The 4IR, Data, and Spatial Transformation in Johannesburg

3 min readApr 26, 2021


Dr. Miriam M. Maina

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) has been lauded for its potential to accelerate global social and economic transformation, raise income levels, and improve the quality of life. The 4IR is distinguished from previous industrial revolutions by increased fusion of technologies and the blurring of lines across the physical, digital and biological spheres. This has been driven by developments in technology and computing, most notably the expansion of processing power and storage capacity, enhanced connectivity and networks, increasing access to information and collaboration, and technological breakthroughs in AI, robotics, IoT, automation, biotechnology, quantum computing, large-scale information and big data, and analytics.

The effect has been the reorganisation of nearly all industries and sectors across the world, through the transformation of systems of production, management, governance, and all aspects of social and community life.

While the 4IR holds great potential for enhancing productivity and efficiency, transforming sectors including healthcare, finance, mobility, and sustainable development, and driving the emergence of new markets; 4IR is not without challenges. ‘Datafication’ refers to the logic and processes through which subjects, objects, and everyday life are turned into digital data. This data is increasingly mined for value, or applied in governance, policy, and legislation. Critical engagement with developments in this field has highlighted the scope for this to contribute to expanding inequality.

Leveraging 4IR (and data) for sustainable development and spatial transformation

The 4IR transition marks a moment of transformation across government, businesses, and society. How can governments and institutions leverage 4IR’s potential to drive social, spatial, and economic transformation? There is a need for governments to be responsive and adaptive, to leverage rapid technological change towards achieving development aspirations and enhancing human development, economic competitiveness, and transforming human settlements.

This will require the expansion of the capacity and capability of all institutions and stakeholders to harness the potential of 4IR and apply it to developing solutions for local contexts. At the local level, there is an increasing need for interactive, collaborative decision making and mutual learning across government, industry, civil society and residents.

One of the key drivers of the 4IR is big data and analytics. Sometimes described as the ‘new gold’ or ‘new oil’ of the 21st Century, data underpins the majority of the technological dynamics in AI and digitalisation, and has transformed decision making and business models across industries. With this transformation has come the need for the formulation of national policies on data, data protection and data access.

As in other sectors, urban development and spatial planning have been transformed by developments in 4IR, and through rapid technological change across sectors and industries related to the production of space. An emerging research thread will explore how urban data and analytics are applied in policy-making and in the legislation and coordination of urban investments in land use, infrastructure and utilities, transport and mobility, and human settlements development, particularly in cities in the developing world.

Photo by Jacques Nel

1. Schwab, K. (2016, Jan 14). The Fourth Industrial Revolution: what it means, how to respond. Retrieved from World Economic Forum:

2. Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. (2020). Summary Report & Recommendations. Pretoria: Republic of South Africa.

3. Gastrow, M. (2020). Policy options for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in South Africa. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council.

4. Milan, S., & Trere, E. (2019). Big Data from the South(s): Beyond Data Universalism. Television & New Media, 319–335.




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