Four key trends will define Africa’s march towards the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the theme of this week’s World Economic Forum on Africa. These are:
2016 will be a defining year for Africa in its approach to advanced technologies. Progressive African economies will need to make coordinated decisions in order to take advantage of the convergence of new information, robotic, and genetic technologies. This means, for a start, double-digit increases in research spending around computing – from coding in primary schools up to industry grants. It also means having a starburst vision of how poorer communities can take advantage of the convergence – a reality that is messier than the “Singularity”
vaunted by Silicon Valley zealots. Shiny Afrofuturism has so far been shoved aside by the realities of administering living systems that are simultaneously decaying and burgeoning (think, for example, of Uganda’s failure to keep its single cancer care radiotherapy machine running).
That has to change. So does the ambition to think deeply about obvious questions such as, say, the fate of the petrol car in African cities in an age of autonomous electric vehicles. All of this has to happen now for the reason that the technologies themselves are combining at dizzying speeds. Slowness, a lack of vision, will result in, at best, the agenda being set for Africa by technology companies, and, at worst, a widening of the digital divide with industrial countries to a rift that cannot be bridged.
2. Cloud Computing
The “cloud” is driving convergence. The cost of building it out is considerable at a planetary level. Most of the money is being spent in richer countries. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft will all be among the top ten companies in the world this year in research spending. But the cloud will also be the leading tech trend in Africa this year. Oracle and Huawei say they are experiencing “hyper-growth” in Africa as businesses move their operations to the cloud. The effects will be much more considerable than shifting practice. Whereas steam power (pistons
pumping) was the basis of the industrial revolution (and still powers old ships on African lakes), cloud computing promises a near future that is increasingly dematerialised and more highly distributed. Everything moves faster, cheaper, more precisely, and more transparently. What is physical wants to become virtual, and what is virtual demands to manifest itself in the physical world. This tension is felt in the competition for warehousing business between online and shipping companies (companies who control both the cloud and the warehouse, such as Amazon and Alibaba, will likely triumph).
This sounds esoteric, of no account to African development, but that would be to underestimate the interplay between people and machines –and the more so in Africa where resources are limited and legacy
infrastructure has yet to be built. General Electric has $2.4 billion of business in Africa in turbines, railway engines, and medical machinery. It wants to add another $1 billion of business in Nigeria by becoming
“digital industrial” – meshing its diverse innovations online. But the new world is just as likely to be formed by new consumer technologies as by heavy lifters like GE. One example is Amazon’s recently released Echo
Dot, an AI that accesses the cloud by human voice command, which, while superficially gimmicky and priced for industrial countries, is sure to find its competitors, collapse in price, and, over a decade, optimise
consumption of energy, food, goods, and information at the household level in Africa. Understanding the new business models circling around these technologies will be of critical importance to vision plans at the
ministerial and boardroom level. This is particularly true for African towns. These are mostly predicted to triple in size exactly as the early AI’s begin to mature. One of the questions that needs to be addressed in
2016 is whether the convergence of technologies can improve the way these towns are built – and if so how?
I finish, self-interestedly, by outlining an invention which incorporates some of this thinking: the droneport. Cheap electronics make it inevitable that we will make intensive use of the sky over Africa using flying robots to carry precious cargo at motorbike prices. These will be fixed-wing craft, six metres or more in span, flying the middle mile, droneport to droneport, town to town, rugged, cheap, beautiful, quiet, silvery, streaming red lights behind them: the love child of a Citroën 2CV and a Star Wars fighter who fell for each other in a seedy bar. The droneport, as conceived by the lead designer of the Redline project, Lord Norman Foster, will be a large civic building, built of earth, cheap as a petrol station, with many uses, including digital fabrication, pharmacy, courier services, trading, and e-commerce. The spectral lines in the sky connecting droneports manifest the convergence – putting the robot in the cloud in every way.
Jonathan Ledgard is founder of the new Rossums studio and director of a future Africa initiative at EPFL in Switzerland. He was a long-time Africa correspondent of The Economist. He leads the Redline group which
seeks to build droneports and cargo drone lines in Africa. His second novel, Submergence, a New York Times book of the year, is presently being adapted for Hollywood by Wim Wenders.