I have always believed that the Fourth Industrial Revolution, commonly referred to as 4IR, cannot have relevance for Africa unless African thinkers peel its outer covering and delve deep into how it applies to our situation.
I was therefore happy to see Bright Simons’ recent paper, A Farewell to Disruption in a Post-Platform World, published by the Centre for Global Development (CGD), a Washington DC-based think-tank.
Simons is the technology innovator who invented mPedigree, a global leader in the use of mobile and web technologies in securing products against counterfeiting.
The mPedigree technology was launched in Kenya by the Health ministry and is currently working with the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (Kephis) to boost access to quality seeds, fertiliser, among other agro-inputs.
Reading Simons’ work affirmed my concerns about how countries like Kenya, and Africa at large, can press forward with their plan not to be left behind in the latest industrial revolution.
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The biggest of these concerns is that Fourth Industrial Revolution concepts in common use are often too broad. Many of the narratives fail to account for low-level trends around us.
The plight of African startups in many industries provide us with clear evidence of how hard it is for governments to take a concept like Fourth Industrial Revolution and develop policies that make a real difference.
Even countries like South Africa and Rwanda that have formalised Fourth Industrial Revolution policy-making still do not seem to have any clear guidelines on what it means from a day-to-day policy management perspective.
After reading Simons’ paper, I have come to several clear conclusions about what is missing. One is that Fourth Industrial Revolution narratives can create a sense of unity between possibilities.
Moving from pacemakers made from a patient’s own cells to whether Facebook can create a global digital currency involves a million steps of analysis, none of which gets any clearer by simply appreciating that a fusion of technologies is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological, which is the central mantra of Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Here is where Simons is most useful. He makes clear, empirical, arguments about which factors and forces are the most important.
He argues that the fusion of industries, whilst true, is still constrained by the fact that the economics in different industries are not converging as fast as the applications being churned out through that convergence.
He then distinguishes among three major forces: data, algorithms and integrations. Whilst most people tend to focus on the first two, he insists that integrations are the most critical.
Intriguingly, he does not believe that disruption is accelerating as a result of what he calls, hyper-integration, a process whereby the fragmentation of data and specialisation of algorithms puts intense pressure on organisations to deepen the connectivity among the business models and value chains in their surrounding industries in an attempt to force seamlessness.
Rather, hyper-integration is making disruption more expensive, cumbersome and slow.
Whilst there are still a few giant legacy platforms that can cause seismic shifts within a small set of narrow industries, most players struggle to move the needle because of how tightly integrated business models and value chains have become.
Startups lack the muscle to disrupt, unless they raise massive amounts of capital which then bumps them against a profitability ceiling and renders their advantages unsustainable.
So, what does this mean for Fourth Industrial Revolution policy-making? Simons advises organisations to put on new lens when observing their industries by paying more attention to what he describes as “lattices” that have formed from the web of integrations across business models and value chains.
They must treat their own integrations as critical assets and manage and optimise them as a portfolio.
The more timely advice however is for governments to invest in what he describes as pre-fabricated integrations that can be delivered as a public resource.
This lowers the cost and friction for truly innovative local enterprises interested in working across critical industries such as health, education, agriculture, and energy
Ms Murumba is the humanitarian project director, Africa at Internews.?