“The 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) and Future Proofing are current buzz-phrases in business, but what we are really looking at is the emergence of an entirely new economy,” says Dr Sharron McPherson, who, as co-founder and executive director of the Centre for Disruptive Technologies, “has over 1 000 disruptive techies around the globe on speed dial.”
Disruptive technology, that which is significantly changing the way business operates – a literal game changer – is seen as the spearhead of 4IR and it has people scrabbling for skills that will future-proof their careers and keep them ahead of the game. It’s a topic McPherson tackled, along with the impact of technology on finance, at Finance Indaba Africa, which took place on 3 and 4 October at the Sandton Convention Centre.
“We have to look at technological acceleration and the need to upskill youth as part of a whole,” says McPherson, who has studied the market in depth on behalf of governments and corporations using a substantial team. “Change is happening so fast it is hard for any one person to be an expert.”
McPherson comes as close as anyone to the role of expert in this fast-changing field. A lecturer on the MCom in Development Finance at the UCT Graduate School of Business, she argues that a new economic paradigm is emerging, and it is not driven solely by technology, but by global pressures such as climate change – with its very real implications for food, water and energy security – booming populations and the knock-on demands on land and resources, and rising terrorism, populism and nationalism as systems get stressed and people start saying “us first”.
“What differentiates 4IR from former revolutions is the quantum of change and the convergence of global factors of a magnitude quite unprecedented in human history. It is sobering, and yet I am encouraged by the time I spend with young people and those who are investing in future generations and the future of work,” says McPherson.
Born in the US, McPherson came to South Africa in the mid-90s armed with a doctorate degree in law from Columbia University, New York, to serve as a volunteer in the offices of legendary Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs in Johannesburg. She also has an honours degree in finance from the University of Toulon, France, and a BA Economics from the College of William & Mary.
“I was divorced, a single mom to a six year old, and I volunteered for two years,” she says. “I’d been working on Wall Street on mortgage-backed securitisations and I saw the light! In the mid-90s South Africa was the most exciting place on earth – the youngest constitutional democracy. I got bit by the African bug. It gets into your blood and makes it difficult to leave,” she says with a laugh.
Passionate about the continent, McPherson believes in the power of education to shift the future and wants all young people to have access to a high-quality STEM education (science, technology, engineering and maths) to ready them for 4IR.
“This is an opportunity that needs to be recognised,” she says. “Africa is uniquely positioned to leapfrog into 4IR, but we need make changes so that we can realise that promise. We have a choice to invest in the education of 200 million young Africans – it is a position of promise or peril.”
Unfortunately, as things stand, South Africa is “way down” on the list of the countries that are getting STEM education right. In an effort to democratise access to a STEM education, the Centre for Disruptive Technologies has invested a lot into the development of an artificial intelligence teaching platform that will have intuitive sensitivities when it comes to learner abilities.
But as important as investing in education is, it will not be enough to prepare youth for a world where many will not be able to get a job and will need to create their own work opportunities. The second issue that needs attention therefore, believes McPherson, is entrepreneurship and creating the right start-up ecosystem.
“We need to revisit ideas around enterprise development and how to get it right.”
One of the traps South Africa has created for itself is to bundle micro businesses with small and medium enterprises but these businesses often have vastly different needs – and prospects.
“By pooling these businesses with micro businesses you are limiting results. Small and medium businesses are the real drivers of growth and need to be specifically catered for, with defined objectives around their needs, driven strategies and allocated resources to make sure their potential is maximised. Start-ups and SME are also not the same. We need to understand and appreciated these differences if we want to develop the right ecosystems.”
This brings McPherson to her final point, the essential need for government to assume its role as a key stakeholder. “Everything we have done at the Centre for Disruptive Technologies we have done in collaboration with the private sector because we simply haven’t been able to get traction from government. To really prepare for 4IR we need meaningful private / public partnerships and African solutions,” she says.
Working with such macro challenges is all in day’s work for McPherson, who is also a keen runner, getting up between four and five most mornings to run. She also meditates – “taking time to reconnect with my values and helping me to not sweat the small stuff” – hikes, and speaks seven languages.
“I am a chronic over-achiever,” she says with a laugh. But she deems her highest achievement her daughter’s respect for her work in education and empowering women. “It is really lovely if your kid thinks that what you are doing is hot. That for me is good. I am so encouraged by the young folk who are so tech savvy, take a lot more risk than our generation and have a different compass. Their true north has a much stronger social conscience.
“It gives me hope for the future.”