Harnessing the potential of 4IR through research

The aim of the African Research Universities Alliance or ARUA to increase Africa’s contribution to global research output and its commitment to strengthening the continent’s research base are ‘fundamental’ to nurturing and supporting the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in Africa.

Professor Margaret Dallman, vice president (international) and associate provost at Imperial College London, told University World News that ARUA’s strategic aim of increasing Africa’s contribution to global research to 5% from 1% over a 10-year period was “fundamental to nurturing and supporting” the 4IR in Africa.

Dallman, who addressed ARUA’s Second Biennial Conference – held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 18-20 November – on the issue of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and skills drivers of the 4IR, said: “ARUA recognises that a growing research base provides the platform to harness Africa’s unique talent and provide the pipeline of discoveries which will drive new industries, be it advances in synthetic biology that drives food production and agri-tech, or breakthroughs in mathematical sciences that underpin precision medicine and drug discovery.”

She said Imperial College London’s joint seed fund with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and African institutions aims to play a very small part in those endeavours by seeding risky, ‘blue skies’ research projects that have a small chance of being genuinely transformational.

Innovative curricula

In addition to building research capacity, she agreed it was important to develop innovative curricula for students – “many of whom may [one day] be working in sectors that do yet exist, and focusing on the crucial skills of creativity and critical thinking across disciplines”.

She said universities have to use their “unique convening power – and many ARUA members are working along these lines with their developing incubators and hackspaces – to bring together scientific researchers, corporate partners, entrepreneurs, and the local community to turn cutting-edge scientific research into real-world benefits for society”.

Emphasising the potential of ARUA to play a leadership role in the 4IR, international consultant and lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Climate Change and Adaptation in Kenya, George Odera Outa, told University World News that, if nurtured, ARUA could “lead not only to closer intra-African collaboration among African scholars but also create crucial linkages with the Global North for mutual benefit, cross-learning as well as some form of equity”.

‘A visionary start’

“I think ARUA is off to a visionary start in the leap towards a Fourth Industrial Revolution,” said Outa who delivered a presentation on humanities-science and social research collaboration.

Oluyemi Theophilus Adeosun, lecturer at the University of Lagos in Nigeria, said in order to catch up in the 4IR stakes, greater institutional research capacity would help Africa to “leapfrog in the development space”.

“We lost out in the last industrial revolution and we must lead the world based on our increasing youth population,” he said.

“We must embrace multi- and trans-disciplinary and collaborative research along with embracing new technology in education and knowledge dispensation in order to bridge the Africa skills gap,” said Adeosun, who presented a presentation on university internships and preparation for the world of work in the 4IR.

“We must be flexible to ensure inclusive learning, distance and electronic learning with exposure to digitisation, machine learning, artificial intelligence, etc,” Adeosun said.

“We must improve industry collaboration, internship systems, innovation hubs and labs focused on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and resolving local challenges based on community engagements, along with enhancing exchange programmes for students both within the Global South and North,” Adeosun said.

“African governments and the private sector must commit more resources to funding education, research and capacity building.

“Just like M-Pesa [a mobile phone-based money transfer system] was novel to the world, we must birth more solutions for local and global benefits,” Adeosun said.

Lifelong learning

According to Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, deputy vice-chancellor of research and postgraduate affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, lifelong learning is and will be central to the process of university curriculum design as changes relating to the Fourth Industrial Revolution advance at an exponential pace.

Vilakazi, who delivered a keynote address on “Getting Africa quantum ready”, told University World News it was too early for universities to “copy and paste” past international best practice in preparation for the 4IR as both the Global South and North were grappling with the changes.

However, he said there were priorities relating to the strengthening of institutional research capacity in Africa. These include reviewing curricula and a greater integration of research and teaching functions, both of which should be informing the other.

“We should ensure that lifelong learning becomes central in how universities structure their curriculum, as these changes are advancing at an exponential pace and therefore some agility and dynamism is needed,” he said.

“Key to this is the integration of our research agenda with the global knowledge commons,” he said.

Vilakazi stressed the need for an appropriate balance between STEM disciplines and the humanities and social sciences, advocating, where appropriate, a breakdown of the “Berlin Wall” traditionally separate disciplines.

While agreeing that Africa and its universities can be active agents, rather than passive recipients in the rapidly evolving “technological exponential” that characterises the Fourth Industrial Revolution, he said: “The African higher education system is varied and also depends on the state of development of a country, so a monolithic approach would not be appropriate for African universities to follow for 4IR.”

He said some of the technologies that 4IR will bring could also be greater equalisers. “Mobile technologies, for example, have helped in giving endless opportunities to those that have hitherto been left behind by the earlier revolutions which were heavily infrastructure-laden, and that alone created longer lag times,” he said.

Integration of teaching and research

Echoing some of Vilakazi’s observations, Alex Ezeh, professor of global health at United States-based Drexel University, who spoke at the conference on building institutional research capacity, told University World News he anticipated that research and teaching or learning would become “even more closely intertwined” in the 4IR.

”Institutions that are strong in research are more likely to be strong in preparing graduates who can go out and make a progressive difference as employees or entrepreneurs in practically any sector of the economy,” said Ezeh, who is also the founding executive director of the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA), an initiative to strengthen doctoral training and the retention of academics at African universities.

“To fit into the new economy of the 4IR, African graduates of the future will need less of memorised facts and more of critical thinking and data manipulation skills, which are best acquired in a laboratory or research environment,” he said.

”Research – fundamental and applied research – enables us to master current knowledge, to generate new and forward-looking knowledge, to resolve problems that are bound to emerge along the way, and to lay a solid foundation of evidence upon which future innovation can be built,” he said.

Highlighting the importance of innovative teaching, Beatrice Muganda, director of the higher education programme at the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research based in Nairobi, Kenya, told University World News that “appropriate pedagogical interventions are critical for developing competencies in collaboration, communication, problem-solving, creativity and critical thinking that are mandatory for active participation in 4IR”.

Muganda, who chaired a session on new approaches to higher education, said: “It is for this reason that ARUA is partnering with the Pedagogical Leadership in Africa (PedaL) project that trains university teaching staff to unleash their creative capacities in preparing the next generation of graduates to be holistically grounded.”

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