Innovation is the key enabler for accelerating digital transformation and realising the fourth digital revolution, with all the tremendous benefits it promises countries around the world. But what is the fourth digital revolution, is it relevant for now or the future – and is it real or imaginary?
Moderator Dr. Eun-ju Kim, Chief, Innovation and Partnership Department, ITU, posed a provocative question to the panel of industry and government experts exploring the key dynamics behind building a digital innovation ecosystem to support digital transformation and bridging the innovation divide.
Abdoulkarim Soumaila, Secretary-General of the African Telecommunications Union, emphasized the fundamentals: “We cannot do AI if we do not have access to the internet. We can’t do IoT if we don’t have internet. We are now speaking about 5G, and we can’t do any of the applications if we don’t have any way of accessing the internet.”
“Industry 4.0 is not a destination, it is a journey,” said Bocar A. Ba, CEO, Samena Telecommunications Council. It is simply the intelligent networking of machines and processes supported by information technology – but without ubiquitous broadband connectivity, no applications, communications or smart technologies will be of any use. Investing in digital infrastructure is therefore an absolute priority, and will only be achieved through public and private sector collaboration, cooperation and partnerships.
For Lauri Oksanen, VP Research and Technology, Nokia Corporation, it comes down to three main technological disruptions happening simultaneously: connectivity improvement as we move towards 5G, cloud computing with storage and processing ability, and then augmented intelligence to make decisions based on all the day. Earlier industrial revolutions led to very concrete benefits in terms of productivity, growth, wealth and wellbeing for nations and their citizens. Can fourth industrial revolution do this too? Yes, but only if the digital infrastructure is in place, and at scale. “The opportunity of digitization is to make all industry sectors more efficient, but it has to be diffuse. It’s not enough to have one factory or port or harbour digitized, we have to cover large areas to have the networking effect and the productivity improvement, “ he said. After all, Industry 4.0 is not about digital per se, but about bringing the benefits of digital to other, physical industries to increase economic and social growth.
The key to deploying that digital infrastructure is working across boundaries, sectors and industries, and building multi-stakeholder partnerships, agreed the panellists. And for Williams, it has little value within the development context and Africa if it does not bring benefits to the community. If people don’t understand how digitalization can meaningfully transform their lives, “It becomes innovation for innovation’s sake.”
But with connectivity, the cloud, and relevant solutions, there is a fundamental opportunity to transform government in terms of efficiency and effectiveness, moving to evidence-based data to improve policy decisions from municipal to provincial and national levels.
Speaking of the need to develop innovative ecosystems in both advanced and emerging markets, Dr. Martin Koyabe, Manager and Head of Technical Support and Consultancy, Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, stressed the need for political will to ensure enabling structures, supportive policies and regulation. He reiterated the importance of addressing real, local needs when targeting investment and innovation focus.
Industrialization is key for Africa, said Dr. Olga Memedovic, Deputy Director, Trade Investment and Innovation Department at the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. But just how that should happen in the digital era is uncertain, given that transposing ideas and initiatives from advanced markets and nations is challenging in the African context. Understanding the extent of the Industry 4.0 paradigm shift is vital: it will industrialize and network all vertical sectors and services, impacting also on science, technology and innovation systems. Digital infrastructure will need digital skills, new business environments and innovation hubs focused on productive activities. We need to be aware, she said of “blurring boundaries between the sectors and being prepared to create knowledge-sharing platforms for different stakeholders.”
Partnerships with academia are also important, building new curricula to support digital skills and educate the next generation of data scientists and solutions architects.
Gwenael Prié, Digital Task Team Leader, Agence Française De Développement, noted how low funding is for African start-ups compared to other continents, outlining how his organization is tackling this shortage through a combination of direct financing, investing in funds dedicated to financing innovative start-ups on the African continent, and financing sustainable innovation development including incubators for policy, expertise and seed funding. “Information needs to circulate between the ecosystem to provide and facilitate openness,” he said.
We must have the right regulation and ecosystem, according to Director of Partnerships at theGlobal Manufacturing & Industrialisation Summit, ElodieRobin Guillerm, as Industry 4.0 will impact the future of children, how and what they study, where they work and live. The technologies may be applied principally in the manufacturing sector, but the impact will be felt throughout all aspects of our lives. “The engagement of the population is essential, so that when we are talking about innovation, people are not afraid of what the future will be like.”
Finding a balance between regulation and disruptive innovation is not easy – but there must be a sweet spot somewhere between, said Lance Williams, Provincial and Local Consulti, SITA allowing for both the agility of innovation and sufficient governance to avoid chaos in critical applications. Soumaila was not convinced: “Give latitude to anyone to innovate and create… and then regulate afterwards” to avoid blocking the benefits of innovation.
“Innovation is like cholesterol,” said Ba, “There is always the good one and the bad one”. Innovation should apply not just to technology, but to regulation, funding mechanisms, business models and redefined roles of stakeholders through the entire value chain.
Industry 4.0 is not imaginary – but the road towards it will be long and at times painful. If we can improve the lives of citizens, it will be worth the pain.