Saturday, 2 March 2019

Making Africa a Future-Fit Continent

An address delivered by A. Prof Camaren Peter of the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town; to the participants of the Leadership in Extractives and African Development Programme (LEAD).

It may perhaps appear ironic that in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, we entered an era of long overdue afro-optimism. In 2010, McKinsey released a report entitled, “Lions on the Move: The Progress and Potential of African Economies[i]. This was followed by a range of similarly optimistic projections for the future of the continent, and from a wide range of sources; from the African Development Bank in 2011[ii], to global multinational corporations, who were looking for new markets to access in a stagnant post-collapse global economy. Let me read you a quote from UN-Habitat’s State of the African Cities Report in 2014 [iii] (full disclosure: I was one of the authors):

“In recent years, Africa’s economic growth has seen real gross domestic product (GDP) increasing at a rate twice that of the 1980s and 1990s. The spread of growth over economic sectors has been relatively uniform. By 2020, 128 million African households are projected to have transited to “middle class”, boosting consumption and spending potentials; and by 2030 Africa’s highest-performing 18 cities might reach a combined purchasing power of USD 1.3 trillion. Projections over the longer term include growth of the middle class from 355 million people in 2010 (34 per cent of the total population) to 1.1 billion (42 per cent) in 2060, exceeding that of China today.”

UN-Habitat State of the African Cities Report, 2014

This optimistic turn quickly came to be reflected in the media as well, as can still be evidenced today from the ‘good news’ media stories that we are exposed to about the continent on international news channels such as CNN and the BBC. Everybody, it seems, was queuing up in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse (i.e. from the US, to Europe to India and China); in a ‘new scramble for Africa’. To be sure, on a continent such as this, that has undergone such drastic exploitation over centuries, strong warnings also emerged. Many on the continent were not quite sure whether to trust this new version of their continent that was doing the rounds in the global media discourse. As the State of the African Cities Report of 2014 went on to warn, a more cautious optimism was necessary. After all, at the time;

“… despite ten years of high economic growth continent-wide, around 50 per cent of Africans today remain at incomes below USD 1.25 per day, while only four per cent receive more than USD 10 per day. Using the range of USD 10 to USD 100 per day, Africa constitutes a mere two per cent of the global middle class and has only one per cent of its purchasing power.”

There is more to this picture, and I will address some of the dimensions that require serious attention if we are to understand; (1) how future fit the continent is, and (2) what needs to be done in order to secure an affirmative future for the continent. And to be sure, we face difficult and complex challenges; not least because it is difficult to speak of such a large, diverse continent in singular terms. Context matters and generalizations often do injustice to our understanding of the developmental challenges we face, as well as to the solutions we adopt. So it is a difficult task that I am faced with tonight, and I must beg your indulgence. In problematising the ‘African condition’ I may be omitting some of the nuances of it. However, we have a short amount of time, and despite the difficulty of the task I have been set, we need to ask some basic questions.

And the very first question is, “what do we mean by ‘future-fit’?” In simple terms, we can think of future fitness in terms of resilience, sustainability, equity and prosperity. There is perhaps more to add to this, but for now this broad characterization will have to suffice.

Additionally, the question of how ‘future-fit’ the continent is; is linked to the questions such as:

1.      Is the continent undergoing a transition in the first place?

2.      If it is,
a.      What kind of transition is it?
b.      Who are the protagonists?
c.       Where is it leading?

3.      And most importantly, what can we begin to do now to secure a more equitable and sustainable future for the people who live on the continent? What elements, seeded now, can grow a more sustainable, resilient and prosperous future for the continent and all those who live within it?

The short answer to the question of whether the continent is undergoing a transition or not is, “yes”, most certainly! That does not mean that historical inequalities and negative trends are not being reproduced in this transition. What it means is that it is undeniable that some fundamental changes are unfolding on the continent. So let’s take a look at some of the dimensions of change that are unfolding on the continent:

One of the key dimensions of change on the continent today is urbanization:

·         African cities are exhibiting the highest growth rates in the world, even though national urbanization levels remain low, especially in Eastern and Southern Africa.
·         Over a quarter of the 100 fastest growing cities are in Africa.
·         The number of African urban dwellers is projected to increase from 400 million to 1.26 billion by 2050.
·         The global share of African urban dwellers is projected to rise from 11.3 per cent in 2010 to a 20.2 per cent by 2050.
·         A critically important factor in the urbanization trends in Africa is the dominant growth of smaller, intermediate and secondary cities (75% of urban growth is being absorbed in small to intermediate cities).
·         Another critically important factor is that this urbanization is taking place without significant industrialization.

When it comes to population growth:

·         The African population is projected to double from 1Bn in 2010 to 2Bn in 2020 and may surpass 3Bn by 2070 (SOAC, 2014)
·         Average densities will increase from 34 to 79 persons per km2 in the period between 2010 and 2050.
·         Africa’s labour force is projected to reach 1.1Bn by 2040, when continent will be more than 50% urbanised.

Another critical feature of the transition that is underway on the continent is the ‘youth bulge’:

·         In 2012, Africa was recognized as having the youngest population in the world, with around 200 million of the population between the ages of 15 and 24 (i.e. 20%). This is projected to double by 2045 if growth trends persist.
·         To put this into perspective over 40% are under the age of 15, and 20% are between the ages of 15 and 24.
·         According to the World Bank, African youth constitute about 60% of the unemployed on the continent. The upshot of this is that most youth are absorbed into the informal sector, or into insecure work. Lastly, it is important to mention that this youth unemployment is also drastically gendered.

It is also very important to account for the emerging African middle class, as it is a complex phenomenon, not to be compared to the middle classes of the developed world:

·         By 2020, 128 million households will be middle class.; from 355 million people in 2010 to 1.1 billion in 2060 (i.e higher than that in China today).
·         This middle class is defined as those living on between USD 2-20 per day, and constitutes around 34% of population.
·         Floating middle class: USD 2-4 per day (60% of the aforementioned 34%)
·         To put this into perspective, as mentioned earlier; only 4% of Africans living on incomes higher than USD 10 per day, and  50% live on less than USD 1.25 per day.
·         If we compare Africa to the ‘global middle class’ (i.e. those living on incomes that range between USD 10-100 per day) then Africa constitutes only 2% of global middle class.

Yet the transition that is underway on the continent is a fraught one, primarily because of the predominant and pre-existing conditions that plague the socio-economics of the continent. The majority of African cities are constituted of slums and informal settlements (between 60-80% from West to Central to East Africa). Poverty remains the majority condition of most people on the continent. Infrastructures such as road, rail and air are severely lacking in many parts of the continent. So are service provisions such as electricity, clean water, sanitation, healthcare and internet access. Food insecurity continues to plague many Africans.

Moreover, there are severe institutional challenges – whether in government or the private sector – that need to be confronted across the continent. The dominance of national and local elites – who are typically connected across public and private sectors – serves to deepen entrenched, inherited inequalities on the continent.

Maintaining political stability is also a critical challenge, as political turbulence and insecurity wreaks havoc on developmental agenda’s, and serves only to thwart the kind of stable investment that is required for long term growth. It may be that political models – in particular democratic political models – may have to evolve to fit the African context more appropriately. That is, African countries may have to negotiate what democracy means for them on their own terms, rather than simply importing democratic ideals and practices.

So where does this leave us in terms of our options? How can we make decisions today to secure a ‘future-fit’ trajectory for the continent?

One of the most critical factors to consider when formulating strategies is “where are we now?”, and “where to from here?” What is emerging, that can be leveraged to bring about the kind of outcomes we desire. In this respect, it is – in my view – great folly to overlook the vast potential that sustainable solutions, green technologies and infrastructure, as well as the emerging innovations of the fourth industrial revolution; have to offer the African continent.

The African continent is – in general terms – largely characterised by a lack of adequate bulk infrastructures and the high pre-existing levels of unplanned slums and informal settlements (particularly in cities). These negate the easy introduction of these bulk infrastructures and commensurate service provisions. Green technologies and systems, however, are largely decentralised or semi-decentralised, and can therefore function in the absence of bulk infrastructure provisions, or link into existing bulk infrastructures.

Moreover, from a developmental perspective, the absorption of green and sustainable technologies can help seed small to medium scale enterprises on a large scale, driving economic growth and circulation of cash flow at the levels where it is needed most. This can also help absorb unskilled and semi-skilled workers into the workforce, that is, at precisely the levels that employment creation is desperately needed.

Employment can be significantly boosted through the introduction of technologies such as solar panels, solar water heaters, grey- and black-water recycling systems, biogas digesters, energy savings devices, energy savings companies, renewable energy micro-grids, small-scale wind and hydro energy technologies, urban agriculture and permaculture operations, agro-industrial processing, public transit systems, waste recycling systems, and so forth.

The introduction of semi-decentralised and decentralised green technology solutions and systems can also help lower costs and buffer producers and households from exogenous shocks. Fifty to seventy percent of the household budgets of poor African households are spent on food, water, energy and transport, rendering them vulnerable to external shocks. Buffering poor households from these shocks can go a long way towards making these households – and local authorities (who will then be able to collect local revenues and decrease their dependence on central governments) – more viable.

This is not just healthy for households and governance, it is also healthy in the sense that it will help stabilise and promote the emergence of an African middle class. Stabilising this middle class in genuine terms, and enabling them to be able to afford assets, have disposable income and grow into a consumer class, requires more than a conventional industrialisation programme. It requires a transformative programme of industrialisation; one that purposively seeks to innovate in service of the future sustainability of the African continent.

The opportunities afforded by the fourth industrial revolution – for leapfrogging Africa’s development onto a more equitable and sustainable trajectory – are vast. For example, the fourth industrial revolution can facilitate the roll-out of green infrastructures and technologies through: financing, insurance, micro-credit and banking services; advanced revenue collection systems; sharing economy offerings; education and skills development; real-time data and information synthesis and analytics; coordination of resource and other material flows; automation, mechanisation and robotification; logistics, transportation, planning and spatial development; as well as capabilities that are yet to emerge or be innovated. 

As mentioned earlier; in Africa, unprecedented urban growth is proceeding in the absence of any significant industrialisation. The fourth industrial revolution presents a massive opportunity to leapfrog African productive economies into a wholly new space; one where its internal markets grow and its external markets are other developing world economies (preferably their neighbours).

Since the end of WWII the mantra proposition for the African Renaissance has been to beneficiate its resources by following the traditional industrialization trajectory that was undertaken by the global North. In the 21st Century, however, new opportunities are presenting themselves; opportunities that could be leveraged for a wholly different industrialization and diversification trajectory for the continent.

In this talk, I have primarily dealt with the question of what kind of developmental and economic diversification trajectories are available to us to actualize a ‘future-fit’ continent. There are of course, a broader range of factors to consider, and we do not have the time to go into all of them here today.  

Suffice to say that a future fit continent is something we have to begin building now; and what is clear is that it requires that the choices that African countries make are characterized by; (1) ensuring the sustainable and equitable use of its resources, (2) leapfrogging the technological and infrastructural developmental trajectories that were adopted in the Global North in the 20th Century, (3) building robust institutions that can deliver on their mandates in the interests of all who constitute society, and (4) embracing the potential for innovation and mobility on the continent, which in large part resides in its large youthful population, and (5) engendering political stability through leadership that is transparent, accountable and responsible, as well as bold in respect of the decision-making that is required to navigate towards the desired long-term horizons for the continent.


[i] McKinsey (2010). Lions on the Move: The Progress and Potential of African Economies, McKinsey Global Institute, McKinsey and Company.
[ii] AfDB (2011). Africa in 50 Years Time. The Road Towards Inclusive Growth, African Development Bank (ADB) (Tunisia, Tunis), September 2011.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Old Fears, New Terrain: How Political Contestation is Changing!

This address was delivered at the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation at the Old Granary building in Cape Town on the 6th of December 2018. The Citizen Dialogue Centre (CDC), The Citizen Research Centre (CRC) and the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC NPO) held a fundraising event to motivate for a programme to protect the 2019 South African elections – due in May 2019 – from online and social media disruption and interference. The event was kindly hosted by the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation and was opened by Dr Mamphele Ramphele.

We are living through an era of profound change. The democratic standards and ethics of the 20th Century – that were developed in the post-war consensus – are being eroded in service of political expediency and short term gain. The very fabric that constituted the post-war consensus; one that took a long term view on how politics is contested and conducted; is being undermined by the technological innovations – mobile phones, the internet and social media – that promised a new era of strengthened democracy, increased transparency and accountability, and active citizen engagement.

In the hyper-connected world of today, no country or region can fully escape the impact of these changes. It has already proven foolish to avoid dealing with them. The notion that tried and tested traditional methods of mobilizing political support will eventually win out has proven desperately wanting. Change is upon us and we have to evolve with the times. The only question around it; is how we choose to do so. Do we choose to descend to the level of cheap populism and inflammatory rhetoric, or do we want to harness change to help build more cohesive societies? Both options are available to us; the real question is whether we are caught up in short term scrambles for power, or whether we remain focused on what we hope to achieve as societies in the long term.

But first we need to correctly diagnose the changes that we are undergoing, as failure to do so will result in remedies that are bound to fail. So what has changed? Why is it so important to rethink how politics is being contested and to embrace the new terrain of political contestation, so to speak?

The first – and key – change to understand is that the internet, social media and new media have fundamentally altered how political messaging is developed and delivered to the public. Whereas in the 20th Century voters were targeted in broad demographic bands (say, white males between the age of 25 and 35, or white females between the ages of 45 and 55), the internet and social media have enabled political campaigners to target individuals and small groups more precisely with messaging that is customized to their personal preferences, biases and fears. Big data has allowed us to develop a more nuanced understanding of individuals and small groups than ever before. Political propaganda can now be delivered to a person or small group in such a manner that it takes into account what they are most likely to respond to on an emotional or affective level, as well as an intellectual level.

Moreover, mobile phones make us both constantly connected and instantly reachable. We now live in a world that is hyper-connected – on many levels – but especially with respect to information. We are inundated by news feeds, video clips, trivia, listicons, motivations, fear-mongering, moral prescriptions, Machiavellian prescriptions, echo-chambers (e.g. WhatsApp groups), and the like. In this information overload we cannot help but feel lost; there is precious little signal to grasp in the endless noise.

And it may seem counter-intuitive, but this seamlessness is precisely what enables political propagandists to weaponise their messaging so effectively. The proliferation of information and opinion today makes it easier for people who feel disempowered by it to retreat into enclaves or “echo-chambers” as they are now being called. Previously that “echo-chamber” might have been a small community, a neighbourhood or a village – nowadays the echo-chambers are online; they reside in the virtual realm as well as in the real world. We are living in the era that is increasingly characterized by an augmented reality.

Moreover, hyperconnectivity and a high-frequency, constant-flow information stream has been coupled with an instant gratification culture; one where clicks and likes lend more weight to a piece of information than its actual veracity. There is less time for contemplation; the ‘post-literate’ world is characterized by the ability to throw a wide net and take in a vast array of inputs, but with little quality insight; we surf everything but have little depth in anything in particular.

There is also a clear history that has fed these developments. This era is preceded by one where political spin, soundbites and the concerted ‘dumbing down’ of political messaging became the norm and fed the news cycles of media that had become driven by advertising revenue rather than sales.

These are the ingredients that have been cooked up to produce the reality we are experiencing in the early 21st Century.  New online media technologies, coupled with advertising driven revenue models, have yielded a new status quo; where the popularity of something is more important than its veracity and its actual value. Throughout history, we have underestimated the impact that new technology has on the propaganda of its time; this goes all the way back to the printing press, with radio and television serving as more recent innovations in the greater historical scheme of things.

The technology-driven terrain of this era is serving as a basis for new contestations of power; not just the occupy styled protests of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, or more currently the ‘yellow vests’ in France – but between nation states and large multinational/commercial interests who are contesting the global political and economic order.

And how do they achieve this? More recent investigations have shown that it is not just “fake news” that is instrumental in these information warfare styled strategies but sowing discord in the ranks of the enemy – a divide and conquer strategy, so to speak. This is the exertion of soft power through asymmetric information (and psychological) warfare. When unity and cohesion within a group is lost they become more vulnerable and open to manipulation.

We know that state actors are active in this space. For example, the Russian government has invested heavily in creating well staffed capabilities that focus on sowing division in countries that they seek to manipulate. Other actors such as Breitbart news – the news media darling of the ‘alt right’ in North America, who are now making moves into Europe – have also been very successful at this.

But some skeptics still ask, “why South Africa?” Who would seek to manipulate our elections, and why?

In our provincialism we often fail to adequately appreciate our critical role in the world and on the continent in particular.

First, South Africa is of great geo-strategic interest to countries and multinationals that are looking to exploit the next, most significant, emerging class of consumers in the world; a market that is essential for global growth. Let me read you a short quote from the State of the African Cities Report 2014 by UN HABITAT. 

“By 2020, 128 million African households are projected to have transited to “middle class” (see also Box 1.1), boosting consumption and spending potentials; and by 2030 Africa’s highest-performing 18 cities might reach a combined purchasing power of USD 1.3 trillion. Projections over the longer term include growth of the middle class from 355 million people in 2010 (34 per cent of the total population) to 1.1 billion (42 per cent) in 2060, exceeding that of China today.”

South Africa is uniquely positioned to help access these opportunities, particularly because of its stable, reliable tertiary sector capacity (e.g. Finance, Insurance, Real-Estate, Banking), and could very well become the financial capital of Africa; so to speak.  

In addition, South Africa’s resources are of global import and significance. For example, we have the second largest uranium reserves in the world. Any country that has invested heavily in nuclear power offerings (e.g. Russia and France) would naturally have an interest in being able to influence how our uranium resources are administered. Moreover, we have globally significant coal reserves, platinum group metal reserves, rare earth metals, phosphates, and so forth. This is before we even consider the natural resources we possess above the ground, as well as the many other sectors in which we play a key role.

And perhaps most importantly, there is precedent for us to be wary of the use of social media to influence the public political discourse in South Africa. We need only look to the Bell-Pottinger debacle that unfolded towards the end of Jacob Zuma’s second term (they were hired by the Gupta family and Jacob Zuma’s son Duduzane). The African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting found that between July 2016 and July 2017 220,000 tweets and hundreds of facebook posts[1] were put out by Bell-Pottinger in a deliberate attempt to manipulate and divide public opinion.

Narratives such as that of “white monopoly capital”, “radical economic transformation” and “land reform” were artificially amplified and – in an environment that was ripe for populist sloganeering and divisive rhetoric – were quickly taken up and became normative. It soon felt like these terms had been around for a long time when in reality they had moved from the fringes of the public political discourse to the centre very quickly. This is precisely the objective of propaganda, and social media and new media have made it easier to deliver messaging more precisely, and amplify it more successfully at the same time; a dangerous combination.

More recently – according to the Digital Forensic Research Lab – during the December 2017 ANC presidential elections a host of automated ‘bots’ numbering “in the low hundreds” were mobilized out of the US to influence it[2]. Although it is doubtful that it actually played a role in swaying the election, it serves as an important warning of what may come next. Indeed, it may have actually been a ‘test run’, to help calibrate their approach.

What this tells us is that South Africa is already on the radar for those who would meddle with our political discourse and electoral processes. It would be deeply ignorant to imagine that we can wish these threats away; or simply hope that they will not prove significant.  

Further afield, organisations such as Cambridge Analytica have been deeply involved in sowing discord and spreading dangerous, polarizing rhetoric in elections at home, as well as around the world; they were involved in Brexit, the 2016 US elections, the most recent Kenyan elections, and many others around the world. Cambridge Analytica even leveraged its network of retired intelligence operatives to support political campaigns and safeguard the interests of nefarious individuals and leaders, and were prepared to use devious, old traditional means as well.

Recently, reports of heavily staffed Russian government funded operations to leverage social media to influence the 2016 US elections have surfaced. While the Russian government denies it, it is clear that Russia has taken the gap provided by both Brexit and Trump to exert soft power and position itself more prominently in the global political order.

And you can be sure that China is already well equipped in this arena as well, as they already possess extensive capabilities to monitor online conversations in China.

There are also internal threats to consider.

Just last month a UNISA employee was exposed – along with his sister – of creating several fake news websites and distributing them via a series of Facebook pages. Apparently, the pair had been operating similar websites from at least early 2016.

We have also seen a dramatic increase in Trump-styled disinformation campaigns being carried out by political actors in South Africa. The EFF, in particular, have made use of twitter to make accusations against other politicians, their families and businesspeople; a few facts are often strung together to arrive at completely spurious conclusions. But they are not alone in their ‘shoot from the hip’ tactics; irresponsible rhetoric and spin has come to characterize our political realm.

And to be sure, South Africa is currently fertile territory for divisive rhetoric and misinformation campaigns. The reasons are simple. Even though South Africans now enjoy democratic freedom, South Africa endures that highest inequality in the world. And that inequality is even higher in our major cities. When viewed through a historical lens, this inequality is easily construed as a continuation of Apartheid era forms of exclusion. Rampant inequality, historical racial cleavages and the slow pace of land reform are but a handful of the broader issues that can and are being used to manipulate the political sphere in South Africa.

There is also massive frustration among ordinary South Africans with the political establishment; they are largely viewed as elites who are out of touch with the everyday realities that ordinary people face.  Among poor and marginal communities, major ‘service delivery’ protests have risen exponentially over the past decade or so; it is now convention to take to the streets and make localities ungovernable in order to draw government’s attention to the pressing issues that these communities endure. We are a society that is balanced on a knife edge; we are acutely aware that our current condition is not sustainable. This renders our body politic extremely vulnerable to populist actors – who may occupy the fringes at first – but can quickly move to the centre if tipping points are breached.

And to be sure; the internet and social media are the key avenues through which they can amplify their public voice and tip the scales one way or another. It is cheap, easy to use, and the damage it wreaks is difficult to undo once it has been done. Its fundamental asymmetry makes it attractive to those who are currently outliers or outriders, but aspire to greater power.

So to the point of why we are gathered here today; what can we do about it?

Well firstly, we need to understand that this problem cannot be ‘regulated away’. Regulations simply cannot keep up with the rapid changes occurring in the technologies and innovations that govern this space.

What we need to do is to begin building the capabilities that can actively engage and counter fake news and polarizing and incendiary rhetoric online. We need dedicated organizations that are well staffed, and possess the right intellectual capital, as well as the software and hardware they need to be effective. We also need to test and establish the methodologies that have been developed to counter online interference.

We need to become better at countering online interference through two key avenues; (1) through directly crippling the online ‘nodes’ through which messaging is artificially amplified, and (2) drawing on the self-organising capability of the internet to boost engagement by reasonable, level-headed people and key influencers who can help dampen out the loud and irresponsible actions of online ‘trolls’.

And importantly, we need to make sure that we share all the information about how to set up these capabilities and make them effective; so that other groups across the world can set up similar capabilities in their local contexts. Over time, a broad network of such organizations will become a ‘learning network’; sharing case studies, methods, techniques and the like to improve each other’s success rates at countering interference.

To reiterate, the strategy for dealing with online interference will not be successful if a purely regulatory stance is adopted. We need to be embedded within the new terrain and evolve with it. This asymmetric threat can be fought asymmetrically; and this is good news for us, as we can leverage knowledge based resources and bring them to bear on this nascent threat. And to be sure, as it is with any threat, measures and countermeasures will co-evolve in response to each other into perpetuity. We need active capabilities to be effective in our efforts to safeguard social cohesion and democratic politics. Our electoral integrity will increasingly be defined by our ability to be effective – in real time – in this new terrain of political contestation.

Having heard this talk, you may feel that it would be easy to convince those who can help establish such a capability to throw their support behind it. But we are faced with a situation where people are so overwhelmed by the multiple ‘threats’ they are constantly bombarded with, that they have become somewhat numbed, unable to clearly assess the threat before them.

We know that the internet, social media and mobile phones are changing society, but we are in deep denial about the extent to which its reach has rapidly grown. This is a very real threat. And as it is with elections; once they are over and the winners and losers have been announced, it is extremely difficult to roll back. There are no second chances, and the organizations who have come before you here today are not merely interested in studying how these political disasters occur retrospectively. Our central objective is to insert ourselves into this space in real-time so that we can play a meaningful role in actively protecting our democracy.

After many years of sacrifice, struggle and strife we emerged with a hard won democracy; and we have seen – in recent years – what it takes to safeguard it. What we must recognize, at this crucial point in history, is that the terrain of contestation has changed, and we must adapt with it, or face the consequences of lagging behind it.

Thank you!

Note: The author and speaker of this piece is the Executive Head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC NPO).


Sunday, 11 November 2018

Leading the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Organisations, Techno-Mirages & Ethics in the Posthuman Era

Change is inevitable. Yet if we are to believe that a new era is dawning we must, and this is an obligation, seek to understand what is fundamental about the changes unfolding around us that will bring about a transformative transition, that is; a transition where things are made anew.

We are told that we are entering into a ‘post’ era. That new generations will be ‘post-literate’; transcending the need to read and write – perhaps even ‘post-language’ where communication is mediated by technologies directly from one mind to another without the need for words. That we are headed towards a ‘postcapitalist’ political economy: one where technological innovation will force 20th Century capitalism to out-evolve itself. That we will live in a ‘post-labour’, ‘post-work’ world; one that could either be techno-utopian or techno-dystopian, depending on who you ask. That we will live in a ‘post-gendered’, ‘post hetero-normative world’; where identity will be more flexible and difference and otherness will enjoy broader social acceptance. That borders and boundaries will become more fluid. And that there is perhaps a prospect of a ‘post-politics’ emerging that will upend and replace the political dichotomies of the 20th Century.

But perhaps more profoundly, that we will become a ‘posthuman’ society, where the anthropocentric view of humans as the centre of the world will be replaced by a recognition of humans as part of a broader ecology of interactions with non-human species enjoying an equal status; their undeniable interconnectedness, interdependence and inter-reliance taking precedence over human exceptionalism. A society where we increasingly inhabit the planetary significance of our daily choices, one that will increasingly be mediated by technologies that reside inside and outside of our bodies, and perhaps, even our minds.

There is a thread running through all these ‘post’ discourses; and that thread has come to be known by the often contested term; the fourth industrial revolution or 4IR. The posthuman “other” characterizes the fourth industrial revolution. Whether it is artificial intelligence or automation; the cyborg or human-machine augmentation; mutation or hybridization at the genetic level; the increasing dominance of augmented reality as central to human socio-economic interaction, or whether it is the identity fluidity that emerges from some or a combination of these factors; the posthuman society is characterized by the phenomenon of merging with the other. However, agonistic or not the reaction to this is, it is the posthuman position that merging and interdependence will increasingly characterize the condition of the other, whether we speak of the other of science fiction, or of histories that have hitherto been denied.

Yet what is this posthuman society of the other? And can it really decouple from its past? Clearly, it cannot do so neatly. It will likely be a fraught and agonistic process; a process that is more likely to become stuck in an oscillation between the realities of its inheritance and the mirages it aspires to actualizing. It is clear – to me at least – that there is great danger in lapsing into a blinkered technology-centric vision of the fourth industrial revolution. Not only does it present its aspirations as inevitable outcomes; it presents transformative transition as linear, when it is anything but linear. Rather it is characterized by evolutionary change, which is distinctly non-linear, metastable and unpredictable. What future does this posthuman society then auger? And how can we grapple with it?

Posthumanism is a post-dualistic theory: it is a theory that favours neither this nor that binary option for categorizing phenomena; it departs from the position that is always both. In this; posthumanism and the posthuman society, acknowledges the complexity of the transition that is unfolding. And that complexity is ultimately (well, currently) a human one to wrestle with, as it necessitates grappling with the ethics of the fourth industrial revolution and what it will mean for a posthuman society. For ethics, and the principles that inform ethics, are central to navigating new futures; they provide the foundation upon which leaders can navigate the turbulent ‘whitewaters’ of change.

When we look at how the fourth industrial revolution is positioned in popular discourse, there is very little serious thought given to ethics, which is key to leadership. The emphasis is on the technological and not the social aspects of organization. Yet it is critical to think through the fourth industrial revolution from the perspective of posthumanism; as it is a philosophical project that is concerned with the ethics of precisely this new future.

Moreover, what are the implications for how society is organized? How will human beings live, love, work, play, endure crises, express themselves, explore their spirituality and materiality, form and break bonds constitute families and communities, vote, engage in the political realm and take political action, and so forth. Indeed, how do we want them to?

Indeed, the question is even greater; how might our values, beliefs and norms evolve or co-evolve with the socio-technological changes of the posthuman era? Will we be able to distinguish signals from the noise? How will being hyper-connected, embedded, immersed in the augmented realities that we are embedded in affect us? At what point do we begin to drown in the noise while synthetic agents gain greater clarity, perhaps ultimately replacing us?

And what kind of ethics – or rather – ethical frameworks do we require to effectively navigate the changes that will unfold, that is; especially those that are emergent, unpredictable?

Clearly, a morality based ethics will suffer in an environment where rapid and unforeseen changes dominate the socio-technological society and its organization. Morality is relative, that is; between human beings, but also over time. Morality based ethics will not be able to cope with the vast changes that are set to unfold. It simply cannot remain constant with respect to temporal change. So where will we derive an ethics for the fourth industrial revolution from?

Will it simply be a survivalist ‘non-ethics’ that informs leaders and leaderships, a spiral to the bottom where power and the ‘tragedy of the commons’ is replaced by the ‘tragedy of the private’? Where accumulation by a few intensifies and inequality grows?

Where democratic integrity is sacrificed in the desperate scramble for political/raw power; where nothing else matters but ‘winning’. Where the performative is amplified, elevated above all else in the hyper-linked, high frequency update information era?

If we are to purposively construct the posthuman society, or at least guide it into existence; we will have to ‘dig deep’, so to speak. We will need to identify the principles that we can agree on instead. So as things change over time we need to be able to rely on principles that are; (firstly) temporally robust and (secondly) that we can renegotiate as required. These principles will have to be post-dualistic in nature; they will need to be both resilient yet adaptive at the same time. This is what a post-dualistic framework for deriving ethics requires.

What jarring complexity is this? Where neither good nor bad, virtue nor evil; dictates the transformation that unfolds. That it is always both, a duality that persists and pervades regardless of the professed ethics of an era.  We will get to this later.

First, let us ground this discussion in a set of thoughts about the organization of the future:

What will the organization of the future look like? How will it be designed? What will its societal role be? What kind of ‘citizen’ or ‘legal person’ will the organization of the future be? How sustainable will it be, not just in terms of its profit margins, but in terms of how it uses resources and impacts the environment? Most of all, what do we want it to be? These questions cannot escape that when we tackle the future there is always a strong normative element to it; it is not just about what will emerge, but what we want the future to be. Although we cannot entirely control what emerges, we have to strive to actualize the future we want from what ultimately unfolds in reality. We are grappling, so to speak, with the process of becoming.

What can we do to position leadership for a future that is currently thought of in binary terms; of an imminent techno-utopia or techno-dystopia? Well, first and foremost, we have to acknowledge that what emerges from the fourth industrial revolution will largely be undecideable – note; not neutral – but undecideable. Every innovation will likely be a coin with two sides; a duality of possibilities lying latent within it. How it meets society and co-evolves with it, and what that reflexivity reproduces, cannot be easily discerned. We have no crystal balls to rely on. Well at least I don’t, and my conviction is that only snake oil salesman pretend to know!

My feeling is that this duality between techno-utopian and techno-dystopian utility, enabled by the full range of possibilities that each innovation hosts, will ultimately emerge as complex phenomena; those that do not easily fit into this box or that, or this binary classification or that. Rather, each innovation will seed, grow and reproduce in the territories that provide them with a clear need, and a clear means through which the innovation can be adapted to meet that need. And their value and sustainability will in turn be a result of how well they help sustain the boundaries of those territories, and perhaps extend them. That is; in how well it helps reproduce and entrench the territory that it seeds in.

And as the new technological, social, economic, cultural, environmental, institutional and organizational factors emerge, combine, disperse and recombine; new forms will be born in each of these domains. Natality will likely characterize the state of things.

So, in this new era, how will organizations be designed? How will they function?

1.      They will need to enhance their adaptive and creative capacity.
a.      Diversity, inclusion and valuing codependence over individualism is necessary for this.
b.      So is a transdisciplinary skills base that can facilitate cross-pollination of ideas and perspectives.
2.      They may need to be able to expand and contract relatively quickly in order to survive.
a.      Perhaps they will have to think more carefully about how they distribute their functions, processes and controls – as well as their assets and resources – in order to be able to do so.
b.      Might that also be the case for the skills, capabilities and networks that underlie their core competences?
c.       Linked to this, might they be increasingly decentralized? Where networks of organizations replace one large organization (“web-like, scattered and polycentred” as Rosi Braidotti – the eminent scholar of posthumanism, puts it).
3.      They may need to build in redundancies into their organizational design, so that they can quickly access multiple fall-back configurations in order to adapt.
a.      This has implications for organizational design that prioritizes efficiency measures over adaptability. Efficiency does not equal resilience.
b.      They will also likely increasingly need to prioritise sub-optimisation over efficiency: Simply optimizing every contributing part of an organization will not be enough; indeed, in complexity theory the sub-optimisation principle states that when the parts of a system are optimized the whole functions sub-optimally and vice-versa. This may seem counterintuitive but it is true of all natural systems, including our bodies; if your body’s parts were all functioning optimally now you would be dead within minutes.
4.      Hierarchy versus heterarchy: While hierarchies are important, they may need to become more fluid, that is; more heterarchical, where agents, functions, controls and processes rise to authority depending on how the context evolves, that is, a more complex, adaptive hierarchy.

Moreover, the question of how organizations will look and function is tied up with the questions of how societies will be organized, and how governments – even democracies – will function. But we do not have the time to go into that here.

On the question of what principles should inform the ethics of the fourth industrial revolution and the posthuman era, I alone cannot prescribe them. Perhaps a better question to ask is,

“What should guide these principles?”

Let me suggest some practical guidelines:

·         First; that we live in a world with finite resources. That doing more with less resources will prove critical to how well we navigate the prospect of resource scarcity and that the kind of societies and world we will live in will depend on it. Whether we live in a world that is characterized by inequality and scarcity, or whether we live in a world of abundance and equitable distribution will depend on it.
·         Second; that we are both a part of, and depend on our life-supporting ecosystems. We are indisputably part of the natural systems on which we depend for our survival. And in the anthropocene humankind is driving changes in theses natural systems that are unprecedented. We are not only changing the global climate, we are also severely degrading global ecosystems. 18 years ago the millennium ecosystem assessment found that 12 out of 24 of the global life-supporting ecosystems were severely degraded.  
·         Third; that we should endeavour, as far as possible, to retain human connection. That communities and societies cannot thrive when people are individuated and atomized, where social bonds are mediated through superficial ties characterized by momentary, transient and ephemeral interactions. We need to be able to cultivate deep bonds that allow us to feel rooted.
·         Fourth; that politics cannot function if people are relegated to the private realm and live lives that are devoid of any engagement in the public realm.
·         Fifth; that complex change is irreversible; it cannot be rolled back. We will have to build the adaptive capacity to be able to cope with changes that we cannot control, for there will likely be many. The paradigm of control will need to be replaced by one of adaptability. This adaptability requires building both adaptive capacity and creative capacity; embracing a more inclusive and dynamic process for contestation and cooperation from which ethical positions can emerge.
·         Sixth; that we have long blurred the lines between our biological bodies and technologies, and that while the fourth industrial revolution promises to leapfrog the synthesis between human beings and technologies it is not a new phenomenon. That we have precedents that we can draw on in this respect; it is not a break with history but an inevitable consequence of it.  
·         Seventh; that the virtual realm is already a full part of our reality; that reality is – and perhaps has always been – augmented by the technologies through which we communicate. That all our societal systems – political, educational, socio-cultural, economic, recreational and so forth will evolve with it. The question is not if, but how we evolve with it, and on what terms.
·         Eighth; that undecideability will characterize much of the decision-making about how to navigate change and the unknown; that decisions will have to be made that are deeply fraught and fundamentally irresolvable. The notion of what is “just” will increasingly be fraught with contestation.
·         Ninth; that potential changes in the nature of work need to be accommodated in such a manner that systemic changes are embraced that can help absorb and convert these changes so that meaningful and purpose-filled lives are actualized.
·         Tenth; that the ethics of leadership will need to broaden, become more inclusive and cater for both human and non-human species and systems, as well as their interdependencies.
·         There are perhaps more, but we need to move on …

So how we navigate between the false dichotomies ascribed by utopian and dystopian techno-mirages will ultimately depend on what kind of leadership is provided through the myriad and multi-leveled transitions that society will likely undergo. And that in turn will require an ethics – of leadership – that is located in a framework of principles that we can generally agree on; principles that speak to the kind of society we would like to live in, yet can still evolve. Principles that can be used to make decisions that guide the trajectory in one way or another, towards a suitable set of outcomes; given the balance of probabilities. That is, a set of principles that also accommodates what is evolutionary about the ‘techno-society’ that is set to unfold with the advent of the fourth industrial revolution. A set of principles that we must agree to renegotiate along the way without losing what we value of what we are. And a leadership ethics that can accommodate change, and allows for its own renegotiation, on strict and reliable – yet inescapably subjective – terms.

From an academic perspective, the notion of a non-universalizable ethics stands in confrontation to the roots of the philosophy of ethics that characterizes the Western Academy. Rather, as Rosi Braidotti puts it:

“… it [i.e. the Western Academy] perpetuates the institutionalized habit of thought – reactive and sedentary – of erecting philosophy to the role of a master theory. The image of the philosopher as the legislator of knowledge and the judge of truth – a model rooted in the Kantian school – is the exact opposite of what posthuman critical theory is arguing for; post-identitarian, non-unitary and transversal subjectivity based on relations with human and non-human others.”
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Rather, she argues for a posthuman ethics that is an ethics of “collectivity and relationality”, one that can contest and transform power. In closing, it is worth reminding ourselves that what is most powerful about this view, is that we will all be part of constructing the ethics of the posthuman era; that the ethics of the era will be emergent, and that will require, above all; strong social organization to navigate. Perhaps a posthuman perspective on the ethics of the fourth industrial revolution then ultimately offers us a critical opportunity; an opportunity to reconstitute a meaningful polis from which a more inclusive, dynamic and resilient society can emerge.

Thank you!

***Note: This is a transcript of an address delivered to the Alumni Reunion of the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town at the Radisson Red Hotel on 20th October 2018.