Transport and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: The Dynamical Lower-Income World


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.


  1. BLAH BLAH BLAH Dr. Amonya you have been in a university for far too long. You are an idealist that fails to realize the basic necessities of life in a third world nations. Get of the the intellectual and look at the mother with a child on her back waling to the river to get sustenance. Stop writing your big book to impress. that is the problem in third world nations. We have all the BOOK people and not enough businessmen. Go to hell with your intellectual discourse because nobody is listening.

    • J.W; wow! That’s heavy; but very much to the point. We need solutions NOT LECTURES. Everybody seems to know the problems; yet, nobody has the solutions.

  2. Here in the United States we are experiencing both the problems of retrofitting an aging infrastructure along our northeastern shore and mid-west while at the same time trying to figure out what works best building from the ground up in maturing metro areas in the southwest and west coast. Reinventing the wheel isn’t necessarily the wrong answer, but every new technological breakthrough carries its own risks. The most reliable method of completing such projects, be they improvements in existing systems or creating new ones, is to follow the economic need. It sounds crass. It’s a crass world. No economic support for the project will come without the promise of economic benefit at the end of the line.

    Keeping that in mind, we must remember that every time we put a shovel into the ground, the world in the vicinity of the hole must change. Your world changes as progress takes hold, not totally for the better but just so on balance. I have great respect for the people of Liberia and I feel great concern for the greater Central African region. Transportation is the key to everything, just as Dr. Amonya states – along with the wealth accumulated by the lucky few, and the job opportunities created for a greater number, it is a fact that health and living conditions improve for everyone following in the path of the road graders. You can’t help to save that mother with the child on her back, Mr. John Weah, without a navigable road to the river. And there is a strong possibility she won’t want to deal with the permanent disturbance that road brings, for as many people as will take that road forward, just as many will find themselves in its way and subject to resettlement. It is a choice the group must make and may God help you all get it right.


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