First, what is innovation? As an engineer, I will answer the question using an equation.
Innovation = Invention + Productization
You can replace that Productization with Commercialization or Implementation. Understand that an idea could simply be an invention, but until it has a market impact, it cannot be an innovation. Yes, without an economic value, you cannot have innovation! This economic value could be direct or indirect. Take for example, ancient Egyptians developed concepts in geometry to allocate land near River Nile. That idea was not directly commercialized, but it helped streamlined the process of land partitioning which consequently helped all the farmers. By mapping the land, minor overflowing of the Nile was not catastrophic as farmers could still locate their plots easily afterwards.
Information and communication technology is enabling a faster pace in the process of invention. With higher computing power, people could come up with great ideas faster and cheaper. And the process of transitioning from invention to innovation has never been better. With a global market accessible through the Internet, the world has evolved into a tight atomic economic unit. This interdependence brings a new understanding that nations cannot hide, and classical economic theory of comparative advantage makes lesser meaning now.
Comparative advantage was proposed in the era of manufacturing when availability of raw materials was critical to location and localization of industries. It was based on an old model of factors of production, which did not capture knowledge as we do today. Increasingly, nations like Japan and South Korea have shown that what matters is knowledge power in order to be vibrant and successful.
This brings up the African challenge. How will the continent survive under its present model of dependence on minerals when the world has since moved from that for creating wealth and prosperity? There are opportunities; we can innovate on the process of our mineral processing. This will involve using knowledge to differentiate our commodities. We get higher value in the international market. But if the continent continues to rely on this present model where it extracts and sells without adding value to the products, it will face economic consequences in few years. We have seen that information systems and Internet bridge national and international boundaries quicker and any major technical breakthrough could be felt in more ways across the globe faster.
Disruption will surely come. We have noted that some old traditional industries are going through some unfortunate metamorphosis. What is happening to newspapers as a result of the disruptive innovation by Google could happen to nations and continents. Just like the film photography is history due to digital cameras, cotton and rubber farming could also be.
Why not? If a smart student in MIT figures out the best way to harness the powers of nanotechnology to create artificial cotton, those Sudanese cotton farmers will be out of work. It will be disruptive and consequential when new technologies in the lab right now hit the market in 10 years. There are inventions today and will become innovation soon. Africa could pay a severe price.
The continent needs leadership to help transition our industries and markets. Massive education is what we need right now to develop the capability to compete, become the sources of innovations ourselves, and provide safety nets in our economies. Few years ago, nations would have time to react to new innovations, but now, it comes so fast that without preparations it is possible to see foreign earnings dropped by 50%. I am so scared on the thought that petroleum will one day cease to be ‘economically useful’ because of alternative sources of energy being developed in the lab. If it happens suddenly, and without preparation from some OPEC members, many could default on their sovereign debts.
Balancing Tech Strategy in the Age of Disruption
As African countries devise means to chart a path in this age, they need to remember that we have one resource in abundance: our young people. The promise of the new Africa cannot be decoupled from the optimistic exuberance that comes when we see the hope and aspirations of boys and girls on the streets of Lagos, Nairobi, Accra, Yaounde, and more. Getting them to realize those dreams with unbounded opportunities will be the challenge of this age across African capitals.
Doing that will mean we need to radically re-think how we build the future. Over two weeks in Lagos, I tracked the number of times the Guardian newspaper wrote articles on technology. I observed that IT (information technology) was seen as technology with no mention of agricultural technology, mining technology, construction technology, etc. The implication is that we have made IT to be synonymous with technology, creating an erroneous construct that unless a young girl or boy is doing IT, the person is not playing in the technology domain. The nation has made it even more challenging as every leader talks of IT, not remembering that we have other technologies.
I am not against IT. However IT is yet to serve as garri and yam across our food joints and restaurants. Facebook and Google may be more exciting than IITA Ibadan but the latter may have more impacts in the lives of many Nigerians. When it fixed the cassava mosaic disease, it saved the nation in 1987. Projecting what IITA does to be exciting, just as Google and Facebook are promoted by governments will create the balance Nigeria needs. You cannot make rock starts from the leaders of IT and neglect legends from IITA and you think kids are not watching.
Our nation needs to have a real conversation: one that shows that for all its flashes, IT is just a small part of the technology domain. It has a role, but it cannot be our only technology. We need to inspire our young people to be excited about other types of technology. That is the only way we can build a balance and enter the future with lesser disruption.