Dr. Fred Amonya (Chair, Transport System Economics, PIARC)
Transport binds humanity. It connects us to hubs of aspirations. Transport makes us whole.
To the lower income countries (LIC), transport can be an economic equalizer. Yet, transport can also move LIC further out to the margins. Transport is both an enabler and an inhibitor of economic (and social) progress. Therefore, we must understand the complex space of transport and invest prudently.
What is the main challenge (and attendant opportunity) of transport? It is this phenomenon called the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). It is a social and technological wave. View 4IR as a merger of two effects: high-rate digital networks and a jolt in appreciation of the environment. Suddenly, the world is asking transport to appreciate humanity better. On the background of 4IR, the world is questioning how we interact with the environment in installing transport infrastructure. The world is also asking how the functionality of transport infrastructure supports the emerging social values of 4IR. 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 4IR, the high-income world is retrofitting their transport infrastructure. The LIC can avoid that path. However, LIC 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 LIC. 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 LIC 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 4IR.
The conference sought to illuminate phenomena that capture both the challenges and opportunities of 4IR. The papers are case studies. They 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 generalized. 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 PPP [public-private partnerships]. So, view 4IR 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 4IR). 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. No, we tend to stop but 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. 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 this conference, remember – the 4IR poses questions to us and our ultimate answers reside in our universities.