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Game Changers

Foresight and Game-Changers

Africa, might “game-changing technologies” change our game too?
A reflection on techno-futuring

 

In my experience, you would generally get two kinds of “futurist” responses to the mention of “game-changing technologies.” One would be an active and excited interest in what’s latest on the emerging technologies list, how to understand them, and what disruptions they could cause. Top Tech Trends lists covering titillating topics such as Big Data, “internet of things”, 3-D printing, cloud, MOOCs and BYODs are peppered across the Internet as fodder for much futuring and speculation. The other response, however, would be a much more tepid response; one possibly animated only by a sharp cynicism about techno-futurism, especially in the context of the developing world. Of course there are many degrees in between, but those are generally the two camps that I have observed.

 

The latter response comes from a place that I know only too well. It brings back memories of attending my first World Future Society conference back in the mid-2000s as a young African development practitioner with an emerging interest in foresight. While the conference was exciting and eye-opening in exposing a whole range of futures topics, tools, and reflections, it simultaneously felt quite removed from my realities; much like watching some sci-fi movie about cyborgs and intergalactic travel which can feel at once familiar, but also surreal and indulgent. Technology of the highest order was assumed in so much, and it was deemed to mean and change everything so much. But coming from a context where we were still grappling with the most basic industrial (if not agrarian) -era challenges, what did it all mean to me, and what did it mean for Africa?

Fast forward to June 2013 when I was privileged to attend the Baku Futures Forum themed “Next Big Things for the Future of Azerbaijan: Implications for Action Today (Post-oil Economy)” [See article by Katindi Sivi Njonjo that emerged from the same conference]. This was interesting, even for the techno-futures fatigued or cynical. It was an earnest conversation about how rapid technological advances in key fields – nanotechnology, information and communication technologies (ICT), energy efficiency, and synthetic biology in particular – could be poised to create new or next economies. And why was this important to Azerbaijan, a young nation which has been giddy in its fluorescently-lit, oil-charged growth spin? It was important because they have the foresight, even while in “the good times,” to courageously ask: but what will happen after oil?

Now, the concern is not borne out of a fear of scarcity – supply of the dirty fuel is not necessarily at risk. Rather, it is because there is broad recognition that the world is in a long-range transition from economic systems based on fossil-fuel dependency and consumptive behaviour. To this point, Dr. Ufuk Tarhan (President of All Futurists Association of Turkey) and Dr. Amory Lovins (Rocky Mountain Institute, USA), soberly reminded the Forum that there are very real “limits to growth” that have become undeniable, as we are forced to contend with rising oil prices, rising costs of food supply, the environmental consequences of fossil fuels and fossil lifestyles, and rapid population growth and urbanisation. These are the game changers, first and foremost, in that they are already setting us up for mammoth challenges and series’ of disruptions for humanity.

In this context, the discussion of these technologies became fascinating. Not just in understanding the mind-boggling science and technology behind these tech fields (which is indeed remarkable), but in also beginning to wonder what it means for us not to be wondering about their possible implications for us. We would not, surely, be mysteriously exempt from the profound game changing possibilities, would we? And surely there ought to be strategic considerations for the developing world too? Take a few examples:

 

 

 

Worried that perhaps I was perhaps just falling prey to the seductions of techno-futuring and making excuses for it, I decided to test out some thoughts about the significance of these issues for South Africa. I did this by – rather uncharacteristically for me – focusing on some of these techno-trends in a public speaking opportunity which happened to be at Talking Heads in August 2013. Here I basically said “Here are some really interesting and amazing and real things that are going on out there; Do you think it’s important for us to be looking into these tech trends? Do they mean anything for us?”

The reactions from the relatively diverse group of middle-class urbanites was quite interesting. Out of over 20 people who I dialogued with, only two reacted with a “This is coming, we gotta do something!” I interpreted that to mean that the majority were therefore either struggling to engage with the relevance of the tech trends, or were sceptical about the relevance of the issue. The specific reactions ranged from disbelief (“this all seems too far out”), to dismissal (“so what, given where we are?”), judgement (“I think that is a good / bad thing, if we are able to do that”) and despair (“we don’t have the human capacity to engage with these innovation trends – whether in R&D or even in adapting them to leverage positive outcomes for Africa”). But I couldn’t help by wonder: what does it mean for us to be ignorant of, ignoring, and/or absent in these tech trends?

It was quite an amazing conversation. It certainly got me thinking that while some futurists in the global south might feel that techno-futuring is too simplistic, remote, tech-pushy or un-developmental, we are perhaps not doing ourselves any service by refuting that technological and innovation advancements (and not just the uptake of mobile phones and MPESA, the most frequently-cited examples used whenever talking about Africa + technology!) are an important dimension in contemplating African futures. Not as a silver bullet (= false promises and distraction) or as a scare-tactic (= paralysis or market-making), but as genuinely expanding the breadth and depth of Africa’s future possibilities across society.

 

I think that there may be a “so what”, but also a missing “what if” for African futurists and development thinkers in factoring in technology in our futuring. This may open up important conversations and possibilities for us. While it is important that we be grounded and relevant to our context, we need not bury our heads in the sand like ostriches and block out all else. If we do, then it doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that the divides around us will keep growing. Africa will perpetually find itself in the dust of developments and decisions driven elsewhere, and we will continue to consume others’ technologies while struggling to address the most basic of needs in our societies. It may indeed be too late by the time we recognise that the game has changed under our very noses while we were barking up the wrong, out-dated tree.

What do you think, African futurists?

Geci Karuri-Sebina is a founding Director of the Southern Africa Node of the Millennium Project.

 


Director: South African Node at The Millennium Project
Executive Manager: Programmes at SA Cities Network
Research Associate: Institute for Economic Research on Innovation (IERI)

Read more about Geci and her view on being a futurist.

 

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