28 March 2022 | Story André Damons | Photo Supplied
Digtal Futures
Some of those who attended the meeting are, from left at the back,: Dr Vic Coetzee, Senior Director: Information and Communication Technology Services at the UFS; Prof Corli Witthuhn, Vice-Rector: Research and Internationalisation at the UFS; Herkulaas Combrink, data and medical scientist in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences; Prof Katinka de Wet, medical sociologist in the Department of Sociology (UFS); Dr RS Mokoena (UFS/FSDOH) public healthcare specialist, department of community health, and Bandile Ntombela, Director ICT at the FSDOH. In front is Elke de Wet, (Deputy Director: Internal Communication), Mondli Mvambi, (Head of Communication and spokesperson: FSDOH); and P Monyobo, office of the Deputy Director General, Clinical Health Services, Free State Department of Health.

Interdisciplinary collaborations between experts, departments, entities and government are of vital importance for the digital future in order to respond to societal needs and answer important questions that might impact the wellbeing of communities. 

This was one of the messages from the first meeting between the Interdisciplinary Centre for Digital Futures (ICDF) at the University of the Free State (UFS) and the Free State Department of Health (FSDOH) – as an important stakeholder. The meeting was to inform the FSDOH about the Centre and its workings, and to start strategic conversations around projects on the horizon. 

The ICDF was established in 2021 under the guidance of Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the UFS, and Prof Phillipe Burger, Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at the UFS. For the past year, Prof Katinka de Wet, medical sociologist in the Department of Sociology at the UFS, and Herkulaas Combrink, data and medical scientist in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, have been the interim co-directors of the ICDF – driving its projects and implementing the vision. 

ICDF wants to work in partnerships

Prof De Wet said one of the aims of the ICDF is to work in partnership with industry, communities and government thereby co-creating a fully immersed digital future where the world of “the digital” becomes accessible and useful to a wide range of agents. According to her, the UFS aims to create the development and application of expertise in both social scientific and technical competencies of the digital in all its various forms through the functioning of the ICDF. The ICDF wants to take a lead in creating this immersed and socially responsive and relevant digital future. 

“At the UFS, like everywhere in the world, we have to engage with everything digital and the so-called 4IR, because it is inevitably going to touch all aspects of our lives. We’ve got a good track record of previous engagements with the Free State Department of Health and would like to take it further. It is important for us to get input from the government, private sector, and the community because everything digital touches on so many things of all of our lives. 

“From a university point of view, it is extremely important to understand that we cannot do this in a meaningful way, if we don’t engage with it from an interdisciplinary point of view. Interdisciplinary is the way to go, it is the future on how we broach difficult and relevant questions. If we are not doing this, we are not doing what we are supposed to do to respond to pressing social needs,” said Prof de Wet.

Combrink said to make this happen, the ICDF has a few working groups, all of which are developed in-house. One of these working groups is the Ethics and Governance group and has two conveners in Dr Michael Pienaar, senior lecturer and specialist in the department of Paediatrics and Child Health, and Dr Susan Brokensha, a social linguist and researcher and a senior lecturer in Humanities. The other working groups in the ICDF are focused on the Digital Backbone, convened by Dr Martin Clark, lecturer in the department of Geology – which works in close collaboration with other departments on campus including the eResearch group within ICT, led by Mr Albert van Eck. The two remaining groups have been focusing on building and innovating projects in Digital Health, Agriculture and Education. 

Excited about the future of the Centre 

Dr Vic Coetzee, Senior Director: Information and Communication Technology Services at the UFS said he is excited about the future of the Centre of which ITC is an important part of. “I am excited for the reason that it’s a new development and because we are bringing in dimensions never used by the university. I think where we are going globally, we can collectively be market leaders in South Africa in this regard and that excites me.”

Mondli Mvambi, head of communications at the FSDOH, said this is a unique platform. He added: “When we saw this opportunity, it answered one of our long-standing questions of how do we get real information and data out there to the people so that in a state of a pandemic they are able to take timely decisions to save lives.” 

His colleague, Bandile Ntombela, Director ICT at the FSDOH, said the gradual transition from going from a traditional IT outfit to really delivering health through digital health, has been keeping them busy over the past few years and going forward. He is therefore inspired by the ICDF to bring everyone together for some of the challenges in digital health. 
In her closing remarks, Prof Corli Witthuhn, Vice-Rector: Research and Internationalisation, said she is excited about the new Centre and thinks there is a lot of opportunity to capitalise on. According to her, the interdisciplinarity is stimulating and that the research, the direction the Centre needs to go, as well as seeing various areas working together, holds a lot of potential. Prof Witthuhn said that through these endeavours, she hopes for a long-term partnership rather than a short-term relationship with the FSDOH.   

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