence. Accordingly, there’s a need to create a sense of urgency for leaders in both public and private sectors to consider technological advancement in the light of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and to not be caught off guard to be the next example of not adapting to change and being agile enough to forecast evolving customer demands.

However, it’s still a long way to go. Arguably, 4IR is trapped by complexity. The system complexity, understanding and investment delays are often vast and challenging to unwind. Many organisations are continually meeting resistance to change, increasingly eroding public trust.

For example, in 2017, the Edelman Trust Barometer – the gold standard for measuring trust around the world – recorded an all-time low in public trust toward public institutions and ways of life. Trust in media, government, and people in leadership all fell precipitously across the world, with confidence in the media being at its lowest in seventeen countries.

In his explanation, Richard Edelman, the president and CEO of Edelman, said the implosion of trust had been triggered by the 2008 Great Recession, as well as globalisation and technological change. What a paradox! On the one hand, the digital revolution is capable of enriching everyone’s life in the future, yet it is compounding today’s economic equality, unemployment crisis, and cultural anomie. If this pessimism continues, we are likely to miss out or lag behind 4IR transformation and its lasting benefits.

All said we are living simultaneously in the utopian and dystopian of times. Paradoxically, everything might seem to be changing, but in other ways, nothing has changed at all. We are living through an unprecedented revolution – the most significant event in human history; according to some; and an existential threat to species, according to others, which may be true in some senses, although we have heard the same sort of dire warnings in the past.

Today, digital is changing the way that people interact and how companies need to adapt to put people first to succeed in our digitally disruptive era. Ultimately, navigating the unknown of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will separate the settlers, the survivors and the pioneers. It’s only those organisations, institutions and countries that embrace the 4IR that will secure the future of their business and their people.

It’s high time we realised that 4IR is a game changer. It provides us with many opportunities for innovation well beyond products and services. We should, therefore, be proactive and develop a digital strategy. By so doing, we will manage the risk component of disruption, and also companies will embrace new opportunities.

It’s important to note that the focal point in all the industrial revolutions and the advancement of technology, has always and always will, point to people. Humanity is at the heart of industrialisation and how technological advancement effects society should form the foundation for the adoption of IoT. We require new approaches, new skills, different talent and design capability to realise and leverage the power of connecting.

Our digitally disruptive era will best be navigated by focusing on people. In developing a digital strategy, the first person perspective is the best start: how advancement effects a single person, the communities in which people live and work together and greater communities in segments like intelligent buildings, joined to form Smart Cities. Therefore, our digital strategy should embrace a people-first for us to achieve sustainable growth for future generations.

There are also positive indicators globally to optimally apply science to maximise the chance of achieving a benign future for Ugandans while avoiding the dystopian down-sides.

The writer is the Executive Director at the Uganda Communications Commission. This article appears in the New Vision, Monday, April 29, 2019, on Page 24.

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