UP Senate Conference 2022 discusses ‘human-centred’ approach as the way forward

Posted on February 25, 2022

The University of Pretoria (UP) Senate recently held its annual conference under the theme ‘A Human-Centred University: Digital Transformation, the Future of Work and Society 5.0’.

Once again, this year’s conference was held virtually in keeping with COVID-19 protocols, and was characterised by robust, honest engagement between esteemed scholars and thinkers.

Chaired by UP’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe, the Senate conducts its business under the management of the University Council and is accountable to the Council for academic, research and community engagement matters.

The first day of the conference began with Prof Kupe sharing his thoughts on how an institution like UP can position itself as an industry leader that is “strongly experienced as [a] key driver and collaborative agent of innovation and change”.

“We are optimistic about the future of our university, about higher education and what we can achieve,” Prof Kupe said. “It is therefore with excitement and energy that I present some thoughts and ideas to contribute to our discussions on where we are now, and what future UP envisages for itself as a human-centred university focused on digital transformation, the future of work and Society 5.0.”

He shared how the concept of Society 5.0 emanated from Japan in 2016, when the Japanese government disseminated information on the Fifth Science and Technology Basic Plan (2016–2020), which was shortened to Society 5.0. It follows the hunting society (Society 1.0), agricultural society (Society 2.0), industrial society (Society 3.0) and information society (Society 4.0).

“In Society 5.0, as Director of our Centre for the Future of Work Prof Natasja Holtzhausen explains, human-centeredness returns just in time, because it is going to take human collaboration aided by technology and new knowledge to improve the quality of life, social and economic responsibility, and environmental sustainability, and to shift us from the planetary tipping point,” Prof Kupe said.

He also used his address to highlight some of the initiatives that the University has embarked on that place the idea of human-centred usage of technology for the betterment of communities at its centre.

One such initiative he mentioned was Stevie, UP’s gender-neutral telemedicine robot. The AI addition is part of the Faculty of Health Sciences and assists in the treatment of patients through instant live communication between intensive-care unit teams in Germany and South Africa. Another indicator of UP’s move towards human-centred technology is the Department of Architecture’s research that aims to make cities future-fit by creating a Digital Twin City, which is a smart 3D or digital mirror of a city. There is also the initiative by the Department of Mining Engineering which modernised education with the Kumba Virtual Reality Centre for mine design that features a 360-degree cylinder to fully immerse students in an underground scenario.

Prof Kupe concluded his address by stressing that while UP is 99% digitalised, the need to use artificial intelligence and new technologies to monitor and enhance student performance and success is still a priority, even in 2022.

Prof Pinar Ozcan of the Saïd Business School at Oxford University spoke about competition in the age of data. Her research is primarily focused on how the usage of data is transforming industries such as finance, healthcare and education. She said that a key consideration that needs to be made is how digitisation is changing how the world works.

“Data shows us that with the COVID-19 pandemic, 49% of enterprises were not prepared for remote working,” she said. “Even at Oxford University, we were caught a bit by surprise. Although we have virtual programmes, the kind of set-up for remote working that the situation necessitated was not there yet.”

Prof Ozcan added that once organisations and institutions are forced into situations where they need to digitise at a faster pace, that is when a world of new opportunities opens up.

Day two of the conference featured Prof Mateus Panizzon of the University of Caxias do Sul in Brazil, who delivered a talk titled ‘Critical success factors of the university of the future in Society 5.0’. He presented the idea that the main agenda of universities of the future need to be the advancement of human-centred strategies.

“Some of these complex ideas need an institutional approach in order to have a higher rate of success,” he said. “How do we [then] consider what goes into the institutional agenda in order to provide the necessary change? We need to recognise the high capability that the university has towards helping society solve complex problems.”

Other than individual presentations, the two-day conference gave senators the space to engage with one other through panel discussions that addressed ideas around Society 5.0 and the future of work, as well as other related topics. There were also two breakaway sessions at the end of each day that split senators into virtual groups of four in order for them to discuss the content presented to them.

Recordings and other conference material will be made available to the UP community at a later stage.


- Author Masego Panyane

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