It’s hard to recognise a game-changing event when you’re in the middle of it. From 4IR to the rise of AI, the digital revolutions currently taking place are fuelled by thousands of small developments you might not even realise have happened.
At the start of this year, I compiled a list of trendsin 2019. Now, with the year drawing to a close, it’s time to revisit them and see how they’ve played out. From key moments to benchmarks of progress, here’s how the game-changers of 2019 took place.
Trend 1: Technologies converge as 5G finally lands
In 2019, the acronym on everybody’s lips was 4IR. With Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of a massive government project to boost South Africa’s digital readiness, it’s clear that technological convergence has reached a tipping point.
The impact of convergence is evident when you look at the exponential progress we’ve shown in our digital maturity. In a single year, African tech hubs have grown by 40%. According to ICASA, smartphone penetration in South Africa nearly doubled from 2016 to 2018.
At the heart of this growth is reliable, affordable connectivity. Several companies have announced ventures that will strengthen our IoT infrastructure in a big way. Google and Facebook are building their own undersea data cables, while IBM is bringing quantum computing to SA.
Even 5G, the missing puzzle piece for the age of convergence, is finally a reality in South Africa, with Rain having officially opened its 5G network to the public. MTN has just showcased Africa’s first 5G-powered live video call, and Vodacom trialled its own 5G network at the Durban July.
Advice for 2020: While it’s still early days for the rollout of 5G, it’s important to start preparing for a reality in which every South African enjoys always-on, high-speed connectivity.
Trend 2: AI goes mainstream
It’s safe to say that AI truly has gone mainstream in the business world. Nearly half of South African companies say they are already actively piloting AI within their organisations, while an incredible 96% expect to gain significant financial benefits from AI optimisation.
AI is making an impact beyond the business world. In October, Johannesburg doctors performed Africa’s first knee replacement operation using a robotic-arm assisted surgery system. Durban Metro Police are introducing a smart policing system powered by machine learning.
In fact, AI has become so widespread that it’s turning up in the unlikeliest of places. In Khayelitsha, start-up Enlabeler is using machine learning to create jobs and training people in how to create AI models.
We are making equally important in getting people the skills they need. The University of Johannesburg launched a learning programme aimed at giving all undergraduates the awareness and understanding of AI they need to succeed in the workplace of the future. The Kgalema Motlanthe Foundation is hosting AI bootcamps for underprivileged teenage girls.
Advice for 2020: With the plethora of machine learning courses found on platforms such as Coursera and Fast.ai, there’s no excuse to be in the dark when it comes to AI. Get yourself up to speed on the basics as well as use cases in your area.
Trend 3: The digital identity question takes centre stage
2019 has been a landmark year for innovation in digital identity verification. Kenya’s national digital ID scheme, Huduma Namba, officially went live with 37.7 million people registered, and many other countries are rolling out similar initiatives. Closer to home, the Department of Home Affairs is trialling a new e-visa system as part of its ongoing digitisation.
The private sector has been even more busy. Tymebank has done away with the need for most documentation to open an account, needing only an ID and cellphone number. Mobile providers such as Trace and Rain have started offering e-RICA options, making it easier than ever to sign up for a SIM card. Vodacom and MTN have started implementing eSIM technology that allows customers to use a single mobile number their devices.
Advice for 2020: Give your users alternative options to prove who they are, especially when it comes to onboarding of new products and services.
Trend 4: Time to clean up your data act
To understand just how important data privacy has become in 2019, you only need to look at one thing: Facebook having to pay out $5 billion for having mishandled user data. It’s a sign that when it comes to responsible data practices, no company, no matter how big, is above the law.
Apple meanwhile is increasingly using data privacy as a differentiator, especially when it comes to its seamless sign-in platform. With two thirds of consumers admitting they are more comfortable with companies that are clear about how they use their personal information, it’s a winning strategy.
Thankfully, many South African organisations are on the right track when it comes to data privacy compliance. In an ITWeb and TransUnion survey, we found that 55% of businesses are midway with PoPIA implementation, with a further 14% having completed their PoPIA project.
Advice for 2020: Compliance is just the first step. Businesses are going to have to make data privacy part of their DNA.
Trend 5: Rediscovering purpose in a changing world
It was a year in which South Africa seemed a little lost for purpose, gripped by uncertainty and pessimism. That is until the rugby team came together and reignited the flame of the country’s hopes and dreams. It’s a testament to the importance of purpose especially in uncertain times.
Examples of organisations using information for good were everywhere, from small start-ups right through to Fortune 500 businesses. Take UJ, which is using AI to provide mental health services to schools. Naspers Foundry, Naspers’ R1.4 billion start-up fund, announced its first investment this year to the tune of R30 million.
In fact, South Africa is one of the top countries where social entrepreneurship is gaining momentum. Instead of confining doing good to corporate social responsibility initiatives, we’re seeing more organisations embrace it as a business imperative. One of the best examples of this has been Discovery Bank, which has made improving customer’s financial behaviours a key part of its business model. It’s a use of technology for positive impact that we will hopefully see a lot more of in the years ahead.
Advice for 2020: As we move into a new decade, reflect on what your purpose is beyond making money and what you’re doing to bring that to life.
As we look back on 2019, what trend do you believe has had the most impact? Did your year play out like you predicted it would?