Technological Advances: The Negative Effects
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Published: Thu, 20 Apr 2017
Technological advancement as a term can be defined as being able to improve the standard of living through altering the production process and increasing the level of production with fewer resources (Mabry & Sharplin; 1986). This definition is closely linked to the act of using computers, robots and the like but any move towards more efficient ways of providing services is a technological advancement. When one begins with premise that the gradual shift from human-sensitive methods of construction will pose a problem in South Africa as a developing country, plain human knowledge becomes sufficient as a technological advancement.
Technology varies in its purposes and uses. It has become the backbone of any sort of development initiative in the developing world. Characterised by efficiency, accuracy and cost benefits. Developed countries are suited better to manage the negatives that come from the overt use of technology. Their economies are strong enough to manage unemployment and the like.
Often, people that fear or are weary of fast evolving technology are referred to as ‘Luddites’, this is untrue and grossly inaccurate for the Luddites (circa 1800’s) were working but uneducated people who destroyed all symbols of advancing technology.
Nobel laureate Wassily Leontief, who gave the keynote speech for the National Academy of Engineering at its 1983 symposium “The Long-Term Impact of Technology on Employment and Unemployment,” cannot fairly be called a Luddite, yet he expressed concern about what he saw as technological advancement’s undesirable distributional effects across income groups – (Mabry & Sharplin; 1986)
The construction industry is slowly eliminating jobs that are human-sensitive. Jobs that previously required a strong human presence can now be done off-site (precast) and brought to site just to assemble. The jobs are becoming lower skilled and routine. With this in mind, one would think that there would be more jobs created but the opposite happens, jobs seem to be eroding.
The implementation of new technology offers the companies a competitive edge over their rivals at the cost of jobs. In construction, efficiency is very important. Delays in time mean penalties and this requires more money.
Redundancy caused by advancements in technology has been happening in the automotive industry where machines have rendered the jobs of many humans obsolete and have left some fastening bolts for eight hours a day. In the construction industry, though you will not find a machine laying bricks, there are other materials that are being developed to render using bricks and blocks outdated. Aluminium beams and columns are now de-rigueur in architectural circles and this will not take long at all to catch up with the industry and it will just be a matter of time before construction gangs of fifty will shrink to ten because of cranes doing all the heavy lifting and then ten men just fastening bolts.
Technological advancement, in itself, is an indication of development in any country. Said advancement should not hinder the growth of the country by creating a poverty trap. A developing country has a few defining characteristics, defined below:
- Majority living below the poverty line
- Subject to economic inequality
- Inequality in the working environment
As technology advances further and further it hinders growth through promoting the utilizing methods that aren’t human-sensitive.
The role of South Africa’s history
Colonialism played a role in the current problems South Africa faces. To understand how technology affects employment, we need to have a clearer understanding of how we got to where we are from a developmental point of view. Colonisers occupied the country and divided the country geographically to make it more manageable. They then developed city centres and these city centres became economic hubs in their regions. During the 1886 Witwatersrand Gold Rush, employment was created for the natives. Many natives left their homelands to work in the Gauteng mines. The cities close to the mines kept flourishing as there became a need for other industries to support the influx of natives and wealthy mine owners to the mining cities. The homelands remained underdeveloped. Many decades later, rural areas are still underdeveloped and creating employment in those areas is hard because there are very few economic development initiatives.
2.1.1 Migration to the cities.
As aforementioned, the movement of many natives from their homelands for employment in the mining cities left many homelands underdeveloped. The lure of employment opportunities in a quickly developing country proved to be problematic. W.W Rostow (circa 1960), cited by Utting (2011; Development Management IV: Course Notes; 189:190) discussed the modernization theories of development. The underlying principle of this modernization theory was that economic development was integral to the overall development of any society. Economic development is South Africa seemed to be happening in the mining cities only and not in the rural areas.
2.1.2 Consequence of migration.
As men left to work in the cities, they left their families at home. Families that were uneducated and had no other means of income and mostly made a living through farming. Formal education was, and for the most part is just a fallacy to people living in rural areas. This is creating a problem because on one hand; low-skill level jobs are being automated, on the other hand; you have many people from the rural areas coming in with little-to-no education looking for employment. This contributes to creating what is termed a poverty trap.
2.1.3 Previously Disadvantaged Individuals
People of colour were oppressed during the unjust reign of apartheid which officially began in the election of 1948 and lasted until 1994. In that time, people of colour were oppressed in every way imaginable. The end of apartheid brought about great elation and spelled the end of an oppressive regime, we also adopted many problems from there. For instance, the problem of unemployment. A complex issue that has no single solution. The previously disadvantaged individuals, i.e. people of colour in South Africa, are now trying to ‘keep-up’ with the developed world. The issue is the means that are taken to develop South Africa further. The methods which utilize an excess of technology will widen the gap between the rich and poor. The previously disadvantaged will be left destitute and with very few opportunities to develop themselves let alone along with the country.
2.1.4 Addressing the issue of inequality
Government implemented Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), which has now become Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE), to facilitate the development of PDI’s. Government also put a policy in place that was set to address inequalities in the workplace by giving construction companies a BEE status. This meant that a certain portion of the workforce had to be composed of PDI. This, of course, is a step in the right direction towards addressing inequalities in the workplace.
An overwhelmed Government
Decades after the 1886 Gold Rush, present Government still feel the effects of mass migration to the cities. Change of political regime brought about new challenges for Government. The two most important:
Creating Jobs: Job creation isn’t particularly the responsibility of Government. They are supposed to create an environment that supports and promotes job creation. Presently, graduates form the majority of the unemployed in South Africa. Homelands are still under-developed and this doesn’t seem to be changing. Policies to address the unemployment and subsequent poverty problem in rural areas are addressed by issuing policies. The problem with policies is they are therapeutic, generic and do not address the problem of each rural area on a case by case basis. Another problem with policies is that they are developed by people who do so remotely so they do not know the actual problem, on the ground.
Adequate Housing: Housing has is a problem especially in towns surrounding big cities like Durban and Johannesburg. The RDP programme was developed for this purpose. Independent contractors tender and build the house. Unfortunately, many contractors don’t fulfil their obligation. The problem doesn’t get better and we see violent service delivery protests. The tender process in itself is heavily flawed and marred by political interference and corruption.
2.2.1 Failure to create jobs.
As aforementioned, the current Government is struggling to create job or rather failing to create an environment that promotes job creation. According to the World Bank (2011), Local Economic Development (LED) refers to the collective efforts between Government and non-governmental institutions to create an environment that is conducive to both economic growth and employment. In essence, LED provides the community ways to improve their chances of getting investment from external sources and their own business environment. The aim is to create a better life for all. Rural communities don’t have much of this happening and the focus needs to move towards decentralization.
The concentration of rural development policy makers in urban areas is also to the detriment of rural areas. The sheer distance leads to misappropriation of funds and resources and this keeps the rural areas underdeveloped. Top-down centralized policies rarely accomplish their goals because the policy makers aren’t anchored in the rural reality on the ground (International Labour Office; 2012)
2.2.2 Critical analysis of the tender process
The tender process was initially meant to open up opportunities for people of colour to enter the world of business and trade. Unfortunately, the tender process is marred by corruption and political interference and this in counter-productive and robs the people it was meant to help in the first place.
The process begins by realising a need for a service in a particular community and then sending that particular project out to tender with various contractors who then send back their estimates of how much it would cost to build the required infrastructure. The corruption begins when the tenderers start bribing officials to give them the contract. Too often the contractors themselves are incompetent and end up breaching contracts.
The reason for their incompetency can be credited to the lack of knowledge. Most new contractors have no formal training and make very few attempts at getting adequate training and the cycle keeps on going.
The process itself is not flawed; the issue is with monitoring it. There isn’t an independent body that monitors the tendering process and this leads to corruption and moves back as a nation. Monitoring, or lack thereof, is not the primary solution to corruption because corruption is prevalent in all developing countries.
Chapter 3: Basic education and training
Lack of a proper educational framework in rural areas
Bantu Education was established to give people of colour the most basic education. A means to create more ‘muscle for the machine’ that was apartheid. The structure was such that skills development formed part of the school curriculum. Students who left the institution of Bantu Education left with skills and could go start looking for work immediately after. Universities were reserved for Whites only.
In rural areas however, school infrastructure was few and far in between. As South Africa developed and established itself as a source of mineral wealth many moved into the urban areas (See, Chapter 1) and left the rural areas as they were. Rural areas don’t have any economic development, chances for employment are slim. Even if businesses are encouraged, their longevity is cut short because there is no Local Economic Development.
Schools in rural areas do not, to this day, receive adequate resources to teach. School buildings are of mud block construction. The chaos that arises from there can only be imagined when the rainy season starts. The education system in South Africa is not at its most stellar as we saw during the Limpompo Textbook Fiasco (M. Madia, 2012).
This in turn creates problems when the students produced from rural schools are thrust into a society that demands a good knowledge of technology and pliable minds. The students, coming from a background with no knowledge of computers and the like will end up looking for employment that requires a low-skill level.
On the other end of the spectrum, employers are looking for ways to increase productivity without affecting profits. On a building site, having concrete delivered, as opposed to mixing it on site, saves time and consequently saves money.
Lower-skill jobs are slowly becoming redundant and the education system in rural areas isn’t keeping up with the demand for technology savvy candidates. As a result, a cesspool of unemployment and everything it carries many other social problems such as crime and corruption. Desperation can kill you.
Language barriers (machinery use)
Communication is essential on site for all operations to continue. The language barrier between employer and employee makes the employee less desirable for employment. Employees from rural areas are often not well versed in languages either than their home-language.
Similarly with machinery use, employers wouldn’t employ someone with a minimal understanding of the language of instruction. Besides that being a health and safety hazard, it wouldn’t be beneficial and training would take longer than it should.
Misunderstandings on site (machinery use)
Any sort of misunderstanding on site has a financial repercussion. With this in mind, employers avoid workers with little-to-no understanding of the language of instruction.
There is a clear disconnection between the education department in rural areas and the required calibre of graduates. This in turn leads to students coming from that system to be ‘left behind’. When that happens and the very students are put into a system that requires a certain level of knowledge, knowledge that they lack. Subsequently, these people bear the grunt of job displacement due to the introduction of technology and/or automation.
Chapter 4: Methods of construction
The manner in which construction projects are carried out has changed dramatically. Change is constant and will not stop as humans develop further and further. From the times of the great Pharaohs, where heavy materials were rolled on logs, to present day where heavy materials are hauled into the air with cranes.
4.1 Evolution of Methods
Traditional construction was of mass concrete. The older buildings like the Durban Station were of mass concrete and required many labourers to set up shutters, mixing concrete and pouring. Mixing of concrete was done on site. Technological advancements moved towards using central concrete depots and having concrete delivered to site. The purpose of technological advancement is to increase production while utilizing the least amount of resources. To a very large extent it is good, the problem begins when technology advances at the cost of peoples jobs.
Project planning has become more streamlined and can be managed by a single person as opposed to be an entire team. Project planning in South Africa has attracted a great amount of attention over the past few years because of its association with infrastructure. As South Africa develops further, infrastructure will be required. Many construction projects are complex and required teams to manage them, over time computer programmes were developed and managing large projects became easier.
Technology has afforded us the opportunity to much with very little resources. It has also created a situation where those who do not adopt are left behind. This is well and good in a developed state but South Africa is a developing country with a 25% unemployment rate and threatening to grow as more and more technology is being introduced into the industry. The industry itself will do better, productivity will increase but many people will be permanently displaced, in terms of employment.
The planning of projects will eventually be handled by a single person using a computer programme. The availability of jobs will decrease as companies need fewer people to run successful projects.
Chapter 5: Construction Materials
Building materials aren’t exempt from advancements. There has been a movement from mass concrete, to brick and block and now we are in the age of steel and glass construction. The movement from one age to the next has an adverse effect on employment. Presently, steel and glass construction needs just a few men and a crane. A shift in the paradigm of construction.
Construction materials have gotten lighter while retaining their strength. Materials like fibreboard are now common place in offices.
Even materials that always were the heaviest, like concrete, have had their share of technological advancement. Air-infiltrated concrete is lighter than conventional concrete. The secret is in the air bubbles that are trapped within the concrete that make it lighter while making it a bit easier to work with. This particular type of concrete is strong enough to take the loads of conventional concrete but can also be used as a cantilever slab (with reinforcing).
With the paradigm shift of construction materials, precast items are becoming more common. From lintels in residential construction to entire floor slabs in commercial property. A shift that has brought about increased productivity. Concrete pouring and curing is the most time consuming exercise on site and having that time saved means saving money too.
The problem, again, with such an advancement is how it affects employment. Concrete mixing, as a low-skill level job, employed quite a few labourers (proportional to size of project) and with concrete mixing being removed from equation, many are left jobless.
The biggest hurdle is the lack of training initiatives for workers that have been displaced due to automation. They are left unemployed and unemployment leads to other social problems.
Chapter 6: Globalisation
According to the Education and Training Unit of South Africa (2012), globalisation refers to the changes in technological, political and economic that make the world different in its functioning to the way it was twenty or thirty years ago. The proof of globalisations can be seen in the emergence of giant corporations with branches all over the world.
Globalisation forces developing nations to adjust their structures in order to match those of the developed nations. All this to help developing nations secure loans to help their flailing economies.
BusinessDictionary.com refers to globalisation as a movement towards integration of many aspects of trade. In the same vein, they go on to say that globalisation threatens weaker economies when applied discriminately.
Keeping up with the world.
Even though South Africa has mineral wealth, it is still an emerging economy. The reason for this is the colonial history of South Africa (Refer to Chapter 2). The international markets play a role in how development in South Africa is implemented. This is where politics come into play.
P. Kingsworth in his article “Globalisation of South Africa” describes the conditions under which the fate of common South African’s would be controlled by international markets. After the failure of the Reconstruction & Development Plan (RDP) in 1996, the Growth Employment and Redistribution program (GEAR) was set-up to take its place.
The difference between GEAR and RDP was that; where RDP promised free basic services, GEAR privatised utilities and would bill all users. Some of these users live below the poverty line. Rapid advancements in technology threaten jobs and yet the poorest of the poor must still pay for services.
Global trends to employers.
To employers, global trends dictate how they should react to the current market. Technological advancements give them an edge of the opposition and that edge equals more profit. As crude as it may seem, profit is the bottom-line to most, if not all, employers.
Globalisation has afforded employers a chance to compete on an international scale. Increased connectivity with international markets offers them the option of showcasing their services overseas. In order to be able to satisfy international demand, they need to automate systems. That is a factor that leads to job loss.
Chapter 7: Technology: Computer Programmes
With globalisation burning hot at the heels of a developing South Africa, computer programmes come as part of the globalisation package. It was an inevitable move and one that was greatly needed in terms of development.
Computer programmes don’t directly affect low-skill employees, it’s a challenge that will face those that haven’t been introduced to computer programmes in University. Again, the highlight of the clear disconnect between the industry and the education system. Many graduates fall into the chasm unbeknown to them, with very little help from the industry and Universities.
CCS – For contractors
CCS or the Candy system is a computer programme that is specifically aimed at making the job of a contractor manageable. A contractor with many projects going on at the same time will need a computer programme that will integrate forecasting, estimating, valuations and project planning. The design of the Candy system is such that it can be understood by anyone with a knowledge of construction.
Corruption has created a distorted view of contractors. It is a general view that many contractors cannot manage projects and therefore cannot control funds. Quantity surveyors are usually employed to help them control funds for contractors. Programmes like CCS have now given smaller contractors with the option of being able to control their own projects and therefore their own funds without needing a quantity surveyor to do the work for them.
WinQS for Professional Quantity Surveyors
WinQS is a programme designed more for professional quantity surveyors as it offers an in-depth interface that will require a quantity surveying background. WinQS can produce complete bills of quantities because it has JBCC contracts within the programme itself. On a consultation with Steve Naidoo (2012; August 5th), he explained the great help that came with the introduction of computers. Doing bills on chart paper and having to transport them great distances, as opposed to emailing, has made work a lot easier.
Consulting firms will employ the use of WinQs more widely. A company that employed many quantity surveyors will need fewer with the introduction of such programmes. The results of automation are clear in South Africa. People are losing jobs and not enough is being doing to boost small enterprises. What is being done is being overshadowed by corruption while the fate of South Africa’s youth dangles helplessly in the face of poverty and a host of other social problems.
Chapter 8: Case Studies
I have selected two cases that I felt were relevant to highlight my growing concerns about the problems that come with technological advances. I cannot deny the great leaps we have taken with the help of technology. The problem is how these leaps tend to take developing nations back a few steps, especially when coupled with international pressure (via Globalisation, see Chapter 6).
The first example highlights the advantages offered by technology and its advancements, it also highlights the change and how it would affect a developing nation.
The Ark Hotel, China
The Broad Group, a construction company based in China, was able to build a 30 Storey building in just 15 days. The fastest construction of a hotel. What was amazing was how there were zero injuries. The hotel itself was designed and built to withstand an earthquake with a magnitude of 9 on the Richter scale.
Building materials were all prefabricated and brought to site to be assembled. This could be the secret to their “Super-fast power” as it was dubbed in the British DailyMail (2012). The movement to precast and prefabricated materials is as inevitable as the first steps of a healthy toddler. South Africa, as the toddler, is expected to start running before it knows how to walk.
The Ark Hotel, was built like a structure made of Legos. All the ‘pieces’ were made and fabricated off-site and brought to site to be assembled by a few specialists and a crane.
Construction like this in a developing nation could cripple it. In countries where the construction industry employs the most people, a move towards using prefabricated material could be disastrous not only in the short-term but in the long-term too.
Sanral has undertaken to build open-road tolling for road users in Gauteng. The network will be 560km’s covering 34 of Gauteng’s busiest interchanges the most infamous being; Allandale, William Nicol, Rivonia and Elands.
The reason that E-Tolling was introduced is to fund the improvements of roads. The tolling will be based on a ‘user-pay’ system. It will become necessary to get an E-Tag for the motor vehicle that will be transporting passengers and every month a statement will arrive at your doorstep, detailing your daily commute through the several tolls on your way to your destination.
This system could be rolled out throughout the entire country. According to Sanral (2012), only 19% of the countries roads are tolled roads, the remaining 81% aren’t tolled roads. The reality is that the money that is made from the tolled roads is insufficient to perform maintenance on roads.
The system will be unmanned and thus starts the problem. The people that were employed will now be jobless as tolls will no longer need people to collect monies. This is yet another example of how technology is making people redundant.
One cannot help but be in awe of the great technological leap, the same technological leap is at the same time robbing people of jobs and yet again bring the problem of unemployment to the fore.
Chapter 9: Resolution
In cases like these were it is one power reigning supreme over a nation, a solution cannot be employed. Resolutions can however be offered. These suggestions are subject to reviewing and adjustment.
Using human-sensitive methods on site that don’t rely heavily on the use of machinery.
The human resource is abundant and renewable. Employers in South Africa ought to be looking into using this readily available resource. It may be argued that machines do not take sick-days, that’s acceptable but machines will not be the ones using your project upon completion. We are creating a society we cannot afford. 25% of the population is unemployed and as more technology is being introduced more people will lose their jobs in favour of automated systems.
Site work can be carried out by labourers instead of machines. Simple tasks like batch concrete mixing can be carried out by labour instead of machines and be delivered to site.
The problem is not one dimensional; for instance, a contractor has a need to keep a healthy stream of work coming in because of the corrupt nature of the construction industry where certain parties are earmarked for jobs. In cases like this, the contractor will be trying to turn a profit on every job and one way of doing that is by always completing jobs on time, he does this by having a smaller team that uses specialist technology to help complete jobs quickly and usually under-budget. He keeps his business afloat and doesn’t employ many.
The dilemma facing South Africa is the corrupt nature of our leaders. Technology provides a higher level of production while neglecting the steps taken to reach that level of productivity. Technology renders humans redundant and government is aware but is benefitting through the use of technology. Technology entrenches the divisions of the past by keeping the privileged employed and the rest of the country in close proximity of poverty. Perhaps, the only difference between present day and apartheid is that those who can adapt and use technology stand a better chance of being employed over those that very little knowledge of technology and the way in which it works. Unfortunately, those that have a limited knowledge of technology form the majority of the country’s population.
The onus is therefore on Government to regulate how technology is introduced and implemented in the construction industry in South Africa before we are faced with a situation where the poor have nothing to eat but the rich.
Training of people and subsequent employment
The best way to get a better workforce is by training them. During Apartheid, skills-training was a part of the school curriculum. That aspect of the curriculum must come back to address South Africa’s skills shortage.
The only difference is the training will be for specific industries. Science and technology, research and development, medicine and engineering are fields that require younger thinkers. It seems like our education system is amassing an army of entrepreneurs that have no idea of how to manage their businesses. Small business fail because of mismanagement.
The use of people as a resource can also be seen as a technological advancement because with enough training, efficient ways of carrying tasks out are inevitable.
Addendum 1: Supporting documentation
Addendum 2: Bibliography
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Mackenzie, C; 2012; They’re now a super-fast power: How the Chinese built a 30 storey hotel from scratch in just fifteen days (Online); available at www.dailymail.co.uk ; Accessed 27 August 2012
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