Coronavirus and the 4IR
Technology helping humanity through our traumatic transition
The COVID-19 pandemic will be overcome through the practical employment of knowledge. That may also usher in a democratised, connected and better world, writes Dr Cobus Oosthuizen
As I write this, the world is in the very throes of the Covid-19 pandemic. One can only wish every one of us the strength and good fortune to get through this period safely.
However, as we all know, the difficulties of this time – the social isolation, the closure of workplaces and social spaces to slow the spread of the virus – are mitigated somewhat by technology.
As we retreat into our homes and interact solely through digital means, we will hopefully avoid the worst dangers of the virus, but we will also begin to launch ourselves fully into the next phase of social evolution.
After several weeks, perhaps months of living and working online, we may never be the same again. This period may provide the impetus for our society to take the leap into a fully online world. This may indeed be the Fourth Industrial Revolution we have spoken about, but focused into one traumatic transition period.
As the character Jack Sparrow noted in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, “The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.”
Until now, there has been a reticence to fully embrace the possibilities of living, working and delivering services digitally. As a society, we have had an attitude problem. We have known what is plausible, the digital possibilities, but there have always been excuses not to go fully digital.
Now there are no more excuses, and we have been flung, like-it-or-not, into digital life.
Staff are working from home in their millions. Meetings are happening remotely. Students across the planet are studying through e-learning. Drones are delivering medicine to patients in remote areas. We are also seeing that this new environment works rather well.
This global trauma has brought the entire planet to an inflection point, where we must reconsider many things.
In the short term, we need to deal with the disease itself. But when we emerge the other side of this challenge, and people have been exposed to these very workable solutions at a time of crisis, they may be loath to give them up.
There may also be broader, more meaningful impacts, such as democratising education by rolling out connectivity to the poorest of the poor.
Wi-fi may no longer be facetiously listed as a new addition to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It may be acknowledged as a human right to enable every person to realise their full potential. With data costs coming down in South Africa, we may already be moving in this direction.
What we are also likely to see in this process is that knowledge, for some time sidelined as a geeky, technical pursuit, will come to occupy a more prominent position in society.
The sudden reliance on true experts to save our species from catastrophe may sharpen our focus and our appreciation for knowledge. These experts may become not just generators of knowledge, but leaders of society.
At the same time, the days of self-centered, self-righteous, individualism may be numbered.
The notion of “practical wisdom”, also known as Phronesis in ancient Greece, has never been more relevant. If and when a vaccine is found, it will be practical wisdom that will have saved us.
But practical wisdom is also present in mass connectivity, in robotics, nanotechnology and the Internet of Things. This crisis is bringing the true practicality of wisdom into stark relief.
What is the role of businesses in all of this? As financial markets tumble, many businesses may have to re-examine their reason for being, their purpose. Generating shareholder value can no longer be an organisation’s only reason for existing.
It was John D Rockefeller, the first billionaire, who said many years ago that, “the man who starts out simply with the idea of getting rich won't succeed; you must have a larger ambition."
Even investors may increasingly ask what their money is doing for the common good.
It will take strong, ethical leadership – in business and in society – if these principled changes we envisage are to come to fruition.
Social consciousness is needed if we are to create a sustainable way of life on this planet. As businesses close and stocks plummet, it also becomes clear that workers – people – are more important than capital. Perhaps this, too, will be brought home to us over the following weeks.
The human role of technology must be kept in the foreground through all of this, because its essential role is to improve the quality of life. If it is exploited to its full extent, to the benefit of all humankind, it’s impact will be revolutionary.
Dr Cobus Oosthuizen is the Dean of Milpark Business School.
06 Apr 2020