To survive the digital future, go beyond the love of convenience

Monday August 28 2017

By BITANGE NDEMO
More by this Author

From the eighth floor of Hotel Las Americas in Colombia, I watched the waves of the Caribbean Sea wash into the brownish beaches of the coastal city of Cartagena. 

It was beautiful but nowhere near the white sandy beaches of Eastern Africa. This is my second visit to this beautiful city of many tourists.

I was in Cartagena to give a keynote speech at the International Information and Communication Technologies Congress (ANDICOM), sponsored by CINTEL (Centro de Investigación de las Telecomunicaciones). 

The congress, in its 32nd year, facilitates commercial exchange between international companies and Colombian organisations through a robust academic and business agenda. 

My speech cantered on, leveraging digital transformation for economic development. Although there is no comprehensive definition of this concept, it is an important concept that no country should ignore. 

We have seen digital disruptions in virtually every sector and we love it. We must go beyond the love of convenience brought by the digital revolution and become part of the architects of its future. 

The rate of change, however, is faster than many developing countries can comprehend.

If you doubt my assertions, consider this.  The front page of The Economist of August 12 – 18 had a picture of a rickety internal combustion engine with the headline: “Roadkill.” 

Inside it were quotes from an 1893 article in the French Newspaper Le Petit. “Human inventiveness…has still not found a mechanical process to replace horses as the propulsion for vehicles.”  The answer, the magazine says:

 “was to organise the Paris-Rouen race for horseless carriages, held the following July.  The 102 entrants included vehicles powered by steam, petrol, electricity, compressed air and hydraulics. Only 21 qualified for the 126km (78) mile race, which attracted huge crowds. The clear winner was the internal combustion engine.  Over the next century it would go on to power industry and change the world.” 

Now they predict its death.  I leave you to imagine the implications anywhere in the world and more so in countries with high unemployment rate, where Kenya, for example, falls. 

Yet as the world moves on to electric and digitally driven cars, developing countries have not seen the need to change the curriculums in schools and colleges.  Much of what is taught in colleges is no different from what was taught fifty years ago.  

ZERO EMISSIONS

We shouldn’t be doing that which will not prepare young people for jobs of the future.

The future of work is changing and so must be the future of learning. A child born today will more than likely work in some future digital space.

Some countries are actively seeking to predict how future jobs will look like and developing capacities accordingly.  Britain’s new policy of zero emissions by 2050 set in motion changes that would make its labour force relevant by that date.  The tragedy is the fact that many other countries may not be as proactive as Britain. 

Many will focus on short-term gains of importing rejected vehicles and disposing them to unsuspecting people in developing counties.

Yet the future itself is beginning to shape itself around digital transformation.  Right off the tracks are some technologies that underpin digital transformation, including big data, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, machine learning, sensor vision, deep learning algorithm, computer vision and the emerging blockchain.

There is no doubt these technologies are causing disruptions that largely create new conveniences, and we love it. 

It would be defeatist to sulk at every prospect of disruptive change.  Rather, disruptive technologies should be moments of introspection and for crafting new strategic direction of a people. 

AUSTRALIAN SOIL

Digital transformation does not come without opportunities. If all mechanical vehicles become obsolete, we  will need people who understand how to repair new vehicles using some of the technologies I have listed above, as well as new technologies that will definitely come up. 

The emerging gig economy, if we cared to understand how it works, would perhaps provide more jobs than what would have been created from existing industries.

Kenya perhaps needs to innovate around Ajira (the gig economy) and solve problems in emerging economies rather than just focusing on developed countries.

The future of work doesn’t mean one will have to be on a full-time job with some organisation.  An excellent software engineer siting in Nairobi or Cartagena can be contracted in Australia and develop the software without ever setting foot on Australian soil. 

It is also true that the software engineer may have learnt all the techniques for the specific software development online. 

The future of employment, after all, means the flexibility to adapt to environmental changes in the workspace. Some aspects of digital transformation require greater cooperation of nations to deal with. 

Data, as is now well known, is the oil of the future.  But we are losing control of it, given that we have been sucked into social media and poured our behavioural data on to just a few players. 

NEGOTIATING CAPACITY

This data is the source of many future enterprises that we may not have neither control nor have negotiating capacity for boundaries to which it can be applied. 

It matters not whether a country has legislation or doesn’t have any legislation on data protection. One way or another, this issue must be resolved by the United Nations.

Incidentally, my previous visit to Cartagena, in April 2015, was a consultative meeting with the Global Partnership on Development Data to shape the agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were adopted later that year.  

Since then, I have had the conviction that data is a key cog to economic development.

Colombia, like a few other emerging economies, is seeking to learn from successes elsewhere to prepare herself for the uncertain future.  They want to know what it is that we did to rapidly grow our ICT sector within a very short period.

LASTING PEACE

The country has done well, considering the fact that it is among the few countries in South America that will meet its Sustainable Development Goal of eliminating extreme poverty. With slightly below 3 million people in extreme poverty today, Colombia is moving about nine people out of poverty every hour. 

In my visit, I have discovered that there is indeed much to learn from Colombia, especially on how its leadership went about to create a lasting peace after more than 50 years of conflict. Africa today is dotted with countries under conflict.  There is much to learn both ways.  

Digital transformation is real. Developing countries have no choice but seek to understand these concepts and begin to develop capacities now in order to meet future needs.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito