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Technology Is Improving the World, Not Destroying It

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For all the negative views of technology, the positive is that it is enabling and inclusive.

This is what Digital Human explores in depth. The main critique of my book is that it is too optimistic about the future of technology, and should be more balanced.

Nevertheless, after yesterday’s post about the evils of the internet, here is the opposite view and returns to my overwhelmingly optimistic view of the future. I truly believe that technology gives opportunity for all and is improving Planet Earth, not destroying it.

In fact, I believe the Industrial Revolution created all the problems we face on Earth today from ozone destruction to greenhouse gases, and that technology in the Digital Revolution is solving all of these problems.

I believe that Digital is also creating opportunity for all, from the unemployable Jack Ma (Chair and founder of Alibaba) to the previously homeless Vijay Shekar Sharma (CEO and founder of PayTM).

This is no better demonstrated than this week’s Financial Times article discussing Africa’s leapfrogging economies, thanks to mobile money. The article has a number of key stories and stats. Here’s my summary.

The rapid spread of mobile technology in the developing world has given rise to the theory of “leapfrogging”. The term is often applied to Africa, though it is also used to describe India, which is said to have skipped straight to a technology-driven economic model without the intensive manufacturing phase that spurred growth in Japan, South Korea and China.

The spread of mobile and digital technology is seen as the key to leapfrogging. According to Miles Morland, a veteran investor in Africa, Nigeria in 2001 had 100,000 working landlines for a population then around 140m. When in that year, MTN, a South African telecoms company, bid $285m for a mobile operating licence, it estimated that no more than 15m Nigerians would ever own a mobile phone. Today, the country has 162m subscribers, according to Jumia, an online retailer.

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In sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, GSMA Intelligence estimates there were 444m unique mobile subscribers in 2017, a penetration rate of 44 per cent. That compares with a global average of 66 per cent, though in countries like South Africa and Nigeria, where nearly nine in 10 people subscribe, mobile phones are as common as in the US, according to Pew Research. Although mobile phone sales have slowed, many of the 50 countries in sub-Saharan Africa are expected gradually to close the gap on the rest of the world as handsets become more affordable. In Ethiopia, Transsion Holdings, a Chinese company, is already manufacturing handsets costing as little as $10 in an industrial park outside Addis Ababa.

“Access to mobile phones is now virtually ubiquitous,” says Precious Lunga, a Zimbabwean neuroscientist who founded Baobab Circle, a health tech company that uses artificial intelligence to give consultations to patients in Kenya and Zimbabwe. “There are places where there’s still no running water, but you can stream a video,” she says.

The spread of smartphones, which count for a third of all handsets in Africa, opens up the transformative possibilities of mobile technology still further, say technology advocates. In teeming cities such as Lagos in Nigeria or Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, both among the fastest growing in the world, a slice of the urban elite is using ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Taxify and ordering takeaway food and goods online. In Ivory Coast, Standard Chartered has launched its first digital-only retail bank, saying it will use the west African country as a testing ground for digital services worldwide.

Even more important for the leapfrogging argument is the impact that mobile technology is having on the countryside, where six of every 10 Africans live. Starting in Kenya, with the 2007 launch of MPESA — Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and payment service— much of Africa is experiencing a revolution in financial inclusion. Tens of millions of previously unbanked people like Mr Ng’usilo can now transfer money to relatives or pay for goods by pressing a few buttons on their phone.

The spread of mobile money — now used by an estimated 690m people, of which half are African, according to GSMA — forms the digital backbone for a host of other services. In cities and towns, small businesses can advertise online and collect payments by phone. In the countryside, there has been a rapid spread of pay-as-you-go solar-generated power in which customers buy electricity with mobile money for as little as 50 cents a day and panels are deactivated remotely if payments stop.

In the village of Sahabevava in north-east Madagascar, several hours down a bone-jolting road to the nearest town and far from the nearest electricity grid, Lydia Soa, a farmer, is the proud owner of a solar panel. It produces enough power to light her home — good for when the children do homework — power a boombox and, of course, recharge her mobile phone.

Related: The Danger in Pushing All Customers to Be Digitally Engaged

Africa accounts for 16 per cent of the world’s population but has only 2.8 per cent of its power generation capacity, according to the World Bank. Only 37 per cent of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to electricity, leaving some 600m in the dark. However, according to an industry report, 73m households, mostly in African countries, had access to off-grid solar power by 2017.

This rapid spread, which has enabled remote parts of Africa to jump from having no electricity straight to green power, is the quintessence of the leapfrogging argument. If technology can leapfrog landlines, banking and electricity grids, say enthusiasts, surely it can impact all industries and all areas of life.

Keun Lee, professor of economics at Seoul National University, has studied how technological advances can jump-start development. In the late 1990s, he says, South Korea’s Samsung used the shift to digital television technology to overtake Sony, its Japanese rival, which had dominated the analogue market with its Trinitron range of TVs.

“When a new technology or paradigm emerges, everyone starts on the same line, so latecomers are not behind,” he says. “Forerunners are the last to switch to new technologies,” he adds.

Few would dispute that, either by piggybacking off technologies developed in the west or through their own innovations such as mobile money, countries in Africa and elsewhere can compress development. Britain took 150 years or more, via an industrial revolution that harnessed water, wind and steam power, to move from an agricultural to an advanced economy. Japan achieved the same transition more quickly and countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and China have taken just a couple of generations to leap from poverty to middle- or high-income status.

I recommend you subscribe to and read the whole of the Financial Times article, and can only underline that comment from Keun Lee which, in my own words, would become:

“The last to embrace a technology is now first to lead, whilst the first to embrace a technology is now last”

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