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It's time to talk about tech

- Imraan Valodia and Bonang Mohale

Technological advances are reshaping our lives, and our policies should be designed to enhance its creative and empowering potential.

Across the world communities are adjusting to new ways of working, doing business, consuming goods, socialising and researching as technological advances that have come to be known as the fourth industrial revolution change how we do things.

The likely effects of the fourth industrial revolution are determined largely by who you are, what you do, how wealthy you are and where you live.

Some in the wealthy nations see these changes as opportunities for a better work-leisure balance. Developing countries have vastly different challenges and need to be thinking about how these technologies will affect employment, economic growth, job security and inequality, among others.

We should consider the risks and the opportunities that these technologies may offer to improve the lives of the millions who live in poverty and on the margins of the economy. We think we should be guided by:

  • A focus on overall systems, not just technologies. We should try to understand the overall system of technological change and not fall into technological determinism. We have the power to determine the course of technological change. Developing countries and all segments of society should have a say in how these technologies develop. After all, much of technological research is funded from public resources.
  • Technologies must empower people, not determine the fate of people unilaterally. Technology offers the possibility to make our lives a lot better and more meaningful. It also has the potential to be destructive. Our policies should be designed to enhance its creative and empowering potential and to reduce its destructive and negative consequences.

The International Labour Organisation has taken a particular interest in the labour market consequences of this revolution and has set up a consultative process to focus on the future of work. We are fortunate that President Cyril Ramaphosa is co-chairing this commission. It is an important vehicle for SA to play a role on the global stage to shape our future world.

We have to acknowledge that technology might be disruptive. Advances may result in costs for businesses as they adjust. Advancements could negatively affect employment levels. The focus must be on looking at innovative ways to ensure that technology serves to support and empower, rather than replace, workers. We should consider policies that will manage these transitions in the labour market so that society, rather than individual workers, bears the costs of adjustment.

We should start with an understanding of what we mean by "work". We tend to focus on paid work and ignore unpaid work, and the interactions between paid and unpaid work. The reality is that there is a gendered distribution of unpaid work, with a large number of women having to deal with the burdens of low-paid work and an unequal burden of unpaid care work. Technological change could change the nature of paid and unpaid work. In most developing countries, most jobs — especially for women — have been created in the informal economy. The conversation on technological advances must also look at work in the informal economy.
Technological change has different effects on different groups. We need to understand how this change will affect inequality and what policies and mechanisms can ameliorate the costs for the most vulnerable sections of our population and how it can lead to greater levels of equality. Because the challenges in developing countries are far different from those in developed countries, we need to craft a strategy that does not simply respond to the negative aspects of the fourth industrial revolution but rather uses it to build a more equitable world.

Technological change is not a process that is independent of social norms and regulations. Instead, these fundamentally shape the process of technological change and its outcomes. The worst response would be a one-size-fits-all approach that is based on how wealthy countries will adjust to this new world of working. It also means that we need to urgently start having these important conversations in order to ensure we are drivers of and not responders to the fourth industrial revolution.

As we continue to grapple with unsustainably high levels of unemployment we must be cognisant of the potential of technology in the labour market. If we want to harness the potential of technology as a tool to build something better, we need to be thinking about using the fourth industrial revolution to create a labour market that deals with inequality.

Imraan Valodia is the Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management and leads the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS) at Wits University. Mohale is CEO of Business Leadership SA. This article was originally published on