How will the technology revolution of Construction 4.0 impact people?

How will the technology revolution of Construction 4.0 impact people?

A New Civil Engineer‘s article by Fred SHERRATT tries to answer How will the technology revolution of Construction 4.0 impact people?’ Preceding these excerpts and highlights through our bolds with all due respect for all involved are our thoughts.

The debate about the digital transformation of the construction industry in its different markets across, for instance, the MENA region, has been well surveyed on projects through the role of technology in shaping the next phase of development.

The impact of digitalisation in the region’s construction will encompass a radical change in all sectors. Such sectors as electricity and transport, particularly road construction, are naturally, as it were, prone to be digitally handled through automation with a certain ease. According to many observers, the building industry though being, as it were, more vernacular in its diversity and composition, would require still lots of digital innovation and eventually be a crucial driver of future growth in the construction industry. Collected data on what digitisation means for the construction industry to be spent on in the MENA region illustrates well over the recent past. Most concerns are for those countries of the Gulf whether the future’s Construction sites will be people-free’ for obvious reasons and the opposite for the rest of the MENA region.

The picture above is for illustration and is of The Fourth Industrial Revolution by Ahmad Sufian Bayram.


How will the technology revolution of Construction 4.0 impact people?
Fred Sherratt is the interim deputy dean for research and innovation in the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Anglia Ruskin University

How will the technology revolution of Construction 4.0 impact people?

Welcome to the Fourth Industrial Revolution! Under Construction 4.0 robots lay bricks and drones carry out surveys. Improved connectivity and data management means AI and machine learning can plan projects better than humans ever could. Building information modelling (BIM) has blossomed, projects completed in the virtual world before ground is even broken. Computer controlled craftsmanship optimises design, whilst the Internet of Things enables the use of real-time data processing and digital twins to optimise delivery on site.

Fred Sherratt is the interim deputy dean for research and innovation in the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Anglia Ruskin University

And for an industry told to Modernise or Die this could not have come at a better time.

Construction 4.0 promises increased efficiencies, enhanced and optimised productivity. Not to mention savings of time and money through reductions of labour, material and processing costs. This is trumpeted across the industry through voices heavy with technological optimism, industrial progress, all the benefits and rewards this revolution will bring, as well as scare stories for those not getting on board now – you’ll be left behind if you miss the boat!

But maybe we should think a little more critically about this. Because we have been here before. Three times to be precise.

And, it hasn’t always gone well. Not least because technology is not neutral, as Jacque Ellul argued in 1954. The underlying rational and objective methods that drive its implementation also instil within it an autonomy and amorality that is potentially dangerous. People and industries are compelled to adapt to technological change – as who but a Luddite would challenge all the promises it brings? – but such change is not always positive. History shows that technology can fundamentally disrupt the ways industries are structured and operate: workers are not just replaced by robots, things change so much neither robots or people are needed at all. So just because we can, doesn’t mean we should, and certainly not without careful deliberation.

Our industry contributes significantly to UK employment, including many site workers who’ve struggled with formal education whilst their myriad practical skills have long been devalued. For them, Construction 4.0 presents a positive narrative of “reskilling” or “multi-skilled” workers, but history suggests a downgrading of both job roles and earning potential is actually much more likely. Technological advancements tend to reduce labour requirements overall and also split skilled roles into two: new tasks only requiring one degree-qualified manager and some unskilled labour, with reduced quality of work and thus less remuneration. Estimates suggest 50% of traditional construction work could be automated over the next 20 years, making this a significant concern. But Construction 4.0 doesn’t care, the amorality technology brings to progress creates a convenient myopia for social consequences such as this. Any reduction in the numbers of people employed or their potential earnings is beneficial – a reduction in wage costs, hurrah! It’s just a shame about the jobs, and the satisfaction people used to be able to realise from skilled manual work.

And it is not just site workers who are vulnerable to such “progress”. Engineers have already seen their work shift into the virtual, where they now sit in front of screens to design and provide information to control and guide subcontractors. Their work is now shaped and structured by new technologies which require specialist skills for operation, and which also created new roles that potentially undermine professional autonomy. Whilst professionals were upskilling themselves, “BIM managers” took charge of the design process as a whole, because they were best able to navigate and negotiate the software, not because they were best skilled to lead design development or coordination. Although things have rebalanced as training caught up, professionals across our industry are now forced into ways of working as the technology dictates, choice is no longer an option.

Indeed, the “technology owner” may even become the dominant industry professional in the future, through the autonomy unquestionably conferred on them. Indeed, Cui bono [who will benefit] is never a bad question to ask, particularly in a US$10bn global construction software marketplace. Software vendors promise solutions to all manner of construction process inefficiencies, but in doing so they are also redesigning industry structures to fit their technologies. But the confidence (arrogance), that technology developers can capture (and inevitably improve) what we do is never challenged: they are now gurus to the industry, with little sense of history, craft or profession. The consequences of this dominance could be considerable: a built environment constructed to meet the dictates of technology, rather than the manifestation of the imagination, fun, creativity and humanity of a real person. Are we happy about that?

We should therefore consider carefully whose agendas Construction 4.0 is serving. Our industry does more than simply create our built environment, it also employs vast numbers of people who gain both income and self-validation from this process. Construction 4.0 is challenging how we do things, disrupting us, bringing progress at last to our dinosaur of an industry. But who is challenging Construction 4.0? Luckily it’s all still relatively piecemeal, smoke and mirrors are plentiful, and we are not (yet) at the point of no return. But it’s up to professionals to point out that Construction 4.0 has the potential to do harm as well as good. We should all think a little more critically before we add our voices to the current tsunami of technological optimism. It’s a common trope of our industry that people are our biggest asset. Why don’t we try to keep it that way?

  • Fred Sherratt is the interim deputy dean for research and innovation in the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Anglia Ruskin University
Startup 3-D prints solar-powered bionic hands

Startup 3-D prints solar-powered bionic hands

Caroline Nelly Perrot reports that a Tunisian startup 3-D prints solar-powered bionic hands .

A Tunisian startup is developing a 3-D-printed bionic hand, hoping the affordable and solar-powered prosthetic will help amputees and other disabled people across Africa.

Unlike traditional devices, the artificial hand can be customised for children and youths, who otherwise require an expensive series of resized models as they grow up.

The company Cure Bionics also has plans to develop a video game-like virtual reality system that helps youngsters learn how to use the artificial hand through physical therapy.

Startup 3-D prints solar-powered bionic hands
Tunisian startup Cure Bionics are developing a prototype of an artificial hand, which they hope will be more affordable to help amputees and other disabled people

Mohamed Dhaouafi, the 28-year-old founder and CEO of Cure Bionics, designed his first prototype while still an engineering student in his home city Sousse.

“One team member had a cousin who was born without a hand and whose parents couldn’t afford a prosthesis, especially as she was still growing up,” he said.

“So we decided to design a hand.”

Dhaouafi launched his start-up in 2017 from his parents’ home, at a time when many of his classmates chose to move abroad seeking higher salaries and international experience.

“It was like positive revenge,” he told AFP. “I wanted to prove I could do it. I also want to leave a legacy, to change people’s lives.”

Dhaouafi pointed to hurdles in Tunisia, where it can be hard or impossible to order parts via large online sales sites. There is a lack of funding and, he said, “we lack visionaries within the state”.

Startup 3-D prints solar-powered bionic hands
The bionic hand is made of Lego-like parts that can be replaced if damaged or to match a child’s physical growth

But by pooling money raised through sponsored competitions and seed investment from a US company, he was able to recruit four young engineers.

They are now fine-tuning designs, writing code and testing the artificial hand.

‘Climb like Spiderman’

The device works with sensors attached to the arm that detect muscle movement, and AI-assisted software that interprets them to transmit instructions to the digits.

The hand itself has a wrist that can turn sideways, a mechanical thumb and fingers that bend at the joints in response to the electronic impulses.

To teach youngsters how to use them, Cure has been working on a virtual-reality headset that “gamifies” the physical therapy process.

“Currently, for rehabilitation, children are asked to pretend to open a jar, for example, with the hand they no longer have,” said Dhaouafi.

“It takes time to succeed in activating the muscles this way. It’s not intuitive, and it’s very boring.”

In Cure’s version, the engineer said: “We get them to climb up buildings like Spiderman, with a game score to motivate them, and the doctor can follow up online from a distance”.

3-D printing meanwhile makes it possible to personalise the prosthesis like a fashion accessory or “a superhero’s outfit”, said Dhaouafi.

Cure hopes to market its first bionic hands within a few months, first in Tunisia and then elsewhere in Africa, where more than three-quarters of people in need have no access to them, according to the World Health Organization.

“The aim is to be accessible financially but also geographically,” said Dhaouafi.

The envisaged price of around $2,000 to $3,000 is substantial, but a fraction of the cost of bionic prostheses currently imported from Europe.

‘Leapfrog technology’

Cure also aims to manufacture as close as possible to the end users, with local technicians measuring the patients and then printing individually fitted devices.

“An imported prosthesis today means weeks or even months of waiting when you buy it, and again with each repair,” the inventor said.

Startup 3-D prints solar-powered bionic hands
Tunisian engineers test a prototype of an artificial hand, which they hope will be produced at a lower price than existing prostheses

The bionic hand is made of Lego-like parts that can be replaced if damaged or to match a child’s physical growth.

It can also be solar-powered via a photovoltaic charger for use in regions without a reliable electricity supply.

The 3-D printing of rudimentary prostheses started about a decade ago and is becoming standard.

It is not a magic solution because specialised medical know-how is still crucial, said Jerry Evans, who heads Nia Technologies, a Canadian non-commercial organisation that helps African hospitals manufacture 3-D-printed lower limbs.

“3-D printing is still in its early stages,” he said, “but it is a major game changer in the field of prosthetics and orthotics.”

“Developing countries will probably leapfrog to these technologies because the cost is much lower.”

A Global Revolution in the Information System

A Global Revolution in the Information System

Institutions and businesses face a global revolution in the information system that unlike in the past, results in too much information especially if left unused or mishandled. The consequences of such a situation are debated here by Professor A. Mebtoul of Algeria.

With the new information system, unlike in the past, there is too much information. The credibility of the statistical apparatus and the operative selection of this mass of information could induce problems of adapting to the new global digital revolution. That has an impact on the behaviour of citizens as well as on the management of institutions. It is because the further information and communication technologies (ICTs) have implications for political governance, business and administrative management, and also have an impact on our modern way of life, which refers to knowledge and continuous innovation.

Politicians, entrepreneurs, citizens, we all live today in a society of electronic communication, plural and immediate that forces us to make decisions in real-time. The mastery of time being the main challenge of the century, in this 21st century, committing national security any inadequacy to these changes would further isolate the country. This analysis of these global information and technological changes and the impact on the Algerian economy, I developed at length in the American Herald Tribune of August 11, 2018[1].

The new information system, a global revolution

ICT is a set of technologies used to process, modify, and exchange information specifically digitised data. The birth of ICT is due to the convergence of IT, telecommunications and audiovisual. The development of high-speed Internet, the democratisation of computers and new technologies are the result of lower rates offered by ISPs and growing demand from customers.

The boom in blogs and e-mail is giving ICT an increasingly important place in our society. This interaction between electronics and computing explains why ICT applications can meet the needs of businesses and the state as well as households and individuals. Now subject to the same market laws as any other market production activity, ICT is also a sector where competition is directly played out on a global scale.

The globalisation of companies, markets and financial circuits has not only involved a reshaping of economic structures and exchange flows, but it has also led to the professionalisation of communication and information, as well as an increasingly advanced integration of the phases of product design, creation and consumption. , in parallel with the merger of spheres of activity that were once separated or even opposed. More than opening up to the general public, ICT is revolutionising the internal organisation of the business world. Management software called ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) manages different tasks such as inventory or treasury, collaborative work.

Through the use of intranet and messaging, the “wireless” or “online” system maintains a permanent link with employees on the go as well as video conferencing, all of this generates better sharing and internal information flow. Thus, the world became a large glasshouse.  The Internet’s infrastructure is now spreading across the globe to create a massive global network thanks to the computing that today allows information to be digitised and new systems managed. The integration of telecommunications, it and audiovisual technology has given rise to the Information Society, which is the subject of specific attention from states and international organisations.

This interest has been increased for more than a decade because of the socio-economic and cultural benefits of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICT): the “digital divide” transcends geographical divides and crosses all human societies. This is because the new means of telecommunications facilitate the exchange and dissemination of knowledge. These new ICTs are therefore profoundly changing the daily lives of citizens, the functioning of businesses and the state. All of this leads to new mental and social representations. This is more obvious at the multimedia level (TV, video on demand, GPS, music) on mobile phones.

On the macroeconomic front, new ICT processes have implications for the value of products and services, which will be more life-cycled, which tends to be shortened and influences productivity gains and ICT-related growth. ICTs also influence scientific and technical research and indirectly enable discoveries that have a new macroeconomic effect. Finally, ICTs have an impact in many other areas such as leisure, culture, health, time management and social behaviour. The advent of the Internet and the tremendous development it has undergone through in recent years have practically put the company, of any importance, at a critical notice to adapt and make the most appropriate and productive use of it. Competitiveness requires it to obtain or give information in real-time; the company will indeed invest the Web and use electronics to face competition and develop its activities. In recent years, ICTs have been able to set up models of work organisation, the main characteristics of which are decentralisation and flexibility. The phenomenon of offshoring of employment is mainly due to the search for productivity gains and opportunities offered by ICT to companies, especially those that are large: online remote work is an everyday reality.

Mastering Economic Intelligence, the Foundation of National Security

Economic Intelligence and its strategic management have become for a nation and enterprise in a particular way, one of the essential drivers of its overall performance and safety. In practice, economic intelligence is a process arising from the intelligence cycle. The information collected helps build a conviction throughout processing and not confirms the erroneous opinion that an actor might initially have.

A formalised need-expression step allows research to be “targeted” by defining a limited perimeter, an essential step to avoid the accumulation of unnecessary data and thus to be equipped with counterproductive information overload. All the fields that complement Economic Intelligence, such as knowledge management, information protection, lobbying, can be grouped into the global concept of Strategic Intelligence. Economic intelligence incorporates two additional dimensions compared to the previous day: decision-making and knowledge of information.

The Economic Intelligence model covers three concepts. We first have data that are numbers, words, current events outside a conceptual frame of reference. Then we have the information, which is the accumulation of data, processed and transformed that become information, validated, and confronted, that begins to make sense. Finally, we have the knowledge that is the set of interpreted information that makes it possible to make decisions. The passages through these three concepts are done in the following way. I want the right information at the right time. For this, it is necessary to define objectives; search and collect data sort and store the data and finally have relevant information. How can I make the information useful? Once the overall information objectives have been set, and research, collection, sorting. Storage missions have been validated, and information must be analysed, results used to highlight aspects that help in decision-making. From then on, the transition from knowledge to intelligence arises. The culture of managers, both political, military and economic, must be changed.

The decision-making system is not a fixed system. It must adapt and evolve; for this, it is necessary to share information, assess the quality and relevance of decisions and the question itself. It is essential to integrate it into the functions of administration and business to make economic intelligence a real competitive advantage. The process approach allows for better coordination of steps to make the most of the information repository for effective action on the administration or the company or its environment through complex interactions. A nation or a company will be better than its competitors if it has, before the others, the right information at the right time, whether it is market knowledge, legal, technological, normative or other information.

A nation or an enterprise must be able to create an information asymmetry to its advantage to build its competitive advantage concerning security, political, economic and technological issues. It is also for this reason that governments are assisting in the education and education of business leaders so that they can use economic intelligence to strengthen their management skills. Hence the support to companies for access to the large volumes of information on international trade held by departmental departments and agencies, the Intelligence and Counterintelligence Services, setting up an economic information service for the benefit of companies engaged in foreign trade. Industrial property in various aspects (patents, trademarks, models, know-how, copyrights, technology monitoring, secrecy, software protection, technology transfer, licensing agreements, competition law, etc.) is becoming a major issue. Many companies try to extract from their competitors’ technologies, customer files, trade secrets, product cost structures, product manufacturing specifications and procedures, and development plans. Since the advent of intranets and extranets, information has spread more quickly and widely across borders, acquiring such strategic value that the challenge now is to appropriate it. This is why currently, the majority of developed states contribute to ensuring the security control of internal databases within companies to deal with data hacks. The motivations of hackers have evolved: from software piracy by amateurs whose main motivation was to steal for their personal use, we have moved to “professional” hacking of an economic nature (misappropriation of money) and industrial hacking, close to espionage. Beyond the technical risks imposed by the Tic, the security of computer data begins with securing and raising awareness of human resources. Communications interceptions have also evolved. From wiretapping, we’ve gone to intercepting e-mail. When an e-mail is sent in the usual way, it is not encrypted and can pass through a dozen proxies that mark the route to its destination. However, for technical but also legal reasons, they keep a copy of the messages received. The information contained in the message and the attached files can, therefore, be read by as many proxies managers. Document thefts occur not only remotely or not accessing a computer or server but also in the most unexpected way by photocopiers. Each time a document is copied on a modern copier, the machine’s hard drive stores a copy. As a result, they have become real computerised storage centres, often without the knowledge of company managers and employees. The most modern copiers and multifunction machines store information before printing it. Computer experts can, therefore, retrieve this information, especially since most of them are usually connected to a network, either via a PC (shared printer) or through a clean IP address.

Algeria faces the challenges of the globalisation of the information society

Every day, new technological advances make previous advances more obsolete.  The challenges – in terms of opportunities and risks of marginalisation – the ICT’s influence on growth and social development. This delay is also due in part to the problem of negative attitudes and attitudes that hinder the implementation of innovative and exciting projects, proposed by specialists. An Algerian study shows that only 15% of Algerian SMEs out of the 321,000 surveyed use information and communication technologies (ICT) in their activities according to the National Agency for the Development of SMEs. In the 2019 ranking of the Bloomberg Innovation Index, which measures the impact of innovation in the economy, it is also based on seven criteria: research and development, manufacturing value-added, productivity, high-tech density, tertiary sector efficiency, the concentration of researchers, number of patents.  Algeria is absent from the top 50.  This absence is due to the lack of use and development of ICT in daily life, notably the absence of E-payment and E-Education.   Another ranking is that Algeria has one of the slowest Internet connections in the world. In the latest “Worldwide broadband speed league 2018”,  which annually reports on the speeds of no less than 200 countries (the ranking having been established based on 163 million tests concerning 200 countries),

Algeria, with a download speed of 1.25 Mbps (Megabits), found itself in 175th place. According to this report, it would take 9 hours and 7 minutes for an Algerian Internet user to download a 5GB film (gigabit). In contrast, this time is only 11 minutes and 18 seconds in Singapore, first in the ranking, with a speed of 60.39 Mbps. Furthermore, according to the 2018 edition released on December 5, 2018, of the Global Knowledge Index, developed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), that measures the multidimensional concept of knowledge based on seven sector indices, Algeria is ranked 104th out of the 134 studied countries. As for the Global Innovation Index, a global ranking of countries based on their capacity and results of economic innovation published annually by Cornell University, the European Institute of Business Administration (INSEAD) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in 2018, out of a total of 126 countries, Algeria achieved a score of 23.87 points out of 100, down two places from 2017.   According to the latest edition of the biennial United Nations survey on India’s 2018 E-Government Development in the world, published on July 19 2018 “as a general rule, there is a positive correlation between the country’s income level and its ranking in electronic administration. High-income countries have very high or high EGDI scores. It is not universal, however. Twenty-two upper-middle-income countries and 39 lower-middle-income countries have EGDI scores below the global average of EGDI, and ten countries in the lower-middle-income group have scores above the global average. On the other hand, low-income countries remain lagging due to the relatively low level of development of all components of the index.”

For national security reasons, Algeria’s information system needs to be redesigned 

Statistics are now abundant at all national, regional and global levels, and playing an increasingly important role in our societies and public administrations. They inform public debates, policy formulation and business decision-making, thus raising the issue of the intrinsic quality, compilation and selection of information. In Algeria, however, this information-gathering system needs to be redesigned.  Ideally, it would be a Ministry of the Economy with a strategic planning directorate and a National Statistics (ONS) that like the INSEE in France, Great Britain, Germany or the United States of America, is an independent body with an analysis department. It must be part of another institutional organisation that is moving towards the consolidation of ministries for greater efficiency and budgetary rigour, economic regionalisation.

Subject to specific objectives, with several local authorities and institutions not telescoping each other nor making information opaque for reasons of individualised strategies.  What are short-term parameters can become variable in the medium term, and what is the strategic sector today may not become so tomorrow. Of course, the ONS not meant to assess current public policies delivers what others interpret its figures by recognising that better inter-institutional coordination between the various and abundant administrative sources and the board would be desirable, calling for more “coherence and integration”. It is because the ONS starts from the micro-economic data of administrations and companies by consolidating them at the macro-economic level. This inconsistency, fostered by an inconsistent pricing system in which administered prices and market prices compiled together, does not allow us to identify the sincerity of the accounts and can lead to mismanagement and even corruption. If the essential information is biased, it gives results at the global level that does not reflect reality. And this is what we see with the crumbling of the information system, where the polling bases are different from one organisation to another resulting in data that contradicts the reality. Therefore, survey methods need to be standardised, whether comprehensive or surveyed. Above all, information must be democratised by opening up the massive media to a broad and contradictory economic debate, as no one has a monopoly on nationalism. However, monetary policy errors can amount to losses of tens of billions of dollars to the country. The crumbling of the information system explains the contradictory discourses of several senior officials; entropy has reached an unacceptable level in recent years.

For transparency, the foundation of good governance, accelerate the digitisation of institutions and companies

The 21st-century world is on the cusp of a fourth economic and technological revolution, based on two fundamentals of good governance and knowledge economy.  This revolution, with the trajectory of the digital transition and the energy transition, means that any nation that does not advance is going backwards, that there is no static situation. The majority of paper newspapers are likely to disappear by 2020/2025, if they do not adapt to the new revolution, replaced by online sites that give real-time information. I recall that, as Director-General of Economic Studies and first advisor to the Court of Auditors, I was appointed by the then Presidency in 1983 to deal with the issue of demurrage. This issue is still relevant and made urgent, given budgetary constraints. These numerous raft boats cause large foreign exchange outflows. I had suggested, about the services of the Ministry of Commerce, of the finances and various ministerial departments concerned, the urgency to combat both demurrage and overcharging the establishment of a value table by setting up a networked and real-time information system between ports, customs, banks, tax services and connected to international networks to know the real-time prices of imported goods. 

“The statistics available are not accurate; those who oppose digitisation do not want transparency”:  Abdelmadjid TEBBOUNE, President of the Republic.

As the President of the Republic has pointed out, those who oppose the digitisation of institutions and businesses do not want either to move forward nor plan for a future in full knowledge of all potential possibilities in as clear an atmosphere as can be had.  An example would be the management of ministries, governorates (wilayas) and the majority of services that still follow the methods of the 1960s/1970s with techniques. The urgency of transparency in the management of SONATRACH which provides 98% of the country’s foreign exchange revenues, the financial system as a whole, which must make its transformation, being currently, mere administrative counters, place of interest struggles and distribution of the oil rente. A rentier oligarchy has used, the customs system for overcharges for lack of a table of value linked to the international network, (price, weight costs/quality).  The present state system that promotes land squandering; the undigitised tax system that leads to tax evasion, the public banking system that allows enormous loans without real guarantees and interest rate bonuses, with collaboration, without correlation of business would require a radical change.  In this context, bureaucracy, the legacy of an administered economy, is one of the heaviest constraints and whose eradication is necessary.  The new system should instil the dynamics of development in the context of a controlled liberalisation reconciling economic efficiency and social justice.  The latter not being antinomic with efficiency, on the contrary, would prompt the mobilisation of citizens for a new Algeria. The less different the reforms, the more we will deplete the foreign exchange reserves, and this crisis of governance risks turning into a financial, economic and political turmoil with the risk of regional destabilisation.  ademmebtoul@gmail.com


[1] “Dr. Abderrahmane Mebtoul: “Algeria Still Faces Significant Challenges” and three parts in the international site AfricaPresse Paris on the challenges of Algeria 2018/2020/2030 as follows:

  1. “Algeria’s development involves the reform of the political system”
  2. “There is an urgent need to adapt Algerian political parties, for the majority related to rentier interests” and
  3. “No development for Algeria without strategic vision of the transition to a non-hydrocarbon economy”
Where does MENA stand with digital skills?

Where does MENA stand with digital skills?

The World Bank‘s question in its Starting line — Where does MENA stand with digital skills? is answered by Andreas Blom, Nicole Goldin, Mariam Nusrat as follows.

July 14, 2020

The key to success in this changing landscape is a digital skills revolution.
The key to success in this changing landscape is a digital skills revolution. (Photo credit: GaudiLab/Shutterstock)

Not that long ago, people like Abdullah, a young Syrian man who was forced by the ongoing war to drop out of university, would have found it nearly impossible to safely earn a living. But through Edraak, an Arabic platform for open online education launched by the Queen Rania Foundation in Jordan, he gained graphic design and digital marketing skills. Now, he earns a decent living as a freelance remote worker in Jordan.

Abdullah’s story is emblematic of how the global phenomena of digitization is transforming life in the Middle East and North Africa. By 2025, the Middle East is estimated to have 160 million potential digital users who will contribute significantly to rapid economic growth. 

Amid the dual economic shocks of the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapse in oil prices, digital platforms are becoming even more critical to the region’s economy. With schools being closed since March and 4 in 5 workers affected by business closures globally, per International Labor Organization estimates, the shut-down of public life has revved up the need to move to digital, virtual, and remote learning solutions to build skills and ensure opportunities for people to earn a living.

Yet this emergency need is not being met. Moreover, MENA is missing real-time opportunities for digital development. Digital transformation can lead to rapid, sustained growth, but only if countries invest in digital infrastructure and human capital.

The key to success in this changing landscape is a digital skills revolution. While definitions and typologies differ, ‘digital skills’ generally refers to students, workers and people of all ages having and applying competencies, knowledge and attitudes to learn, earn and thrive in digital societies.

Digital skills most commonly comprise a continuum of basic, intermediate or advanced skills; and, as we will discuss in our next blog on competencies, they may also refer to a range of different abilities, many of which are not only ‘skills’ per se, but a combination of behaviors, expertise, know-how, work habits, character traits, dispositions and critical understandings.

As laid out by the International Telecommunication Union, Basic Skills are the general ICT skills required “broadly for all workers, consumers and citizens in a digital society” — such as word processing or researching online. Building on that foundation, Intermediate Skills are “effectively job-ready skills needed to perform more complicated work-related functions” such as social media marketing or e-commerce. Advanced or ‘Specialist’ Skills, which “form the basis of specialist occupations and professions,” are necessary to test, analyze, manage, or create digitally based products or services. These advance skills are needed to harness technology to resolve complex problems, guide others such as policymakers, contribute to professional practices, and propose new innovative ideas to advance economic development.

Where does MENA stand with digital skills?

Skills are the supply side of digital labor markets; jobs are the demand side. Digital or ICT work can be conceived in three terms: enhanced, dependent, intensive. Some jobs are enhanced by digital tools, whereas with others — such as Internet freelancing or call centers — technology is fundamental to the work. Digitally intensive work — such as machine learning or app development — requires more specialist and advanced skills.

While data is sparse and likely not as up-to-date as the pace of change, we have learned important baseline details about the digital skills match — or mismatch — in MENA’s digital labor market. There is a shortage of digital human capital in MENA, marked by skills and information gaps. For example, in its 2017Future of Work study, McKinsey found that across the region, only 1.7% of the workforce is ‘digital talent.’ In their last 2017 skills survey of the region, Bayt/YouGov, a leading jobs website in MENA, revealed that IT jobs are among the top open positions, evidence of an acute talent and skills shortage in the region.

The Gulf countries are arguably the most advanced in terms of digital transformation. Yet, GCC countries still have a significant digital skills gap. In a 2020 survey by PwC of CEOs in the Middle East, 70% said the availability of key digital skills is a business threat, and an earlier 2017 study found that only one of the 10 skills most commonly cited by digital professionals in the GCC matches the fastest-growing skills found globally on LinkedIn. Furthermore, none of the top 10 available skills in the GCC is a technical or specific digital skill.

Beyond these baselines, there is much we do not know. Researchers need employment surveys at the country level and more complete, recent data to better inform policies and programs that drive digital skills development. 

In this blog series, MENA Digital Directions, we will analyze and compare digital skills competence frameworks, discuss how to build digital skills across the educational pipeline, explore the role of the private sector and identify digital opportunities for women, youth and refugees. With a thorough understanding of the digital landscape and the right investments in digital infrastructure and skills, countries can ensure that more young people like Abdullah have a chance for a brighter, more connected future.

To get an idea of the MENA’s current and successful blogs, see Anuj Agarwal’s blog. https://blog.feedspot.com/middle_east_blogs/

Developed Countries to compete with Low-Cost Labour in the Developing

Developed Countries to compete with Low-Cost Labour in the Developing

The COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate the rise of industrial automation and enable manufacturers in developed countries to compete with low-cost labour in the developing world. As such, developing countries must respond by developing local industrial capabilities with new technologies and skills that will allow them to become more integrated into world trade. As per the AMEinfo published on 3 July 2020, this interesting essay is worth reading, especially since it might affect the MENA region countries.

Developing countries could lose out as automation competes with low-cost labour

  • WTO: Future of global value chains depends on China’s industrial strategy and the global adoption of 4IR technologies
  • UNIDO: Developing countries must bolster local capabilities with new technologies and skills to become more integrated into global value chains
  • mPedigree: African SMEs enter global value chains as virtual technologies lower business costs

The COVID-19 pandemic will accelerate the rise of industrial automation and enable manufacturers in developed countries to compete with low-cost labour in the developing world; multinational corporations are already considering repatriating some manufacturing production as a result of the unprecedented disruption the pandemic has caused to global value chains; developing countries must respond by developing local industrial capabilities with new technologies and skills that will allow them to become more integrated into world trade.

These are some of the key findings from the first virtual panel discussion between representatives of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), and Africa-based technology company mPedigree at the Virtual Edition of the Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit (#GMIS2020)

Xiaozhun Yi, Deputy Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), highlighted that more than a third of the predicted decline in world trade brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic was caused by a rise in trade costs and temporary disruptions to transport and logistics.

He stressed that the future structure of global supply chains depends on whether the pandemic accelerates two key trends that have been underway for several years. These include China moving up the value chain due to its industrial strategies or rising labour costs, and the increasing adoption of labour-saving technologies in modern manufacturing. “We believe that this pandemic may accelerate the trend of production automation and we know that this trend may reduce some opportunities in low skilled manufacturing,” Yi said.

However, he added that governments of developing countries can still attract multinational companies by introducing measures to limit trade costs, such as lifting tariffs and minimising travel restrictions and border controls. 

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Cecilia Ugaz Estrada, Special Advisor, Directorate of Corporate Management and Operations, United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), agreed that automation erodes the comparative advantage that low-cost labour gives developing countries over developed countries and this could lead to production being brought closer to the headquarters of transnational corporations that are at the head of global value chains. In response to this shift, developing countries should accelerate efforts towards more regional integration, allowing them to expand markets and trade more with their neighbours, said Ugaz Estrada.

However, Bright Simons, Founder and President of Africa-based technology company mPedigree, said COVID-19 has affected regional trade in Africa as much as global trade and that in some cases regional trade is more impacted. He cited a number of barriers to expanding regional trade within the continent, including high transportation costs, which can make it more expensive to trade within Africa than to trade internationally. “It’s not that easy, even if you wanted to, to maintain a sourcing regime that involves cutting yourself off from global value chains,” he said.

Simons added that the capacity of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Africa to export had been constrained for many years by stringent standards requirements and supplier certification programmes in developed countries, particularly in Europe. However, he added that technologies are now emerging that can streamline these processes and reduce the cost for all businesses.

“What virtual capabilities now enable is to reduce the cost of skills importation, so we have had situations where certification bodies are now able to conduct end-to-end audits online,” he said. “That cuts costs by as much as 95% and this for the first time makes it possible for some SMEs to meet these demands and be able to export overseas.”

Hosted by former BBC Journalist Declan Curry, the virtual panel discussion on ‘Glocalisation: localising production and capacity building for survival and success’ is the first of a sequence of weekly sessions of the #GMIS2020 Digital Series that commenced today, and will lead up to the Virtual Summit on September 4-5, 2020. The session is available to watch on-demand here

Under the theme – Glocalisation: Towards Sustainable and Inclusive Global Value Chains, the third edition of the internationally recognised Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit will virtually, for the very first time, bring together high-profile thought-leaders and business pioneers from around the world to shape the future of manufacturing, discuss the impact of pandemics on global value chains, and highlight the role of fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies in restoring economic and social activities. At the top of the #GMIS2020 virtual edition agenda will be the topic of digital restoration – how 4IR technologies are helping to restore the global economy and overcome unprecedented challenges.

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