In a nutshell, it is more about people than about things or even the development of more technology. To understand 4IR we need to understand that, retrospectively, the metrics of economic growth are simply not enough. We need to understand the growing awareness of concepts like the wellbeing and sharing economies.

Our problem is not a lack of jobs, it’s a lack of employable, deployable skills in South Africa.

Lorenzo Fioramonti, an associate professor of political science and author of Wellbeing Economy, says traditional measures of economic "success" – GDP and economic growth, which is measured solely by what is consumed – are short-sighted: “The wellbeing economy is about putting people and nature first. And realising that without these two, there is no future.” Therefore, we need to integrate technology as it develops and fuse cyber-physical systems into our lives through exponential technologies.

Instead of fearing technology, we should be looking at how we leverage it to solve some of Africa’s toughest problems. Think of Zipline, which has used drones to supply blood and medical supplies in Rwanda.

As Africans, we keep appropriating from the West when we should be able to solve our problems in more meaningful ways for us. As we take a hard look at South Africa, conversations about real economic transformation are more critical now than ever and we must face the reality that we need to empower creators and innovators to build solutions that have lasting impact socioeconomically.

We are living in a prosumer era and if we can get labour and big business on our side, we’ll be able to respond to the challenges we face more effectively, and subsequently be able to create more jobs than we lose. The World Economic Forum reported in their Future of Work 2018 Report that 75 million jobs will be displaced due to emerging technology, but for every job lost 1.77 jobs will have been created resulting in 133 million new jobs.

Our problem is not a lack of jobs, it’s a lack of employable, deployable skills in South Africa. Before we get to the point of increased job creation, we need to close the skills gap and bring humanity to the fore.

We don't need “education” as we know it. We need to create and adopt the mindset of continuous learning and we need to create access to this sort of learning. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning may hold the answer. This is where institutions and platforms such as online learning tools Clock Education and xTech can make their mark. Platforms such as Nomad – a site that connects freelancers with jobs – service those who already function in the gig economy. 

Corporates have harnessed bots and applications to customise our experience at hotels and airports, pinpoint our behaviour in shops, and mine our interests online, but the vast majority of these businesses have innovated for profit rather than inclusion and upliftment.

Applications of AI and machine learning devoted to upskilling hold enormous potential. Such digital products that can deliver preliminary content, extract insights, and measure and refine them to help companies scale training for employees so that they can better prepare them for the changing world of work – the knowledge economy – and how they not only fit into that ecosystem, but excel in it.

These applications must interact with workforce management software and also be an effective tool in training, involving more interactive participation by employees rather than sitting through a standard training video or watching an induction PowerPoint presentation. The real reason why a new generation of employees feels out of control is because they’re facing an unmanageable future, a future with not just one problem, but rather thousands upon thousands of little obstacles. The difference between success and failure comes down to finding ways to remove each obstacle, elevate the entrepreneurial spirit within, and in essence, close the skills gap.

These solutions need to create a personalised one-on-one experience with employees, including those on the periphery, and help companies pivot for the digital generation and leaders of tomorrow.

We cannot hope to upskill digitally savvy workforces in 2020 if we allow bureaucratic systems to remain in place. These strict, linear training flows are not only tedious and time-consuming, but inefficient in readying individuals for tomorrow. These individuals want an alternative solution where they can access information, news, updates, guidance and counselling in a more nimble, evolving and intelligent fashion. That will take corporate investment – human investment. But, if companies want to stay competitive and relevant they must support those who will be innovating for their future, a workforce that will expect better backing.

What's more, these solutions need to be accessed by all, they need to make sure that the software isn't corralled within white-collar environments, but should rather integrate with upskilling projects in disadvantaged areas in an attempt to close the skills gap. No worker should be left behind. People, from whatever background, should be put first. Technologies seen as job-destroying should be better utilised as “barrier-to-entry breakers”.

The time for South African business to step up to create technologies with purpose is now. It’s about business creating something that truly matters.

Damon Boyd & Juan Pienaar are partners at ApexMedia, digital studio and transformative consultancy in Johannesburg