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How to help entrepreneurs adopt cutting edge technologies to grow their businesses

ENTREPRENEURS are known to drive innovation and progress in various fields. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has provided an unprecedented platform to do so.

SEAN KRUGER, Coordinator Strategic Innovation, University of Pretoria

ADRIANA ALETTA STEYN, Senior Lecturer in Informatics, University of Pretoria

This global concept was coined in 2016 by Professor Klaus Schwab. He said that this revolution entails “nothing less than the transformation of humankind” because it is the integration of technologies across the digital, physical and biological spheres. Moreover, the speed at which this is happening is influencing work, services, educational needs and people’s everyday activities.

Entrepreneurs have the potential to create entirely new ways of providing goods and services through technological innovations. In South Africa entrepreneurs have done so on various fronts.

One example is Jobox, a platform that helps optimise the freelance economy and assists in getting people employed. Another is Strait Access Technologies, a start-up company that’s driving breakthrough medical devices for heart valve replacement.

This requires a certain level of comprehension about what kinds of technologies are available, but also how they can enhance products and services with digital capabilities.

Our research aimed to find out what competencies entrepreneurs need so that they can best use current technologies to seize opportunities and create successful businesses. These technologies include artificial intelligence, adaptive robotics, the Internet of Things, big data, drones, 5G and cloud systems. All are continuously evolving.

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What we looked for and what we found

Our study found that the technology landscape is vastly complex because of the potential for integration, as well as the fact that technologies are constantly evolving.

For entrepreneurs to develop relevant products, they need core competencies to tackle the new age technologies and reap the potential rewards.

Our study confirmed that innovation and creativity remain fundamental skills. But additional competencies are also needed. These include the ability to cross-link business units through digital connectivity, rapid prototyping, and understanding how data-driven decisions can enable automated and personalised service offerings.

To find out what entrepreneurs would need, we ourselves delved into advanced technologies – such as machine learning – to confirm the accuracy of interview transcriptions and identify any possible oversights. We also looked at 3D printing as a technology that entrepreneurs could use to rapidly prototype using computer aided design.

We applied this in one case where a company was creating a product that could be deployed from the ground to disable drones in places where they were not permitted.

For easier understanding, we split the Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies into three different layers. The first was the physical layer, which consists of robotics and drones. The second was the connectivity layer which connects these technologies, such as 5G. Finally the digital layer, where data processing helps formulate meaningful insights. Technologies that could be used here include cloud services and artificial intelligence.

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What emerged was that entrepreneurs were capable of creating new ventures if they developed new competencies. One was industrial automation using the Internet of Things to connect devices across a water treatment plant. The Internet of Things allows physical devices collecting data in different locations to be connected and for the data to be shared. In this case this technology provided automated systems to ensure energy efficiency and could identify machinery breakdowns before they happened.

Another was a cloud based system using eye-tracking data to determine client engagement with textbooks. This was then used to note which areas were overlooked by students, or where there were areas of difficulty.

Our data analysis showed there was a wide scope for entrepreneurial competencies that could be used not only in a university context, but also in existing job roles.

Going forward

South Africa needs to continue to make strides to harness potential benefits by supporting entrepreneurs. Although government has produced a white paper to this end, other efforts could be strengthened. These include raising awareness about government programmes and enhancing access to new forms of financing to launch businesses.

In addition, academic institutions and schools need to continually blend interdisciplinary skills towards competencies for graduates as well as those who engage in life-long learning. Most importantly, institutions must incorporate participation in some of the programmes that are already under way as well as forums where these skills can be applied.

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If this development can be guided, South Africa’s entrepreneurial landscape can flourish. This won’t only drive economic growth. It will also get young people economically active and create jobs.

By The African Mirror