There are 10 technology trends driving digital transformation during the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) across the globe that the government and businesses need to implement with urgency.


They include faster networks and 5G, wider adoption of digital platforms, social engagement, cyber security and enhanced e-commerce.

While the country is currently finalising a masterplan on the digital economy, it is still in its infancy when it comes to many of these trends. This is due to the lack of a comprehensive national programme, involving the government and its social partners, policy development and delays in digital rollout plans.

According to Helmo Preuss, chief economist at Johannesburg-based consultancy Forecaster Ecosa, digital platforms (such as apps) are valuable because they facilitate seamless exchanges between two or more independent parties.

“The platform economy transforms how we interact with the world (through) the gig economy) and connect buyers and sellers,” he says.

Vehicle insurance and online financial services are enhanced, as there is greater reach through mobile devices. Digital platforms also enable services such as remote training and distance learning.

The way forward

In the final draft of the masterplan, which covers the next five years, digital
platforms, digitally traded services, physical tech production and transformative tech applications have been identified as the “big bets” for the country’s fledgling digital economy to ensure that South Africa can match and compete with other countries.

On enhanced e-commerce, Preuss says this will continue to grow rapidly.

“Brick-and-mortar businesses will need to integrate online digital services and products” for their survival.

Growth in artificial intelligence (AI) will provide hyper-personalised
recommendations for e-commerce customers, which will also change digital marketing. And it will see a proliferation of e-learning platforms, from school to retirement learners.

Improving cyber security has been identified as critical, as more people work, interact, purchase and do business online.

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns,
cybercrime has intensified.

“A growth in digital components have created enhanced security threats and (made people and platforms) more vulnerable to cyberattacks,” says Preuss.

“(There are) increasing automated attacks by AI. Companies need solutions to ward them off.”

He says plans must include protecting the end consumer from phishing (where a person steals sensitive information of users, like their bank account details), and spoofing (a form of identity theft where a person fraudulently uses the identity of a legitimate user to get into their secure accounts).

Preuss says machine learning (ML) is increasingly being used for fraud detection across the world.

According to international cybersecurity company Risk Based Security (RBS), the number of exposed records hit 36 billion in 2020. There were 2935 publicly reported breaches in the first three quarters of last year, which RBS described as the “worst year on record”.

Cybersecurity skills fall in the top 10 of the most sought-after tech skills for 2021.

Preuss says AI and ML, which enable computers to learn using algorithms and training sets that help them to automate repetitive tasks at staggering speeds and behave increasingly “intuitively”, are also a top trend.

AI and the machine learning techniques that support it are resulting in improved business performance, because these are powerful tools to enhance customer experience, drive up revenue and predict both consumer behaviour and sales figures.

Linked to this trend is big data. The power of cloud computing, connectivity and digital platform adoption across the world has resulted in an explosion of business, employee and personal data being generated – exponentially upping the predictive value of forecasts, reports and training sets available to business intelligence units who know how to leverage their AI in the right way.

Decision making can happen in real time, based on real-world information. Data must be viewed as an asset, Preuss says.

Apps are being developed every day to track the movement of people and assets, and machine learning algorithms are spotting patterns that were previously unknown.

It has all been made possible by the cloud computing revolution. Cloud
computing has allowed entities without their own on-site servers the power to store and process masses of data at a third-party data centre – effectively
outsourcing computing capability and exponentially increasing the amount of computing power available to the entity for a simple subscription fee.

Preuss says cloud computing has resulted in going from “local to global”, which means greater flexibility and an ability for companies to scale up operations to deliver in real time.

“Organisations will adopt a cloud-first mentality when it comes to building or upgrading IT infrastructure,” he says.

The implementation of faster networks and 5G, an area in which South Africa is lagging behind, is also driving digital transformation.

One example Preuss uses is the internet of things (IoT), which is seeing 20 billion devices being used. He says it will “soon” increase to 200 billion connected devices.

Without a 5th Generation (5G) of mobile communications, which will enable faster connectivity for businesses, sectors that will help grow the digital economy – such as automated cars, drones and telemedicine – will not grow on a competitive scale.

Extended-reality tech, which includes virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), is another area of focus.

He says these technologies enhance customer experience by finding better ways to sell products though e-commerce such as trying out beauty accessories and clothing online before purchasing them.

Preuss says there will be an increase in meetings being held using VR and AR headsets, creating a 3D experience to extend the real world into the digital space. He says companies need to focus on online engagement, including social media, voice interface and chatbots.

This should include businesses removing automated responses and suggests that companies engage various influencers to sell their products online.

Chatbots, which simulate human conversations, “have seen an increase in users around conversational AI, in both consumer and enterprise applications”.

Preuss says that chatbots are becoming more intelligent and reducing call centre infrastructure investment.

While South Africa is grappling with how to move forward on the digital
economy, the rest of the world continues to speed ahead. It is now more crucial than ever that the government, companies and labour understand how 4IR is changing the world of work, and how consumers interact digitally, so that Africa’s most advanced economy is not left behind.

By: Amy Musgrave