Transport in lower income countries and the Fourth Industrial Revolution
What is the main challenge (and attendant opportunity) of transport? It is the phenomenon called the fourth industrial revolution, a social and technological wave that merges the two effects of high-rate digital networks and a jolt in appreciation of the environment. Suddenly, the world is asking transport to appreciate humanity better.
To lower income countries, transport can be an economic equaliser. Yet, transport can also move these countries further out to the margins as transport can be both an enabler and an inhibitor of economic and social progress. Therefore, we must understand the complex space of transport and invest prudently.
The world is also asking how the functionality of transport infrastructure supports the emerging social values of fourth industrial revolution. The new generation of users view transport infrastructure as a space of human interaction, and not merely as a conduit of physical movement.
In response to fourth industrial revolution, the high income world is retrofitting their transport infrastructure – lower income countries could avoid that path.
However, lower income countries are still emotionally (and intellectually) consumed in technologies from the first and second industrial revolutions. We see that emotional capture each time a cable stayed bridge is launched and in debates on electrifying railways. Therein is the main challenge of the lower income countries. How can these countries install physical infrastructure and at the same time move forward from infrastructure per se to its functionality?
That is a challenge to policy makers, to infrastructure managers, and most fundamentally to universities. If the lower income countries get it right, they will avoid the cost of retrofitting. The benefit is broad. It stretches from direct (economic) effects to a boosting of human capital.
The latter entails graduate students emerging with interdisciplinary knowledge that reflect fourth industrial revolution.
The World Road Association (PIARC) conference held in 2018 sought to illuminate phenomena that capture both the challenges and opportunities of fourth industrial revolution. The papers are case studies that cover policy, economics, financing and management of transport.
The essence of case study is acceptance of complexity and intractability. Therefore, none of the cases can be generalised. However, they should pose questions for other phenomena that will come our way. Those questions should motivate us as we peer through policies and management challenges in our countries.
In Africa, the emerging phenomena will reside in a space defined by three nodes: infrastructure, debt and Public Private Partnerships (PPP). So, view fourth industrial revolution as a force exciting that space. Physics tells us that space is intractable. It is what we call a nonlinear dynamical system.
It should suffice to say the complexity and intractability arises from our changing norms and values (leaving aside the force of fourth industrial revolution).
So, how do we navigate the complex space and improve the welfare of our people? The way forward must be incremental and reflexive. We must set long term targets. However, we must take short steps and each time stop and look back. That may seem what we are already doing, but we tend to stop when the reflexivity aspect is lacking. Reflexivity is expensive and requires strong analytical skills.
We must look at the present while appreciating the long term target and the holistic space. Our governments do not have the analytical resources for that exercise, so what must we do?
- We must turn back to our universities. They must own the challenge and politics must give them the requisite space.
- We should see our students drawn on these challenges of public investment and being encouraged to do so by our political leaders and policy makers.
- We should see the three parties gathering in the squares of our universities and discussing these challenges.
Then, we might expect the students to maintain that dialogue when they graduate and take on policy making.
Therefore, when you read the papers of the PIARC conference, remember the fourth industrial revolution poses questions to us and our ultimate answers reside in our universities.
Article by Dr Fred Amonya, Chair, Transport System Economics, The World Road Association (PIARC)