ICT policy must have diverse voices, not just coders and engineers

Sunday April 9 2017

By NANJIRA SAMBULI
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From Quality Assurance to Human Resource managers, the author did a good job of showcasing that the tech industry isn’t just for engineers and coders.

As the policy discussion on ICT shapes up to inform the desired knowledge economies in Africa, it is important to ensure the industry is not perceived as solely for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates.

It would be terribly myopic to allow the discourse on the knowledge economies that ICT enables to frame the required skills as solely technical ones.

It’s quite problematic as it were, that policymakers are championing investment in STEM over Arts, Culture and Humanities subjects. While the former are crucial for honing technical expertise, we also need the latter to help us think laterally about the socio-cultural impacts of technology in society.

UNCRITICAL FOCUS

To build thriving knowledge economies and sustainable ICT-driven industries, we will need both thinkers and technical doers. The need for both must inform policies and strategies to carve out competitive advantages, especially as young people across this continent are encouraged to become entrepreneurs and leverage technology, be it in agriculture, health or service offerings.

It cannot be emphasised enough, furthermore, that the best scientists, engineers and technologists have been, or are inspired by arts and artists, as well as the broad range of humanities subjects. As this article expounding on how liberal arts degrees have become ‘tech’s hottest ticket’ explains, “creativity cannot be programmed”.

As one former graduate of philosophy working in the tech industry puts it,

Studying philosophy taught me two things. I learned how to write really clearly. I learned how to follow an argument all the way down, which is invaluable in running meetings. And when I studied the history of science, I learned about the ways that everyone believes something is true – like the old notion of some kind of ether in the air propagating gravitational forces – until they realised that it wasn't true.

One area we often overlook, even as we push for a wider perspective on the skills needed to grow tech industries, is policy, which is more than merely putting out visions and strategies or development blueprints.  

The actions undertaken, in spite of these words on paper, are a make-or-break factor. Policy shapes the operational environments for enterprises to thrive and scale.

In the context of a globalising world, sound policies are critical now more than ever, yet this is one cornerstone that’s often ignored. The uncritical focus on entrepreneurs and coders or developers is short-sighted and akin to shooting ourselves in the foot.

OLD MEN IN SUITS

Although the tech entrepreneurial energy noted in many parts of the continent is to be celebrated, challenges of scale and sustainability are emerging a decade down the line.

Beyond ideas and solutions, the environments in which these nascent players operate in are shaped by a complex range of local, regional and even global policies and regulations, often created without consulting these players.

A recently published study assessing how technology innovation hubs engage in public policy co-creation or reform found that the policy space is yet to be considered a strategic play by entrepreneurs and their collectives, including those supporting them, be they innovation hubs or SME alliances, which there are very few of.

In fact, many tech entrepreneurs allude to existing SME alliances or coalitions not being compatible with their needs.

It is understandable why the rationale might be to ignore policy altogether and focus on entrepreneurship. Policy is murky, bureaucratic and often associated with corruption. It is also not very transparent, and evokes images of old men in suits in closed-off spaces.

Yet, it is in those spaces, where we are not inclined to engage, that very important decisions are made for our operating environments.

Imagine you are a local tech enterprise, building solutions that would improve public service delivery. Your ideal client is perhaps a local, or national government.

However, due to a bilateral or multilateral trade agreement, your target client cannot purchase from you because a deal was struck to ensure that the market share for such solutions goes to a multinational or peer company from another part of the world.

REGULATORY ENVIRONMENT

This analogy is not far removed from reality. It is indeed what is happening in the realm of trade agreements, where e-commerce, for instance, is a hot commodity. (See this Twitter thread for an example).

As developed markets become increasingly saturated with services and products, focus is on our nascent markets for technology solutions. So as you’re bogged down with building great solutions to match your market’s needs, the regulatory environment is essentially stacked against you.

Your market has been traded off in some concessions (e.g., for agricultural product subsidies, especially as food insecurity ravages us largely due to mismanagement).

As governments parade technology entrepreneurship as a key approach to addressing youth unemployment, the unfortunate fact is that many enterprises don’t stand a chance of survival, growth or sustainability, largely because policy is already failing us. Such failure also happens in non-tech policies such as education.

This is what drew me to working in ICT policy. We need many more actors to consider this space. It may not be up to the entrepreneurs themselves, which is why we must package the industry as holistic and a place for all skill sets to be put to good use.  

Interlinked with this is the notion that the ultimate win for a tech enterprise is to be bought out, or absorbed, by some investor or larger technology company. That ideal isn’t shaped by accident; it is a deliberate perpetuation of poor policy.

While you might make a couple of millions from such a deal, what does that say about the future of our tech industries? We risk having them dominated by external companies. Besides, very few enterprises may survive to land such deals.

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

As entrepreneurs, don’t box yourselves to pitching events only. Look at events like Transform Africa, initiatives like the Northern Corridor Integration Projects (on ICT infrastructure especially), looking to create a single digital market across East Africa.

Did your perspectives and goals inform such a vision, which is likely to be adopted by respective governments? How does that bode for your market share?

Have you considered that many of your potential consumers may be kept offline by poor policies that keep millions from affordable, meaningful access to the internet?

I encourage techpreneurs to cultivate curiosity in the policy space, and go even further and organise for representation in ICT policy discourse, to safeguard our markets for your scalability and sustainability.

It should bother us all that the space is informed by actors who have very little knowledge of what you do - both technically and contextually.

I will continue to use this platform, and others, to inform on what policy developments are taking place and why you should care.

However, we need to encourage more thinkers to enter the ICT industry, to work along with the entrepreneurs and coders and engineers to ensure that we stand a fighting chance, and that our entrepreneurial energies are not in vain.

Many of the frustrations and challenges emerging from the entrepreneurship space are policy issues; bad policy at that. Don’t let poor policy fail us before we truly launch.

Twitter: @NiNanjira