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Harnessing Digital Technologies to Empower Entrepreneurs

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Authored by Ahmed Shaikh, Ridwaan Asvat, Mr Richard Shewry, Ms Alanna Windrim

The World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa convenes in Cape Town from 4-6 September 2019 and it will offer an opportunity to consider ways to accelerate inclusive economic growth across the continent. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) sweeping across the world, one pressing concern is to evaluate how to harness digital technology to boost prosperity and employment across Africa.

The prime message that would emanate from the WEF meeting is that Africa’s future prosperity hinges on the ability of its leaders to create inclusive, sustainable growth at a time of rapid transformation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. High up on the agenda of the meeting will be the issue of unemployment and how best the leaders of African countries can create sustainable employment opportunities for the Africa youth bulge and growing workforce.

The meeting will highlight new partnerships for re-skilling and upskilling workers and identifying opportunities for green growth such as the circular economy; scaling-up e-commerce for rapid business growth, especially in the SME sector; and how to leverage the new Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement to drive regional integration.

Also high on the agenda are government policies and responsible business practices to provide a foundation for a more inclusive society. While globalization has driven economic growth, it is criticized for leading to unacceptable levels of income inequality.

In particular the WEF meeting will discuss how the prospects of the 4IR will provide opportunities for entrepreneurs and digital workers in Africa. Innovations such as AI, robotics, the cloud and 3D printing will enable small and larger businesses alike to streamline processes and get better visibility into their performance.

It is expected that the 4IR will catalyse greater automation, higher productivity and lower costs across industries, driven by the advent of the Internet of Things, cloud computing, advanced robotics, intelligent software, artificial intelligence (AI), distributed ledgers, 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, and a range of other technologies.

Digital technologies are thus transforming our world. Major digital disruptions and innovations in machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) have made our lives and our economies unrecognisable from just a generation ago. Innovations in this era, also known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) offer new means of addressing complex global challenges with the potential to unlock inclusive and sustainable prosperity for people and planet.

However in order to usher in transformational change for the greater good of society, we must first understand that family, community, business, technology, environment, and culture are all major pillars in society. Breaking down silos across these pillars can help accelerate the pace of societal evolution and technology can be a pivotal catalyst for change.

Increasing awareness and understanding of the power of digital technologies can be the game changer. This will lead to new engagement models from business, technology, government and civil society leaders to envision how to harness that abundance and apply innovative solutions to social issues. These engagements can help develop a shared vision, aiding in a paradigm shift towards creating exponential value for our fellow citizens and the communities at large.

Digital technologies offer a platform for collaboration that can increase the reach and impact of innovation and social enterprise for all. They democratise the access to and information on using tools have been available only to those working within firms and industry or those willing to pay large costs for their procurement.

In order to bridge the digital gap many higher education institutions are establishing innovation labs. The prime purpose of an innovative lab also called a ‘makerspace’ or a ‘fab lab’ is to attract more individuals into product design, and thus may launch more “accidental entrepreneurs” if they find that their user solutions have a market. Secondly, the innovative lab generates dense but diverse networks, creating new ideas and innovative thinking and lowers the costs for prototyping, making early sales and acquiring outside funding more realistic.

Regent Business School, for example has established two such innovative labs. The one is called the iLeadLab – primarily for our students to enhance their chances of employability and critical 21st century skills, and the other is the Collective Lab which facilitates social entrepreneurship through the use of shared digital technologies such as 3D printing and Laser Cutting.

Innovative labs are an important component of the rapid spread of social entrepreneurship. The primary impact of the innovative lab is the access to tools. They commonly hold over R1 million in equipment, a cost that would be prohibitive for an individual but is manageable when spread throughout the membership. Innovative labs generally have memberships open to the public. Memberships allow individuals access regardless of their previous experience or field of interest.

These labs also often offer classes, ranging from introductory instruction to certify that members are safely able to use tools up through advanced classes. An additional benefit of the lab is access to human capital, as members share knowledge of tools and ideas for projects. They form a dense network of individuals with different training, experiences, and skills, creating an ideal setting for novel designs.  

Inexorably innovative labs contribute to entrepreneurship. They contribute to the creation of new enterprises, offer an environment supportive of innovation, and make prototyping more available and affordable.

The increase in digitalisation and decrease in the costs of communication have led to the exponential growth of user innovation platforms and access to industrial tools which were previously denied to individual entrepreneurs because of their cost. For example, some of the most successful projects in computer sciences were developed by users, in part because the means of production were universally available much earlier.

In these labs members acquire a vast range of flexible skills and knowledge that can be used on different fields, domains, and projects. They also encourage problem solving methods that include self-discipline and ambiguity tolerance. Learning new skills in a supportive environment makes individuals better prepared for the uncertainty that accompanies innovation. Innovation often requires long incubation periods to become fully developed.

Within this context digitalisation changes the game. It blurs boundaries between industry sectors, lowers barriers to entry and creates bridges. As new partnerships made up of players from different industry sectors begin to form they offer not just products but solutions and ‘experiences’, simultaneously laying the groundwork for companies to thrive in a digital era, and for countries to create dynamic and competitive economies.

This new approach to entrepreneurship which uses digital technologies will in the long run definitely increase the levels of employment and support inclusion and social cohesion in African economies which are severely stressed. It is an alternative to formal employment that still needs to be adequately exploited to grow the economies and get more young people into jobs.

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