The technologies of the fourth industrial revolution have enabled the democratisation of manufacturing processes, and brought advanced tools directly to entrepreneurs, wherever they may be in the world.
Founder of Alt Reality technology studio Rick Treweek told a GIBS forum that the days of waiting for the delayed arrival of technology to reach South Africa’s shores are over: “We can be leaders in technology globally,” he said.
Stephen Gray, founder of the Makerspace Foundation said tools such as 3D printing and the proliferation of online instruction resources allow for creativity and innovation, letting entrepreneurs use new emergent and disruptive technologies.
Gray drew parallels with the first industrial revolution, when people used new technology such as the spinning jenny to create cottage industries and 3D printing, which could be considered the poster child for the fourth industrial revolution. The technology has provided similar opportunities to innovators and craftspeople by providing them with compact versions of industrial tools, democratising industrial processes and lowering barriers to entry, Gray explained.
The Maker Movement
The concept of the fourth industrial revolution, which includes integrated economies, mechanisation and automation and builds on the digital revolution of the last century, was first suggested at the 2016 World Economic Forum.
According to the WEF organisation, the first industrial revolution used water and steam power to mechanise production, while the second used electric power to create mass production. The third industrial revolution used electronics and information technology to automate production.
The fourth industrial revolution is in turn characterised by an availability of technologies, including the Internet of Things, robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing that is revolutionising industries across the globe.
Gray said global cultural trends are the incubators or drivers for technology trends, which in turn fuel disruption. “Technology wouldn’t have any effect if people don’t want to use it. It is the underlying cultural shifts that drive us to certain technologies,” he said.
For example, the trend of authenticity has driven a values approach, while trends such as the gig economy and self-directed learning through MOOCs and YouTube has given people more flexibility and options.
The fourth industrial revolution would usher in the democratisation of bioprinting, robotics, self-driving, construction and energy.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution comes to Africa
While new technologies could further exacerbate inequality, or create opportunities for developing economies, Gray argued that the democratisation of manufacturing lowers the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and encourages the sharing of knowledge “in the spirit of the makers movement” and subsequently reduces of the inequality gap.
The Maker Space, incubator at the Tshimologong Precinct in Braamfontein is part of the drive to create an African Silicon Valley. The space provides workshops, collaboration and coaching support, Wi-Fi, electricity and office space to start ups.
Gray explained space is about lowering the barriers of entry for people to express their creativity in a physical way by enabling them to engage with new technology, and building a “bottom-up economy” with an agility that large corporations simply don’t have in order to encourage collaboration.
“Technology has evolved to the point where someone can in their local maker space create many items of better quality and more meaningfully than mass production has previously been able to deliver.”
WeCustomize, a digital innovation company dedicated to 3D printing of customised products for businesses and individuals is based at the precinct in Braamfontein. Nelson Sekgota explained his company offers services to create a physical object from a digital file, layer by layer and cultivates the creativity and participation of clients.
Alt Reality, also based at the Tshimologong Precinct, uses Mixed Reality applications by merging virtual reality, augmented reality and 3D printing technology to create unique experiences.
The democratising effect of new technology may signal the end of large global brand oligopolies. However, Gray maintained that there would be winners and losers among global brands, and that the mass industrialisation complex of ‘one size fits all’ would struggle to survive.
“If a global brand is able to embody trust, it will endure. People are willing to be a part of and partner with brands and companies that they identify with. It is up to companies to integrate new technologies to help them tell the story of their brand in order to humanise it,” he concluded.