Digital has already changed how we judge, think and act

Monday May 16 2016

By BITANGE NDEMO
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The new world economy has gone digital, heralding the age of disruption. 

This became clear at a futurist conference I attended this past week. Technology is making a new onslaught on economic, social and political spheres. 

Already the landscape in media, education, health, agricultural production, advanced manufacturing and biotechnology is experiencing unimaginable transformation, and the customer is embracing the change, willingly or unwillingly. 

Change in some sectors may lead to devastating outcomes but the net impact of these disruptions will most likely be good for humankind. 

Education in schools and universities will change in order to prepare young people for the impending changes.  Laggards will be left behind.  Forever.

Not even politics will be spared by these changes. Already, the ugly disruptions in politics is beginning to cause jitters in America and the Philippines.  The Philippines have elected an anti-establishment, rabble-rousing president, Rodrigo Duterte . By characterising him as strong on crime (he promised to kill all criminals within six months) social media played into his trap.

Like Donald Trump, he demeaned women, graphically explaining how he spends time with many young women in lodgings, powered by Viagra.  At 71, young voters may have liked his macho character but they will certainly regret voting him in when his promises are not fulfilled.

In the United States, the media, mesmerised by Trump’s celebrity status, helped fuel his rise beyond his opponents. His incendiary campaign notwithstanding, Trump has managed to escape the scrutiny of the nation’s moral character. 

He has trampled on women but still emerged a winner in state after state, even when analysts predicted that he could not garner more than 35 per cent of the vote. His support base is beyond high school educated, blue-collar, rural, male. 

THE RISE OF DIDA

Unlike in the past, social media has disrupted the way we think and act. Some frustrated lot may be voting for Trump to see what might happen. A similar expectation may have infiltrated the electoral outcome in the Philippines. 

The US and the Philippines pushed my curiosity to conduct a small study to see if similar irrationality could be witnessed here. 

I purposefully picked two different focus groups, from Jubilee and Cord zones, among those who voted for the first time in the 2013 elections. They were candid and I was surprised by their thought process. 

A significant number of those who voted differently from how they had been primed voted for either Mohammed Abduba Dida or Peter Kenneth.  They said that the two candidates were “cool” and that the messaging from the two candidates resonated with their thinking. 

Dida, a virtual unknown, went on to poll more votes than the well-known Martha Karua. 

Others said they were obliged to vote along with their parents’ wishes otherwise they would have voted for candidates who appealed to their desires. Clearly, tribal royalties are slowly waning but what excites the youth may not necessarily be what the country needs. 

Chances are that people with questionable backgrounds may be elected simply they have the resources to mobilise the youth and dominate social media. 

TEXBOOK THEFT

From the interviews, I gathered that the key qualifications to pass the youth test include being anti-establishment, cool or just what peers are expressing on social media.

A candidate’s youthfulness and direct cash bribes already tilt the way they will vote in Nairobi, especially the gubernatorial race which has started in earnest. 

It is not only politics being disrupted. In education, online content is already undermining the current pedagogy.  It is only a matter of time before students begin to throw out incompetent teachers. 

In South Africa, where they have a similar problem of stealing textbooks meant for students as Kenya, they have changed tack to using ICTs.  Students are supposed to download the books, with publishers being paid only after downloads have been made. 

Each school has a facility with which to download content to the students’ devices, and complaints have now shifted from theft to how students downloads the books. 

The downside of switching to online is the lack of access to ICT services in rural areas. But it is also precisely why we need transformation, in order to force the country into putting every citizen at the pedestal of technological changes that are likely to shut out some countries from a global economy that has gone digital. 

The Sh6 billion wasted every year in stolen textbooks on Kenya should be used to enable households to access ICT services and eliminate graft.

PRINTING HUMAN TISSUE

The promise of genetic engineering to eliminate several diseases from the face of the earth comes at an opportune moment, as nations struggle to provide universal healthcare. 

However, the modification of genetic composition by artificial means could lead to new problems especially in the wrong hands. Some may attempt to create a superhuman.  Either way, there is need for regulation of these new inventions. 

The discovery of 3D printing and research into biotechnology will make it possible to print new organs for our bodies and lengthen life.   Organovo, a company in the US, has successfully designed and created functional, three-dimensional human tissues for use in medical research and therapeutic applications. 

3D bio-printing technology has moved from the lab into commercial use.

Whilst farming in the rest of the world is driven by technology, in Africa we still talk about backbreaking farm labour under the sun. Yet farming is no longer a random exercise. 

With technology, farming can be done with precision, improved productivity and greater wealth creation. The benefits of using big data analytics to predict outcomes are enormous.

Young people will be more interested in farming as a source of wealth and farmers will know investment requirements and plan better. More importantly, planners will manage food insecurity much more easily.

FLUID STATE

To sustain continuous reinvention, African nations must spend on research and development, encourage strong leadership in technology, encourage creativity, re-design school curriculums to include creative thinking, design thinking, greater customisation of solutions and more importantly, change the culture of dependence. 

Africa can leapfrog into the service industry and even lead in some instances if it gathers confidence to lead. 

We live in a fluid state where virtually anyone can disrupt existing production systems by coming up with new ways of solving problems, most of which are native to Africa. 

It is an opportunity that must be exploited through greater collaboration with other countries without discriminating, as we build local capacities. 

Anyone who doubts should read American journalist, a columnist and an author, Thomas Friedman. He says:

America still has the right stuff to thrive. We still have the most creative, diverse, innovative culture and open society - in a world where the ability to imagine and generate new ideas with speed and to implement them through global collaboration is the most important competitive advantage.   

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.