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Daily Maverick (Johannesburg)
By Karabo Moloko
Could the Covid-19 pandemic be the impetus that accelerates the adoption of digital solutions? Could the global economic devastation from the worldwide outbreak be the catalyst that ultimately leads to the embrace of the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
As the Covid-19 outbreak forces the cancellation of trips, large gatherings and a slowdown in manufacturing, the economic damage is mounting across the world.
The call for social distancing has resulted in universities suspending lectures, churches halting services and many companies formulating plans on how to safeguard their employees. Schools have brought mid-term breaks forward with the intent of running catch-up classes when they resume.
The effects of Covid-19 have also left supply chains around the world disrupted. China's industrial output contracted at the sharpest pace in 30 years, as workers were told to stay home, falling by 13.5% in January and February 2020, according to Reuters. Worldwide, a delay in the fulfilment of orders is being felt as companies like Apple reduce their revenue growth forecast.
In all this despair, digital solutions are rising to save the day. As business and schools ramp up their disaster management plans, turning to the use of smart technologies seems to be the only way to keep essential services running. The technology early adopters have been able to make a more straightforward switch as their customers are already used to online services like getting statements, paying bills and customer support. Those companies are fast opting for employees, who were in open-plan environments, to rather work from home.
The star of the show has been technologies like 3D printing, helping to support industrial supply chains that are affected by limitations on traditional production and imports. A good example is in Italy where Brescia (near one of the hardest-hit regions for Covid-19 infections), urgently needed Venturi valves for an intensive-care device which the supplier could not provide in a short time. Additive manufacturing firm, Isinnova, came to the rescue. They brought a 3D printer directly to the hospital and, in just a few hours, redesigned and then produced the missing piece.
China has been using drones to ensure medical samples and quarantine materials can travel with minimal risk to high-risk areas to reduce contact between samples and personnel and improve delivery speed.
Universities with online programmes continue with their academic year instead of entirely suspending classes. Sadly, these are few and far between in South Africa. Schools are limited in their ability to leverage technology, as not all students have devices or data. This constraint has magnified the South African digital divide.
No one knows what the total socioeconomic impact of Covid-19 will be, however, the prediction is recovery will be slow. As markets are reconfigured across the world as a result of the economic devastation, a new digital world will emerge. Digitisation will no longer be a consideration for someday in the future, but rather an imperative as organisations grapple with how to future-proof themselves.
The Covid-19 outbreak is an opportunity for South Africa to accelerate all Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) plans. Late adopters can no longer afford to wait-and-see lest another crisis hits. The digital divide must be addressed and technology adoption accelerated so we can readily face the next challenge.
Perhaps we will also see South African companies leading in 4IR solutions and rise to save the day. Perhaps our proudly South African drone operators will assist the government to deliver test kits to remote locations or our robotics companies will make their robots available in isolation wards to limit human contact.