The University of Pretoria (UP) launched the Centre for the Future of Work (CFoW) at an event held on Tuesday, 17 May, at the Javett Art Centre on the University’s south campus.
The centre’s Director, Professor Natasja Holtzhausen of UP’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, said the CFoW is a key connector between the University and the public and private sectors, and will encompass the concept of Society 5.0.
“We are already living in the fourth industrial revolution, whereas Society 5.0 is a system where the combination of human skills, collaborative robotics and artificial intelligence [AI] complement one another in the service of humanity and the planet,” she said. “By proactively contributing to this, the CFoW will be Africa’s centre of excellence on the future of work, producing scientific and popular publications, advisory services and training.
“We are living in a continuously changing environment, and we need to create an inclusive, diverse, human-centred Society 5.0 that can prosper within an environment of technology and change.”
Prof Holtzhausen added that the centre can help any organisation or institution to future-proof their workforce and determine what they would need to help employees reskill and upskill for the future of work, as well as reimagine what the workplace of the future will look like. “We have a variety of research instruments, quantitative and qualitative studies and analysis, as well as forecasting and AI-driven tools [which helps leaders to evaluate the challenges and opportunities in automation, brought on by artificial intelligence and other technologies],” she said.
In line with this, the CFoW is working with one of the largest mining groups in South Africa to help the organisation rebuild its training for artisans, as about one-third of their current training is no longer appropriate.
Prof Natasja Holtzhausen of UP’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences and the Director of the Centre for the Future of Work; Libby, the robotic library assistant; UP Vice-Chancellor Prof Tawana Kupe; and Dr Olebogeng Selebi, Deputy Director of the Centre.
Prof Holtzhausen said that a cultural change needs to happen to create a strong work ethic. This starts with a strong educational ethic. “We live on a continent where digital access and connectivity are seriously limited, and where millions of children do not own even one book. This is a vast issue, and it requires reinventing our public, school and university libraries in every village and city.” Digitalisation can fuel a giant leap, in the same way that mobile phones fuelled the communication leap from fixed lines in a short period. It needs intensive mega-scale planning and resources, as well as governments to commit to universal connectivity and freeing bandwidth.
“We need new technologies and approaches that advance humanity at every level and that take us into future worlds of work – UP has been working hard at this,” Prof Holtzhausen said. “For example, in 2015, the Department of Mining Engineering modernised education with the Kumba Virtual Reality Centre for Mine Design, which features a 360-degree cylinder that immerses students in an underground or any mining scenario. The mine of the near future will automate most activities to improve productivity, safety and working conditions.”
In terms of opportunities in the arts now and in the future, digital non-fungible token (NFT) art is an area to watch. NFT refers to a unique unit of data stored on a digital ledger that uses blockchain technology to confirm proof of ownership. NFT artworks have become highly collectable digital assets that hold value, in the same way that other forms of art hold value. For instance, digital artist Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, sold a piece for US$69 million (about R1 billion) at a Christie’s auction in March this year.
“Across all fields, we need to innovate and explore what makes us human, what inspires us, and what makes the future of work and life better for all,” Prof Holtzhausen said.
“It’s imperative for South African organisations to prepare their people for the future, to alleviate the unsustainably high level of unemployment and to bring our talented people, young and older, into the next era of work,” said UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Prof Tawana Kupe. “We are already seeing the arts and humanities integrating with science, technology, engineering and mathematics to an unprecedented degree. New professions and jobs require us to be entrepreneurial, creative and innovative – the CFoW taps into this.”
He referred to UP’s telemedicine mobile robot, Stevie, as a good example of human and robotic collaboration. Stevie joined the Faculty of Health Sciences at Steve Biko Academic Hospital in July 2021; its digital screen assists in the treatment of intensive care unit (ICU) patients through instant live discussion and communication with ICU teams in Germany and South Africa. Another robot, Libby, a library assistant, joined UP in 2019, while the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology has acquired smWoef, a quadrupedal robot (robot dog) that will be used as a Smart Alternative Transportation Platform (SATP) to enable data collection in hard-to-reach and at-risk locations, and for routine data collection efforts.
“We want all of our students to develop generic skills across all disciplines and they need to be digitally literate, with all students taking modules such as data analytics and data sciences,” Prof Kupe said. He added that UP believes in the principle of lifelong learning, where there is learning, unlearning and re-learning.
UP’s Vice-Principal: Academic, Prof Norman Duncan, added that the future of work requires universities to make provision for several different knowledge systems feeding into one another.
“Bureaucracy permitting, we will be able to customise degrees from different faculties that inform one another,” he said. “While the Centre is situated within the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, it is all about advancing inter- and transdisciplinary research and multidimensional skills. The CFoW will offer a range of short learning programmes, while its PhD students and postdoctoral fellows will make the future of work their research focus.”