Africa and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: The Need for “Creative Destruction” Beyond Technological Change


The idea of a Fourth Industrial Revolution has captured the imagination of many in Africa and around the globe. Media headlines point out both the potential and the risk associated with advanced technologies for the continent.

Perspectives spoke to Rasigan Maharajh to make sense of it all while keeping in touch with questions of democracy, social justice and sustainable development.

Africa and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: The Need for “Creative Destruction” Beyond Technological Change
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Leap into Faith.

What is the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution all about?

In 1926, Nikolai Dmitriyevich Kondratiev was the first to describe long waves of depressions and recoveries within capitalist business cycles. These hypothesised cycle-like phenomena became popularly known as “Kondratiev waves” following the promotion of the idea by economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1939. Schumpeter would also establish the idea of “creative destruction”, which occurs when innovation deconstructs long-standing economic structures and frees resources to be deployed elsewhere.

Building on this school of thought, later scholars have conceptualised at least five techno-economic paradigms since the mid-18th century: (1) the steam engine (1780–1830); (2) railways and steel (1830–1880); (3) electricity and chemicals (1880–1930); (4) automobiles and petrochemicals (1930–1970); (5) information and communications technologies (1970–2010). More recently, John Mathews, an honorary professor at Macquarie University, proposed the emergence of a sixth Kondratieff Wave, beginning in 2010, which was being driven by the technology surge associated with renewable energies. Based on such complex systemic and structural technological change that has creatively destroyed hitherto established forms of social, political and economic organisation and established subsequent successor regimes and infrastructures, the idea of a so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution” – as promoted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and its founder Klaus Martin Schwab – does appear to be weakly composed from stylised facts and popular generalisations. Whilst such a perspective may be relevant when looking down at the world from the heights of Davos, it does not coincide with perspectives of the global South and the global experiences of world systems.

In the WEF’s conceptualisation, the First Industrial Revolution (1760–1840) ushered in mechanisation of production; the Second Industrial Revolution (1870–1914) established mass production; the Third Industrial Revolution (1960–continuing) formed around computer and digital technologies; whilst the Fourth Industrial Revolution began at the turn of this century and builds on the digital revolution. It brings a much more ubiquitous and mobile internet, smaller and more powerful sensors that have become cheaper, and artificial intelligence and machine learning. Such a rendition eschews the processes of mercantilism, slavery, colonisation, and the struggles for national liberation fought against imperial metropoles that entangle the countries that constitute the global South.

Schwab and the WEF were not the first to talk about a Fourth Industrial Revolution, though.

History is replete with variously proclamations of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Albert Carr is recognised as having introduced the phrase as a way to explain the inclusion of modern communications within industrial processes in the 1940s. In 1956, Arnold Marshall Rose, with ample prescience, professed that “a number of technologists and economists have predicted that we are on the verge of a series of radical changes in industrial technology which will revolutionize productive processes. The consequences, in terms of human relations and social institutions, of such a revolution are certain to be enormous”. Rose, however, was careful to warn that “[p]redictions in this area have to be tentative and subject to constant modification, since they are not based on careful measurement of experimentally controlled observations, but (1) on analysis of social changes following previous technological innovations, and (2) on our general knowledge of the structure and dynamics of contemporary society”. This warning seems to be lost on the latter-day evangelists of the Fourth Industrial Revolution hyperbole.

Whilst the framing and numbering may be trivial, the push and exuberance of technology tends to find many supporters, especially amongst the transnational global elite. Elizabeth Garbee, from the Centre of Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, represents a more sceptical view. Garbee notes that Schwab’s framing represents “a meaningless phrase” used largely by government and industry professionals, and asserts that “each time, the framing of ‘the next best thing’ in technological development as a ‘fourth Industrial Revolution’ has failed to garner any sort of economic, social, or political capital, despite continued attempts to make it fit that mould”. The coming decades of human technological innovation represent a social and political problem, not just a technological one, and demand expertise in finding social and political solutions, not just “vapid pontifications of professors and economists”, as Garbee puts it.

This is why engaging with this latest proclamation of an industrial revolution matters. Recognising the material conditions of the majority of the world’s peoples and the combined and uneven development of capitalism within world-systems forces us to be sceptical about the present technological optimism that often exaggerates the potential for some simply implemented technology to redress material deprivations and inequalities or the spectre of an impending ecological catastrophe.

How is Africa prepared for the next industrial revolution?

According to the International Energy Agency, approximately 14 percent of the world’s population (estimated at 1.1 billion people) do not have access to electricity and more than 95 percent of those living without electricity are in countries in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia. Whilst development in Asia has accelerated in recent decades, Africa’s rate of economic growth progresses off a very low base. It is thus clear that the global South in general, and Africa in particular, has not benefited from the third techno-economic paradigm, which was enabled by the availability of modern electricity. It is therefore imperative that the peoples of Africa hold their governments accountable for the state of relative underdevelopment and seek accelerated ways to redress the mal-distribution of scientific and technological infrastructure necessary for the continent to catch up with the means available to those in the global North.

Africa has a huge advantage in not needing to replicate failed mega-generation projects that are resource-intensive, corruption-prone and ecologically disastrous. Rather, renewables should be mobilised and utilised closer to consumption, thereby eliminating further carbon emissions. Technological competences are therefore paramount, but need to be carefully operationalised within socially determined parameters, and, most critically, within planetary boundaries.

Against this backdrop, is the new industrial revolution not rather likely to cement the continent’s position on the margins of the global economy?

The preeminent physicist of our generation, Stephen Hawking, responded to a question on the future of work and jobs by recognising that, “[i]f machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality”.

Building on this perspective, I would add that the current world system, hegemonised as neoliberal financialised capitalism, remains responsible for the exploitation, expropriation and exclusion of Africa, such that it is relegated to the margins of the global economy. Schwab, amongst others, also acknowledges that the next industrial revolution may cause major relocation of production back to the global North as automation and intellectual property replace cheap labour as the main driver of business competitiveness.

Thus, governments in the global South need to start emphasising science, technology and innovation policies in their long-term growth strategies. Home-grown innovation and development can be realistically financed through halting illicit financial outflows and curbing the excesses of capitalist accumulation through mis-invoicing and tax-avoidance schemes. Africa needs more thorough processes of “creative destruction”, which, rather than merely just inducing technological changes, also ensure the removal of anachronistic (post- and neo-colonial) institutional forms that retard development and can produce real material improvements while living within ecological limitations.

Perspectives Africa

Perspectives is a publication series of the Africa offices of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. The series provides a platform for experts from Africa to express their views about issues pertinent to the democratic and sustainable development agenda in the region.

The latest edition of Perspectives was compiled with the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s North Africa offices and the Transform Africa project. It is dedicated to the emerging conversation of alternative approaches that challenge the historical bias towards the industrialisation of agriculture and the food system as the main strategy to address food insecurity while preparing for a +2°C world.

What’s the potential then for the new Industrial Revolution to lead to just transitions?

The technological capacities and capabilities of the new Industrial Revolution hold huge potential to redress some of the existing negative human conditions, but only to the extent of amelioration. Radical transformations are necessary if a just transition is to be possible. This requires the inclusion of all the peoples of the continent in a democratic engagement that seeks endogenous development rather than merely shackling into global value chains and production networks.

Younger generations of Africans could be considered the motive force for ensuring transformation. It is therefore critical that young Africans are not excluded from realising a just transition by ensuring that they have access to education and training systems that build their capacities and enable their capability formation. These systems need to be retained as public goods and not further privatised as the state continues to be hollowed out. Elite capture needs to be confronted and the democracy defended against further predation from the transnationals and their local comprador vendors and franchisees.

But democracy is under increasing pressure on the continent and worldwide. What opportunities does the new industrial revolution carry for politics and societal relations?

Democracy requires serious efforts towards building capable and enduring institutions. These need to be better integrated with traditional and indigenous knowledge systems whilst keeping up-to-date with the emergent new tools and processes embedded in the new industrial revolution, such as the internet of things, big data and ubiquitous broadband connectivity.

Illiberal regimes and other non-democratic forms of governance, which thrive on secrecy and the lack of transparency, are becoming increasingly more difficult to maintain in the face of a global knowledge commons. Rolling back the advances of the post-truth era of “alternative facts” requires even more open systems of innovation, technical capacities, technological capabilities and scientific competences.

Ultimately, changes in labour processes will affect the political economy, as relations of production are contested and wages no longer compensate productive labour. Under the rubric of such dynamics, more research on alternative forms of organisation and experiments in transformation are sorely required. Radical democracies could transcend the stagnant liberalism and its status as the executive committee of the capitalist class. Post-capitalism is emerging, but, as famously expressed by Antonio Gramsci, “[t]he crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. Our contemporary conjuncture represents such an interregnum and the possibilities of progressive change. Barbarism is the lurking alternative within an ecological catastrophe.

What do Africa and its people have to offer to the new Industrial Revolution? Is homegrown innovation happening in Africa?

Africa is the current home of nearly 17 percent of the world’s population, nine of the 14 global terrestrial biomes, and six climatic zones. Within the territory is a range of progressive initiatives that have domestic and regional constituencies. Numerous efforts to link the generation of knowledge with socially useful production holds much of the promise for a better life for all Africans. Homegrown innovation from Africa, as the cradle of humankind, has enabled the widespread dispersal of us all as a species-being, through the diffusion of technological know-how emanating from creativity and curiosity.

In our contemporary conjuncture, the relegation of Africa as a territory of exclusion and marginalisation has certainly reduced Africa’s propensity to contribute to the global knowledge commons. Global commodity chains, global value chains, and global production networks largely operate within an international division of labour governed by transnational corporations, multilateral institutions, and the military might of the more advanced and mature core capitalist countries. This gives rise to an apparent tendency to discount or reject “new or improved products or processes (or combinations thereof) that differ significantly from previous products or processes and that had been made available to potential users or brought into use” – or “innovation”, as defined by the OECD – emanating from Africa.

Notwithstanding such prejudice and difficulties, initiatives for innovation abound across the continent, such as the Makerspace movement, science and technology incubators, and innovation hubs set up at the interface between the post-school education-and-training system and communities and enterprises.

In its 2018 edition of the Innovation Prize for Africa, the African Innovation Foundation recognised ten major examples, including: two molecular tests for the rapid, accurate and effective detection and load quantification of tuberculosis and hepatitis C (Morocco); eNose sensor for tea processing (Uganda), which supplements current tea-processing procedures using low-power sensor devices to determine optimum levels of tea fermentation; Mobile Shiriki Network (Rwanda), a smart solar kiosk powered by strong solar panels and equipped with large capacity batteries, internet-of-things sensors and a custom-designed router, which offers device charging, virtual top-ups and low-cost connectivity; and Waxy II technology (Tanzania), which recycles and transforms post-consumer waste plastic into durable and environmentally friendly plastic lumber, using a chemical-free and energy-conserving technology for building, construction and furniture production.

Clearly, Africa lacks neither the creativity nor the capacity for innovation. The building of enduring institutions and capabilities, however, requires more attention to the political economy and the reproduction of combined yet uneven development. Efforts towards decolonialised curricula, sustainable development, and the defence of democratic advances offer the peoples of Africa a wider canvas upon which to inscribe a real new dawn, one which redresses the “premature de-industrialisation” of most of the continent’s economies.

Initiatives that revitalise civil society also hold much promise. Africans Rising, for example, is a pan-African movement of people and organisations working for peace, justice and dignity. It emerged from a bottom-up series of on- and off-line consultations and dialogues between and amongst social and social-justice movements, NGOs, intellectuals, artists, sportspeople, cultural activists and others, across the six regions of the African Union and the inter-state efforts towards transcontinental integration.

All these progressive ideals, however, remain moot if economic orthodoxies, neoliberalism and corrupt governance retain the inordinate power they now exercise over society.

The systematic destruction of indigenous knowledge demands redress, opening the possibility of co-constructing a harmonious relationship with nature, bound together in solidarity and cooperation, for a shared moderate prosperity for all. The young people of Africa are building the road whilst they walk. We should all be supportive and ensure intergenerational empowerment for creatively destroying the constraints of post- and neo-colonial Africa, and for midwifing the birth of really new Africa that works for all its peoples.