University of Pretoria: ‘We need targeted disruptive developments’ – UP engineering prof on the upside of 4IR technology


Innovations and evolutionary developments have been part of humanity since the dawn of time. In most cases, these developments occurred over many years; and in a typically evolutionary manner, those affected by the changes gradually adapted to the new normal and mostly did not realise the implications of the developments on their lives on a daily scale, except when they reflected on history. Most of these sorts of changes have been beneficial to the development of humankind and, over the long run, welcomed and celebrated. These include developments such as the discovery of how to control fire and the beneficial use of the wheel.

Over the past few decades, innovative developments have often been termed “disruptive”. The term was coined in 1995 by American economist Clayton M Christensen and first seen in the Harvard Business Review article Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave. Disruptions are generally defined as developments that significantly alter the way that consumers, markets or industry operate, with mostly superior attributes to that which is disrupted.

It appears that the major difference between traditional innovative and evolutionary developments and disruptive developments is mostly related to the time-scale in which they occur. Ride-hailing, for instance, started around 2009 and within a decade became the norm for small-number public transportation; digital photography took hold in 1988 with the Fujix DS-1P, moving from 400 kilo pixels to 50 million pixels within a mere three decades. Compared to ride-hailing and digital photography, the wheel has been used by humans for about 550 decades and fire for around 150 000 decades.

When considering the implications of disruptive, innovative and evolutionary engineering developments on one’s daily life, it is important to appreciate the process and reasons for these changes. Engineers typically aim to serve the general population through improving living conditions, processes and experiences, such as through infrastructure provision, transportation, education and entertainment. The outcome of these developments affect how we do our jobs, conduct business, learn and teach, travel, eat and relax among others.

Many discussions around the world about the potential effects of disruptive and evolutionary events focus on how our lives will be negatively affected, centring mainly on the loss of jobs and work opportunities, privacy and freedom, and so forth. These feelings of loss affect most people on a personal level, as that which they view as an emotional investment (the way things work) is lost, which could lead to different types of psychological responses. Disruptive and evolutionary developments do, therefore, affect people on a physical level (type of transportation options available/type of jobs available) and emotional level (not the way that things were).

To maintain balance and stability around our experiences of these disruptions, it is important to recognise that the core of most activities remain the same. People take photos to capture a memory and, depending on the technology at the time, store it on film or digitally. They might also enjoy music that was created by an artist that could be human or a form of AI; this music might also be live, virtual, on cassette, CD, vinyl or MP3. Furthermore, people may travel between destinations using their feet, animals, alternative-powered vehicles or ride-hailing; or gain new knowledge through stories told by ancestors or exposure to augmented reality experiences. In all these instances, the core of these activities – be it capturing a memory, enjoying music or travelling – remains the same.

Therefore, in an attempt to continuously reflect on the implications of disruptive, innovative and evolutionary engineering developments on one’s daily life, we need to question our behaviour as disruptors/innovators or “disruptees” (those affected by disruption). These include (sometimes rhetorical) questions such as: what is the core activity of the disruptive technology; does the disruption improve quality of life and life experiences; is the disruption exploitative; which opportunities have been lost; how should activities be adapted to recognise and benefit from the disruption?

In the same way that fire and wheels have destroyed lives in history, they also brought about major gains in the development of humankind. Similarly, the automation of mundane processes and datafication (transformation to digital format) can lead to job and privacy losses, but they will also have benefits, such as an increased focus on more meaningful employment and the early detection of potentially deadly diseases and conditions.

A potentially appropriate reaction to the disruptive nature of our 21st-century existence is to engage in and focus on those human capacities that cannot be (easily) disrupted, such as the equilibrium in our work/life experiences, emotional and physical well-being, and the continued search for an enhanced future for all humanity.

In a world with 7.9 billion humans, where for every 100 people, almost nine are going to bed hungry at night, eight are unemployed, about 10 adults are illiterate and 26 are affected by fragility, conflict or violence, we need targeted disruption from our current existence and way of living to ensure meaningful lives for all people.

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