The University of Pretoria (UP) recently hosted Africa’s first Nobel Prize Dialogue, the theme of which was ‘The Future of Work’.
Broadcast online from the University’s Future Africa institute and campus, the event featured five Nobel Prize laureates. It aimed to bring science and society closer, and stimulate creative thinking by gathering a unique group of laureates, opinion leaders, policymakers, students, researchers and the general public. Three Economic Sciences laureates – Christopher Pissarides, Joseph Stiglitz and Abhijit Banerjee – were joined by Physics laureate Brian Schmidt and Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus.
In his opening remarks, UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe commented that this discussion is an important one, especially in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Discussing the future of work is one of the most important dialogues of our time,” he said. “To be able to host this Nobel Dialogue for the first time in Africa is enormously important. It means Africa has joined critical conversations on current major issues that are both local and global. It also means Africa’s voices will be part of the discourses shaping the choices that will influence the future of work.”
UP Vice-Chancellor Professor Tawana Kupe at the Future Africa studios with Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer: Nobel Prize Outreach and Professor Juleen Zierath, member of the Nobel Committee at Karolinska lnstitutet (on screen).
Laura Sprechmann, CEO of Nobel Prize Outreach, concurred with Prof Kupe, adding that the time had come for meetings of the minds such as this one to take centre stage in working towards finding solutions to some of the world’s most complex problems.
“The current pandemic has made us think about how we will work in the future and how [we want] our working life to be, but also what skills we need to build more resilient and inclusive societies,” Sprechmann said. “If we are to solve the big challenges such as climate change, health issues and inequality, we need to invest in scientific research and in technological innovation. I hope this day will inspire you to discover new ideas and stimulate you to ask new questions, questions that you hadn’t thought about before. It is in this spirit that we organised this Nobel Prize Dialogue.”
Various panel discussions and interviews throughout the day dealt with questions such as what is the new normal for working life; what benefits does diversity bring to the workplace; how does an ageing global population change the labour market; and how is the COVID-19 pandemic changing the nature of work?
In a panel discussion about the impact of COVID-19 on the world of work, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus highlighted that the gap between the have and have-nots has become bigger.
“The wealth of the world is in the hands of a few people – even during the pandemic, when billions of people have lost their incomes and livelihoods, and are living below the poverty line,” he said. “These people who hold the wealth, their wealth has increased by $16 trillion in the same period due to the pandemic. We have created a world where there is a big distance between the people and wealth – that is not a good world to live in.”
UP’s Professor Irma Eloff.
Educational psychologist and UP academic Professor Irma Eloff shared that she had been intrigued by the manner in which different age groups have reacted to the pandemic in work situations.
“We are seeing reports where people are saying that they are both more productive and happier, but it does depend on the age group,” Prof Eloff remarked. “The global age group of 50 and above seems to be happier; in the younger age group, we’re seeing that people are slightly depressed. What’s also been interesting to note is that people are defining themselves less according to work and their careers. There’s more of a personal identification, the pursuance of hobbies and spending time with loved ones that’s taking place.”
Lebone Nkhumeleni, Business Management and Strategy lecturer at UP, said she’d noticed the impact on leaders in the workplace.
“Because the virus was an expected visitor that arrived earlier than expected, there was a scramble across the world of leaders attempting to get the house in order. This saw leaders needing to respond with urgency and care. Things also became more interconnected, so leaders had to think on a more eco-systematic level.”
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