Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), Graduate Centre for Management, Certificate Award ceremony, 19 June 2013

I was invited to be a guest speaker at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), Graduate Centre for Management, Certificate Award ceremony tonight (19 June 2013). Below is the text of the talk that I delivered.....

Thank you for inviting me to this event. I am honoured to be here with you at your awards ceremony.

I run a company called African Ideas.  We are a strategic consultancy helping governments to accelerate the benefits of ICT-enabled change through transformation of the public sector and the wider economy.
Our name embodies the principles that we believe in and strive towards - African Innovation, African Development, African Empowerment, African Action and African Solutions.

We believe in the ripple effect – dropping a stone or even a drop of water in a pond, causes ripples to emanate from the source, getting bigger and bigger the further away from the source they get. This is a powerful example of small changes causing large and far-reaching effects. At African Ideas, we specialise in working with our clients to identify these ‘big lever’ projects – the projects which, when embarked upon, will set the necessary ripples in motion to drive change and transformation throughout an eco-system. In this way we aim to have a profound effect on the society in which we operate.

A few days ago, there was a very interesting article in the MIT Technology Review that I am still trying to get my head around. The article was titled “How Technology Is Destroying Jobs” and was clearly of interest to me, as I have always had the view that technology can have a massive impact on social and economic impact in our country. I was starting to wonder if some of the luddites that we seem to have in charge of our country might have it right after all, and if I might have it wrong.
 The article was about how automation is eliminating the need for people in many jobs and was based on US Data. What it showed was that historically, economic growth and job numbers closely matched one another; however from the early 2000s, this pattern starts to diverge, with economic growth outstripping job creation i.e. the economy is growing, but not creating as many jobs as it used to. The authors of that study argue that it is because of technological advances.

The rapid acceleration of technological progress, they say, has greatly widened the gap between economic winners and losers—the income inequalities that many economists have worried about for decades. Digital technologies tend to favour “superstars,” they point out. For example, someone who creates a computer program to automate tax preparation might earn millions or billions of dollars while eliminating the need for countless accountants.

The MIT Tech review article does present both sides of the argument and does counter this view. However the article does conclude with a very interesting quote which states; “It’s one of the dirty secrets of economics: technology progress does grow the economy and create wealth, but there is no economic law that says everyone will benefit.” In other words, in the race against the machine, some are likely to win while many others lose.

Why am I telling you about this? Because the world is changing.  Jobs that exist today will not exist in a few years’ time. Education is important, but it is not enough.  Take what you learnt in books and make it your own. Find new ways to solve problems. If you do things the way that everyone else has always done them, you are one of the followers, and you are one of the million people that can do the same as you because they have had the same education. If you want to be a leader, try to think of new ways to solve the old problems.  Very often, we look at things and say that I could make it better, and that is innovation. But sometimes we look at something and say that I could do something entirely different that would make lives easier for people, and that is invention.  None of this stuff is in books.

When we did the ERP at the City of Cape Town, many people told us it could not be done, that it would be a colossal failure, that it had never been done anywhere else in the world like this, etc. One person described it as trying to change both engines on a Boeing while it was still flying. But we did it, and it was a huge success. We achieved national and international acclaim with numerous awards – the most notable of which was the ComputerWorld Honours Award in Washington DC in 2005. Interestingly, in 2004, Apple Computers had won a ComputerWorld Honours Award at the same event for “Reshaping the Global Music Industry through the introduction of its iPod and iTunes Music Store”.

When we did Smart Cape, which provided free internet across the 100 libraries in Cape Town, our critics said again that it would not work. They said that people will not use it, the technology (open source) will be too hard, that we hadn't planned properly, etc.

And yet it did work. We rolled out 500 computers to 100 libraries across the whole of Cape Town in less than a year. It was the largest free internet project of its kind on the African continent. We also won the prestigious 2003 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Access to Learning Award in Berlin for this project – with a prize of US$1 Million for the City. 10 years later, Smart Cape facilities are part of the fabric in a Cape Town library. There are in excess of 300 000 registered users of these facilities and the city cannot meet the demand for more facilities. In the age of tablets and smartphones, free WIFI is also now being rollout into libraries.

African Ideas provides advisory services to the Western Cape Broadband initiative. As part of this initiative (and in partnership with the City of Cape Town and Saldanha Municipality), WIFI mesh pilots are being deployed in Khayelitsha, Mitchells Plain and Saldanha. Once again, we had all of the doomsayers talking about how it will not work, how the market is not there, how the devices are not there, questioning why there and not richer areas, etc. The reality is that this level of cheap, mass communications is what is needed if we are to take this country forward. We need solutions that will work for poor people, people who live in shacks with tin roofs. The fact that it has not been done elsewhere should not stop us.

Early in my career, I adopted the philosophy of “Think Globally, Act Locally”. In those days, a lot of friends and colleagues were leaving South Africa because the world had opened up and there were so many opportunities to do interesting projects all over the world.  I wanted to stay and make a difference in South Africa. I felt that my skills and passion could make a real difference in the country. However I was concerned about stagnation. That is when a group of us came up with the “Think Globally, Act Locally” philosophy. We vowed that we would always aim to think globally and to be the best at what we did in a global context but we would execute locally (out of choice). This is something that I always try to get my staff (and my children) to understand and buy into. If you are doing something, do it well. Try to be better than anyone else in the world at what you do. And then you can chose where you want to utilise your talent.

So, in summary - Change is certain. Embrace it, and understand how you are going to change with it. A commitment to lifelong learning (as you are doing) is a good start. You can never know all there is to know - especially as things are changing at such a rapid pace. I am still learning new things on a daily basis, and I love it. We live in an exciting continent. Africa is the place where everyone wants to be and is teeming with opportunities. However, more of the same is not going to work. We have to think of new, innovative ways of solving the complex problems that face us. We have to root these solutions in our own context – African solutions for Africa’s problems.  The future is bright. Congratulations on your achievement and good luck for the future.