Innovation is the new buzz word sweeping Africa. About time too, as the whole world has been gripped in a fierce battle to innovate for at least the last three decades. The Great Digital revolution, which is now considered to have had a far greater impact on the way we live and work than the Industrial Revolution, ushered in the age of computer-based innovations that have completely changed the world.
The pace with which innovations of increasing sophistication have followed each other has been dizzying. In tandem with the flood of new products with almost miraculous properties, has come innovation in business processes that is even today closing down systems that operated for centuries and replacing them with brand-new models. To give just one example, in the advanced economies, the volume of online shopping is outstripping the traditional retail models and web-based start-ups are occupying ever larger chunks of the market.
But this, we are told, is just the start of a brave new world. Advances in robotics are producing machinery of such sophistication that human labour is becoming increasingly redundant. We already have planes that fly themselves and cars that drive themselves, reportedly much more safely and efficiently than with a human at the controls. Specialised software is now replacing accountants and there are even robots that can do the work of skilled craftspeople in the clothing and footwear industries. Innovation is not limited to industrial production; Denmark’s agriculture and food sectors, for example, are increasingly being run by techies on computers.
The wave after wave of innovation flooding the world is already causing concern in many advanced economies. An increasing number of jobs, once considered secure, are being lost to the advancing tide of technology and automation. The situation, some economists suggest, is similar to the 1930s when economist John Maynard Keynes wrote about a ‘new disease’ caused by “our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour”. The challenge, then as now, is to find ‘new uses for labour’ as the old ones are phased out.
What strategies can we in Africa adopt to not only survive but prevail in the new world of innovation? What do we observe? The winners of the great global competition today are those that can innovate faster and better than their competitors. Big capital, once the essential component of the industrial revolution, is no longer critical. Money, as is its traditional habit, always rushes after good ideas.
What is essential in the knowledge-based economy is imagination. Some of the world-beating ideas – Facebook, Twitter, even Microsoft and Apple – were hatched by youngsters working in garages. Today, thanks largely to the digital revolution and the internet, an ocean of knowledge is available to anyone with access to the internet. What is in short supply is imagination.
The huge proliferation of multimedia devices means that the demand for content has never been greater nor better rewarded. The real stars are no longer the engineers and product designers but the content providers, the writers, musicians, filmmakers, game designers and sports stars. The massive salaries paid to footballers, for example, are only partly a reflection of their skills but mostly because they provide media content catering to a worldwide audience of billions.
In Africa, the penny has dropped that without innovation, you rapidly become surplus to requirements as far as the wider world is concerned. I attended two important conferences on innovation recently, one in Kampala, which I have written about, and one in Cape Verde, which we will cover in the next issue. Both were interesting but I wonder if we are on the right track when looking at what innovation is and how to generate this invaluable quality in our people. What we do know is that there is no innovation without imagination. The question is: How much value do we place on imagination and creativity in our societies?