Politics in Practice

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Disruptive Technologies, Innovation and Development in Africa

Disruptive Technologies, Innovation and Development in Africa. Read the chapter "Disruptive Technologies, Innovation and Transformation in Africa: The Present and Future" online free until 2nd September 2020.

Interview with editors Peter Arthur, Kobena Hanson and Korbla Puplampu.

As this book went to press, the COVID-19 crisis started unfolding. How do you think the crisis plays into some of the arguments that you make in the book? 

The central arguments in this book revolve around: the institutional and policy imperatives for the broader African development; the role of technology and innovation as a part of that broader mix bearing in mind the social and technical context of technology for development. Covid-19 has revealed some critical prerequisites for development, for example, the standard of governance and institutional capacities. Governance, specifically the relationship between state and non-state actors and institutions relative to policies and social capital are important variables, but they are not like switches to be easily turned on. Rather, they must be cultivated and continuously monitored and enhanced overtime. Although Covid-19 is primarily a health issue, the impact of the crisis is not only on health care services, but also all facets of everyday life and development as highlighted in the book. Indeed, encumbered by an extended lockdown, people are seeking out disruptive solutions to routine tasks, be it food-delivery, medical consultations, or education. Limited mobility has led to a reliance on remote interviewing (via phone, teleconferencing), use of big data, satellite imagery and geographic information systems to circumvent the inability to get onto the ground, and the employment of artificial Intelligence and machine learning to delimit target populations. COVID-19 has heightened the need for digital work and learning spaces linked by the internet and virtual platforms as these increasingly have become the mainstay for businesses, educational institutions and families as they connect home-bound employees, researchers, students, and loved-ones across countries, regions and globally. In view of the lockdown, online platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Slack are now household names and essential necessities. 

The arguments made in our book are made evident in the Covid-19 world in several other areas. For example, researchers and companies are sharing intellectual property rather than hoarding it. A case in point is the mass production of PPEs using open source designs. Telemedicine platforms are enabling healthcare professionals to diagnose patients virtually in remote locations over smartphones and video calls. Chatbots is also making it possible to ask questions about symptoms and treatment faster. Use of robotics is also on the rise. Rwanda’s reliance on robots for diagnosis is a good example – enabling many patients to be reviewed quickly, while keeping medical personal safe. The robots can screen up to 150 people per minute for symptoms of the virus such as high temperature and dry cough, deliver food and medication to patients, capture data and notify medics about detected abnormalities. Similarly, Tunisia uses police robots to patrol the capital city to ensure that residents observe the lockdown. So, put differently, Covid-19 has seen the use of, and appreciation for, disruptive technologies fast-tracked – and will undoubtedly assume a more critical role in countless functions requiring higher-level ‘intelligence’, be it in planning, predicting, classifying, researching, evaluating, reasoning or problem-solving.

In what sense is technology ‘disruptive’ and what are the implications of ‘disruptive’ technology in the African development context? 

While every technological change, by default, is ‘disruptive’, digitalization is inherently disruptive and transformative in nature. Digitalization defies space and time constrains and thus is encompassing. Across Africa, disruptive technologies in the form of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and blockchain are transforming the work and production systems and addressing socio-economic challenges. Digital start-ups, bridging platforms, and FinTechs are individually and collectively revising the development landscape by way of jobs created, FDI, and associated spin-offs established. All the above notwithstanding, disruptive technologies, like any authentic change, require adequate planning and context. While the uptake of disruptive technologies continues to expand in several African countries, cost implications, regulatory issues, taxation, and consumer concerns cannot be ignored if one essence of ‘disruptive’ technology is to minimize the digital divide and infuse technology into productive and wealth enhancing activities. What is however undisputed, is the impact of disruptive technologies on development – something that will only increase in the wake of Covid-19 and the rollout of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

What do you think is unique, if anything, about the impact of technological innovation in Africa? Do we see a similar impact in other parts of the world? 

Technological innovation specifically as triggered by the Fourth Industrial Revolution offer immense possibilities for social change, governance and development across Africa. Indeed, the emerging technological hubs across the region, the demographic dividend of young people and their enthusiastic embrace of technology are useful indicators and unique to the African context. However, technology cannot, by itself, ensure development. As other parts of the world, particularly East Asia, have demonstrated, the interface between a youthful demography and technology could be enhanced only in a policy, partnership (predicated on mutual accountability), capacity, governance and transformative leadership framework. A valuable aspect of this framework is that discussions must proceed in an integrated and purposeful manner. The means the presence of feedback loops to reinforce technological outcomes. African countries that have outlined policies within well-resourced and capable institutions with the transformative and emotional-laden leaders at the help are most likely to serve as pacesetters for African development in the twenty-first century. As a continent, what is key is having policy consensus grounded on a shared strategic vision and bolstered by courage of conviction.

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