The phrase ‘we are living in interesting times’ could never be truer. We indeed are. My ability to write these words on this site such that anyone located anywhere in the world with access to internet can read was something that was just starting to be conceived 20 years ago but was inconceivable to vast majority of the human population. Even now, it is still incomprehensible to almost half of global population how the internet works. A whole new economy has emerged on the internet redefining how we communicate, work and live. And it is only just beginning.
In this new digital revolution age, there is nothing stopping Africans from creating solutions for the rest of world despite our state of economies. This does not mean that we neglect or fail to solve the current problems pervading the continent: food shortages, healthcare, poor infrastructure and the rest. We should of course dedicate major resources to solving these. However, I also think that the new technological revolution powered by technologies such as internet, blockchain, internet of things, smart cities can also be contributed by Africans and be used in different parts of the world. I think It is therefore okay not to think local when developing something or thinking about a solution. With these new technologies the possibilities of new careers has been stretched further.
I think this possible because new economies will be powered by whole new business models some of which do not exist yet or have not become mainstream yet. Furthermore, the new developments are powered by digital technologies which are not limited by current national boundaries. Young people have a chance to learn these and apply them anywhere. The definition of work boundaries is rapidly changing. Someone can work with a client in another continent without setting foot in a plane. The convergence of digital technologies that are powering the third industrial revolution, will change how people work and geopolitical boundaries will be redefined. This is already happening. For example, a computer programmer, a graphic designer, a writer can work for a company in USA from Kenya. A blockchain developer or miner can be part of a global interconnected crypto community and using computers to verify transactions for a person halfway around the world. There is no reason why a developer in any part of Africa cannot build software that is deployed or used in another part of the continent and beyond. The interconnected nature of the new world is such that we can learn about what is happening in another part of the world almost instantaneously. Knowledge and information is now decentralized like never before. When a new way of doing things is discovered in one part of the world, it easily spreads to other parts of the world. Therefore a young person living in Kenya can develop expertise about a particular subject and use that know-how to provide skills to another person or company regardless of geographical location.
The convergence is also being powered by ability of people to work and collaborate over vast distances through peer to peer networks. Authority and influence is also shifting from vertical to horizontal. Unlike the past industrial revolutions that were highly resource intensive and could only work in a centralized manner, the new digital connectivity means information is fast and the cost of production brought down significantly, at least for virtual related world. Barriers to entry such as technical know-how and capital have significantly been reduced in new digital era.
Smart governments understand this and are laying the groundwork to anticipate these changes. The initial infrastructural costs of powering these developments will be very important in setting the ball rolling. This will further inform better policy rather than outright banning or copy-pasting policy. For example, the way Kenyan government set out to lay the ambitious undersea internet cable was a leeway for increased connectivity rates, at least in urban areas that has unleashed opportunities in the internet space.
Africa Undersea cables, 2014. image courtesy of mybroadband
Government players, institutions such as universities, research bodies should be intentional about wanting to facilitate these developments. Funds will need to be directed to research, training and awareness on these new areas:fast and affordable internet, internet of things, smart grids systems, distributed systems. The knowledge gained in these areas can be used globally especially for blockchains which adopts a decentralized architecture. If our people are equipped with that mindset, nothing stops us from using our skills and opportunities to work and collaborate and build solutions for people across boundaries notwithstanding local situations.
It is hard to stop an old system all at once, but what we can do is begin to channels state and local funds. At some point the economy will be made up of hybrid populace both in terms of skills and world-view. We will have a section of the population that reside locally but work for a company in SA for example, with colleagues in Seattle, Shenzhen and Buenos Aires. Instead of just waiting for free-market forces to dictate the way forward, intentional steering while allowing for creativity and innovation around these areas would push us forward. This would also make us not just consumers of these new technological products but also makers of them and hopefully bringing the African experience to the world stage.