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  • Lamlela Plaatjie (South Africa)

Certain measures for an uncertain future

New frontier technologies are disrupting all sectors of the economy, redefining global economic systems. Governments need to be bold in their responses to the autonomic transformations of economies ensuring the emergence of transformative technologies. Regulatory and redistributive policies are crucial tools for enabling equitable distribution, access, and use of disruptive technologies. New industries need to be met with either new institutions or the reform of existing institutions in order to maximize economic performance and maintain socioeconomic stability. Sustainable innovation and solutions serve the purpose to improve the efficiency of processes by increasing productivity, reducing labor effort, and improving human living conditions. The three most significant transformative technologies driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) include Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), and Blockchain. AI technology consists of machines and systems that gather and apply data to perform intelligent behavior, virtual services, and automated machines are examples. Whereas IoT integrates devices with the internet and can operate with or without human interaction, for example, smart homes that control lighting, security, and surveillance through internal networks. A blockchain is a distributed database or ledger that is open for public use to timestamp digital documents and transactions to prevent tampering, popularly used for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Data has become a valuable asset in transitioning economies, those who are unable to protect and negotiate its use are at the peril of exploitation.

Technology is an integral component for driving global economic growth as governments look to environmentally sustainable practices for reducing reliance on carbon-intensive industries through net-zero policies. Although emerging technologies are anticipated to bring economic prosperity, it cannot be neglected that they do come with transition risks too. Sustainable economic transformation is distinguishable by inclusive and sustainable markets. Technologies do not emerge in isolation, they exist in socio-cultural, political, and economic contexts. Thus the role of regulatory policies is definitive for protecting how technologies gather and use data, as data is now considered currency itself. Institutional adaptation from traditional institutional paradigms to new institutional paradigms provides support to maneuver against capability mismatches in public institutions. Reforming institutions involves investments in the public sector to enhance capacity for new knowledge and skill areas. Achieving sustainable transitions involves mobilizing multi-composite systems and policy innovations to confront the dual challenges of growth and equity.

Social innovation emerged as an approach that fulfilled what traditional innovation approaches neglected, the unintended social impacts resulting from technological innovations. It provides a techno-social perspective that acknowledges the impact duality of transformative technology. Transformation Innovation Policy (TIP) is a conceptual framework that combines the social and technical approaches to examine transformation and inform the pathways for transforming social; economic and political systems. TIP requires a multi-disciplinary research and design (R&D) perspective to provide a holistic landscape of technological innovation. Just Transition frameworks are valuable regulatory instruments for traversing the impacts of transformative technologies which include strategies to regulate technology production; investment in skills training; privacy and security; protection systems for vulnerable labor markets. Take, for instance, the threat that automation imposes in labor markets, especially in emerging economies where some jobs and tasks are still performed manually. In South Africa, many service jobs remain manual, the example of petrol attendants who refuel cars on behalf of drivers and retail cashier checkout services remain sources of employment for many. Transition policies in this context should ensure that there are safety net mechanisms to protect workers displaced by technology, specifically targeting low-skilled workers as they are at the highest exposure to displacement threats.

Global asymmetries in technological capacity will further highlight the digital divide; gaps and unequal distribution of technology infrastructure and resources between developing and developed markets. Hence, technology production and distribution need to be effectively regulated to minimize inequalities and discriminatory practices. Data translates to political power and influence, therefore privacy and security should be prioritized to protect state and government sovereignty and its citizens. The regulation of data-related practices is crucial to safeguard machine-generated data. The European Union’s General Data Protection Framework is an extensive regional instrument that sets guidelines to regulate the use of consumer personal data, leading the way for data security. Avoiding the uncertainty of the future is impossible, however, carefully anticipating and preparing for uncertainty can provide the tools for empowering responses to unpredictable situations.

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