Design thinking (DT) has recently re-emerged as an essential mindset and skillshift for modern organisations seeking to improve innovation performance in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). However, despite recent popularity and success especially in the tech industry, DT has lacked critical academic engagement and scholarly enquiry especially in Africa. Hence, this paper sets out to provide empirical evidence on how DT can help create opportunities and innovation in an AI/Algorithm-driven 4IR era, and why the design curriculum in higher education should be updated to include DT competencies. This paper argues that in the era of 4IR (characterised by rapid automation and high demand for technological, social and emotional and higher cognitive skills), there is a greater need for DT and similar methods that positions immediate human/societal needs at the centre of critical technological innovations. This is even more crucial in the South African context where the longstanding socio-economic inequality is being exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic, which will have long-term impacts on people’s needs and wants, and fundamentally change the traditional ways of being. The paper concludes that DT presents an opportunity for design educators to adapt their core to meet the rapidly shifting societal needs and identify and quickly address new opportunity areas being created by the COVID-19 and the emerging technological landscape. The presentation reviews existing empirical studies, with the aim of helping design educators make sense of the emerging 4IR landscape, while providing them with evidence of how DT can be an essential tool to drive innovation-led growth that addresses human needs in the era of 4IR, and amidst the precarity of the global pandemic in contemporary South Africa.