Digital has always had the potential to create a step change in humanity’s life journey. The dot com boom should have given us the signs but we focused too much on the crash and delayed the fun.
It is always shocking when I hear people talk about 4IR / Digital as if it is a new concept whilst we have benefitted from accurate weather forecast for years, just think of the sensory data and advanced analytics one needs to run to guarantee that weather prediction are correct. You don’t have to look far when you have to consider the dependency of insurance companies, emergency services etc. on this data.
Telecommunication organisations have enjoyed the benefits of SIM card based machine-to-machine IoT interfaces for decades. One can argue that even the mobile phone is a complex IoT device on its own. However, IoT discussions in the media and consultants make it seem like IoT is still a future concept.
Utility organisations have been running complex IoT environments and relying on digital twins for a long time to improve operational efficiencies yet consulting organisations sell IoT to these organisations as if it is the latest thing to arrive. Ok, I agree utilities like Eskom can still improve their line inspections with a combination of drones and AI instead of wasting money with a fleet of helicopters – this is so yesterday.
A general web designer now go with fancy titles such as UI/UX designers just because the corporate world now allows colourful hair & styles, tattoos and crazy piercings.
I remember spending hours in my first job, after graduating from University, coding countless performance testing scripts on what used to be called Mercury Loadrunner. We used this tool to simulate transaction volumes hitting a website or an application to improve its overall performance and understand infrastructure requirements. Mercury WinRunner was also used for basic functional tests where we could virtually simulate a real user executing various instructions on a computer screen to prove basic functionality was aligned to defined business requirements. It was important to use these tools for better results and less reliance on humans. Yet everyone talks about Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as if it just got invented yesterday – be careful of consultants (most are just technology marketers, the PowerPoint presentation does not solve real problems).
The point here is that digital has always been with us, maybe without a big focus on customer intimacy and related implications.
A closer look at the combinatorial effects of technology suggest that we’ve always had the tools, though at different maturity levels, to move innovation and life into the next logical dimension – a life purely dictated by science and less superstition.
I argue that digital is the best weapon we’ve ever come across to truly understand human needs and man’s direction in a way that will encourage a positive GDP growth across nations creating countless riches for those who are willing to take necessary risks by building digital skills and taking a chance in solving some of the most complex world problems, e.g. using Quantum Computing and Super Artificial Intelligence to solve cancer for good.
The west might have led some of the earlier thinking in digital, but China understood the power of digital much earlier – so what happened with regards to AI and digital acceleration in China after the AlphaGo Korean competition is not a shock.
The obsession with data
Digital has brought to light why man has always been obsessed with data.
The power to bring the physical space into digital opens up a lot of opportunities, and gives confidence to open new doors where it would have been rather dangerous without precise data points that we could trust.
Just imagine the true potential of digital twins provided we are able to overlay real and precise data points on top of them, and expose all of this to super intelligent systems (not RPA) that can run multiple algorithms to give us new knowledge that can help us make better decisions about our everyday life.
Interestingly, we no longer have to imagine a lot of this as it is now a reality and at various maturity levels. Simply google Singularity to shock yourself. The challenge is finding an ethical and honest world where these digital innovations can thrive and be of help to humanity instead of being seen as an unwanted guest (Humans and machines can co-exist for a better world).
I find it so unethical that large and well known organisations and brands have been using digital innovations with illegal data points and discrediting the power of the combined force behind digital and data.
For example, top brands have grown their sales through illegally acquired data such as our credit information, deeds information, home affairs information etc.
Such organisations have conspired in the dark and signed significant revenue sharing deals that allow them to exploit our data without our knowledge.
Today, you have a simple chat with someone about your health and the next time you login into your favourite social channel, guess what? You are flooded with all kinds of marketing for health products, gym membership etc.
Some call this unethical behaviour ‘digital marketing’, but for as long as it is based on illegally obtained data it is pure data theft and misuse.
Unfortunately, it is these kinds of data abuses that will make it difficult for people to trust digital and the step change the related exponential innovations can bring to society. In a 2018 study, the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates there’s in excess of $100 Trillion worth of value for business and society still to be unlocked, all digital.
If you believe I am taking this unethical use of data too far, just look at what has happened to Facebook and WhatsApp a few weeks ago with a simple announcement of their new Terms and Conditions for WhatsApp.
I’ve never seen such confusion in the social space with people deleting their accounts, some migrating to Telegram and Signal thinking their nightmare will be over.
For me it was less about Facebook Inc but more an obvious sign that people are fearing the worst of what could happen to their data. Remember, this fear is not unjustified especially knowing what companies like google have done with our data over the years and the excessive revenues they’ve generated through the concept of Moment Markets, another intelligent way of exploiting illegally sourced (and derived) data points about you and me, selling you a product just when they know you have a high propensity to buy it.
Unfortunately, such illegal and unethical behaviour in an already dishonest society results in a growing need for cyber security because people are scared on the potential for digital innovations to expose the realities of their lives from adultery, priests preying on young innocent boys, etc. It gets worse because politicians are scared their shenanigans will be exposed and corruption spoils will run dry.
Where does all of this leave Digital?
The growth of digital innovations by default results in an exponential need for cloud storage and cloud native solutions.
Let’s ask the question again, where does this leave digital?
There is only one option for humanity to thrive in the future, that option is Digital.
With the understanding that digital is our only hope, we need a new approach that will improve ethics and governance for data and digital innovations in general.
This is even more important as digital cuts across all industry domains and we’ve already had cases where some AI algorithms have serious racial biases in their data profiling resulting in unwanted outcomes.
A proposed way-forward…
I am of the view that every large organisation and government must run a digital office that will seek to shape the future existence and relevance of such an entity in the future – no organisation is built to last anymore, this is our new reality.
A country without strong digital focus will soon become failed states.
In current context, any new startup that does not embrace digital might as well shut their doors – there’s no need to wait for the negative cash flows to convince yourself that your business case is no longer relevant.
Bringing it back home
South Africa needs to transition from the 4IR Commission to a thriving Mzansi Digital Hub that is solving some of our top priority problems as a country.
The Mzansi Digital Hub must enable a thriving digital startup ecosystem with a clear value chain driving Research and Development (R&D), self-organising pods for agile prototyping and quick product launch, etc.
The Mzansi Digital Hub must have a well defined and transparent process for evaluating new digital innovations for relevance to South African challenges and their potential for Exponentiality.
A clear blueprint for navigating the innovation funnel from concept to foundational startup ideas/solutions to scaling. A strong seed funding structure must be established in partnership with private sector and deep research organisations. Truly innovating companies such as CSIR, Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet, etc. will probably be a useful consideration in this area.
A mix of consulting experience will be needed, with a strong focus on the digital startup economy and not the traditional ‘pie in the sky’ PowerPoint and ‘give me your watch so I tell you the time’ type consulting. We saw these traditional type consulting houses flooding the 4IR Commission, and guess what…no tangible results even now except that they all enjoy telling you what socks the president was wearing or food he likes eating etc.
A formalised Shark Tank must be established for the Mzansi Digital Hub. This Shark Tank will be the cornerstone for the success of the hub and attraction of venture capital (it is time we see more useful section 12J investment vehicles). The Shark Tank will vigorously test ideas through written submissions and oral presentations, and using its diverse pool of experience will be able to select innovations that move successfully through the innovation funnel, including linking them with financial opportunities. This will be the heartbeat of the Mzansi Digital Hub.
The Mzansi Digital Hub will do well to learn from Silicon Valley and implement the concept of the Founder Institute (The world’s largest pre-seed startup accelerator, successfully launched 4500+ startups and counting). The Founder Institute helps create the right ‘owner’ mentality across the startup ecosystem to ensure that every useful innovation is driven to success and monetised accordingly because everyone is invested.
It is important that the Mzansi Digital Hub is not seen to be a political tool and as such, it must never account to any political party. It has to be independent with a strong independent board to drive governance. The public sector must simply be a shareholder and be represented accordingly.
Contrary to popular believe, South Africa has a lot of digital talent and we have a chance to put it into action and thrive.