Concept Note for 2019 International Conference

Africa and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Defining a Role for Research Universities

Introduction

The world is being ushered into a new industrial future, which is set to change in a fundamental way, how people live daily. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will be fundamentally different from earlier industrial revolutions in its scope and complexity, as well as its scale. The rate, depth and breadth of the likely transformations promise to be breathtaking and disruptive to all industries everywhere, especially for their production systems, management as well as governance.  It is not clear how its future will look, but clues about  what will shape winners or losers are emerging. Clearly innovation is critical, but so also is the constant restating of shared values that safeguard our common humanity. One thing is certain; the future will be like nothing the world has seen before. To make the most of it will require coordinated effort of all stakeholders, including the public and private sectors, academia and industry, as well as civil society.

The coming Fourth Industrial Revolution is based on the electronics and information technology that characterized the third revolution and is distinguished by the merging of technologies, muddling the distinction between the cyber, physical and biological worlds. The Internet of Things (IoT) offers the prospect of connecting billions of people, animals and objects each with a device with phenomenal processing power and storage capacity. This will unleash an unparalleled amount of data, which can be analyzed for unlimited knowledge. Advances in the fields of artificial intelligence, robotics, wireless communication, instrumentation, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing will have a multiplicative effect on progress made.

The impact of artificial intelligence is already evident with drones, self-driving cars and trains, virtual experts in the fields of medicine, law, investment, etc. This progress has been made possible by the rapid advances in the field of computation and the ability to analyze vast amounts of data very quickly in a way that was hitherto unimaginable. The range of applications for computing technology is wide, covering predictive algorithms, drug discovery, reconstruction of archaeological artifacts and many more. Nanotechnology is now making its way into the biological sphere, pioneering a symbiosis of human body, microorganisms, food and the built environment. A new world is being created; virtual reality, where there is a blurring of lines between the physical world and the virtual world.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is going to yield new products and services. Undoubtedly it is expected to raise standards of living and income levels globally. It will increase efficiency and productivity at the work place. Transportation and communication costs will drop dramatically, hence delivering huge dividends to the supply-chain, opening up new markets and driving economic growth. Work and leisure will look different. Those who stand to benefit the most are those societies that can gain access to and leverage digital technology.

It is feared by many though that this revolution could also create greater inequality and disrupt the labour market as machines increasingly take over from humans. This will imply that many jobs will cease to exist in the near future. A result of this is likely to be increases in social tensions with some segments having high skill/high paying jobs while other segments have low skill/low paying jobs. A disillusioned workforce with little confidence and fearful of the future could result with serious security implications. This could further deepen the  ‘winner takes all’ economy. History shows that with any innovation the beneficiaries are the innovators, investors, stakeholders and those who provide the intellectual content. This scenario will be replicated across countries and regions. Social media has made the world a smaller place, enabling cross cultural interactions and exchange of ideas. While this is to be welcomed, there is also the danger that it could help fuel social unrest as happened during the Arab spring. Its impact is expected to be wide ranging, on government, business, people, education, health, agriculture and many more.

Given the transformative nature of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, developing nations should be asking important questions about what they bring to the table and niches they can carve for themselves for material and political gain. African universities should be preparing to ask questions and to offer answers to questions that are already being asked in this regard.

The ARUA 2019 conference aims to bring together international expertise from academia, government, industry, as well as from civil society to deliberate on the issues and pave the way for nurturing and supporting  the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa. It will focus on how African universities can lead the way in the areas of teaching and research. How should universities prepare the student for the digital future? What research will support the production of goods and services in Africa in the new digital age? What relevant research will generate answers to questions about how to deal with the fall-out from the new revolution? For example what should drive regulation of human ingenuity and what kind of social charter should the world accept going forward, bringing into question the place of global organisations such as the UN in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Conference structure

It is proposed to have a two-day international conference for up to 250 participants from all over the world, but with about a half of the participants from ARUA member universities.

The conference will have two plenary sessions on each day addressing broad pertinent themes on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. These will be used to present the ‘lay of the land’ papers and map out the possibilities for what African research universities can do. They will be delivered by known international experts in the area.

There will also be 10 parallel sessions on each day, covering specific relevant thematic areas of interest to ARUA. Altogether, there will be 20 parallel sessions in the two days. The 13 ARUA thematic areas will have slots at these sessions with a view to mapping out expectations of how the Fourth Industrial Revolution will play out in the particular thematic, area and how African universities could prepare for that.

Other thematic areas for consideration will include the following:

  • Education
  • Health Care
  • Agriculture
  • The Built Environment and Transportation
  • Communication and Society
  • Security and Defence Blockchain
  • Production
  • Regulation
  • International diplomacy

Each parallel session will take place over two hours with a maximum of three presentations and discussant comments.

It is proposed to issue a call for papers in November 2018. Each member university will be expected to encourage potential presenters to submit papers.

Conference Dates

It is proposed that the conference be held in November 2019. The two-day conference will be extended to a third day of workshops for the ARUA Centres of Excellence devoted to drawing lessons from the conference and preparing a strategy for ARUA work on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Venue

The conference will take place in Nairobi, hosted by University of Nairobi

Outputs

The conference is expected to lead to at least two edited volumes, one for the natural and physical sciences and another for the social sciences and humanities. Depending on the ambitions of ARUA Centres of Excellence, it should also be possible for each CoE to produce another edited volume.

The conference will also produce a ‘think-piece’ to be shared with African university Vice Chancellors and governments on ‘preparing for the fourth industrial revolution’.

Funding

The conference will cost USD500,000 to put together. The ARUA secretariat proposes to raise USD350,000 to cover a limited number of conference participants, including graduate students, and the conference facilities. The secretariat will also raise additional funds for publications. ARUA member universities will be expected to support travel for some of their staff participating.

Organisation

There will be a Conference Steering Committee which will be a subset of the ARUA DVCs group. This will be appointed at the Lagos meeting in September 2018. The Steering Committee will provide broad guidance to the Secretariat.

The Conference Technical Committee will be a group of 5-6 experts on the Fourth Industrial Revolution who will be involved in developing themes and sub-themes for the conference, and in selecting papers to be presented. The members will be appointed by the Secretary-General in consultation with DVCs.