Disrupting the pendulum

Spurred on by disruption, rapid advances in technology and unprecedented socio-economic and environmental change, the adverse effects of globalisation have been felt worldwide.  Consequently, the globalisation gains that have been made over the past quarter of a century are fast being overshadowed by growing discontent in the West. This in part due to the fallout from outsourcing and offshoring – two of the more disruptive consequences of globalisation.

That, coupled with the 2007 US subprime mortgage crisis that rippled through the global economy and spurred on one of the worst world recessions in recent history, has triggered a discernible shift in global sentiment.

Where once free trade was considered a panacea for the world’s ills, free market economics is now taking a battering for perpetuating the inequality it was meant to help solve.

Meanwhile, the denizens of the West have also clearly demonstrated their lack of faith in the process by voting with their feet. One of the most striking examples of this was the recently-held UK general election where, as if to cement the fact that the current political milieu is not an accurate predictor of the future, British Prime Minister Theresa May lost her majority. This despite positive pre-election approval ratings – and after having only taken office in July last year.

It’s clear the pendulum’s swing is at best unpredictable, influenced by populist reactions that the world would be wise to avoid. Instead, we need to focus on a new narrative that embraces disruption.

Creating better futures

As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Secretary-General Angel Gurría put it ahead of the organisation’s annual forum and ministerial meeting: “We’re beyond quick fixes to address the discontent of citizens … The only way forward is not to patch up globalisation, but to shake it up.”

That comment was preceded by a World Economic Forum event in Davos earlier this year where the topic under discussion was, “The end of globalisation: has the world reached a tipping point?”

For developing countries, this moment in history bears special significance; an opportunity to form their own narrative. Together with the President of the World Design Organization, Professor Mugendi K. M’Rithaa, I penned a paper entitled Advancing the Afrikan lions’ narrative: the quest for a sustainable future for all, which argues for a more nuanced, inclusive and targeted community-centric vision called Afrikan Design Innovation.

We make a strong argument for the use of transdisciplinary and participatory ethnographic tools in a quest for more creative and innovative solutions.

In the paper, we’ve intentionally used ‘Africa’ with a ‘k’. This is why: the field of Afrikology convincingly argues that all languages from our continent spell Africa with a ‘k’. “By using ‘Afrika’, we want to express Afrika as seen from the ‘inside out’ – from the perspective of its own realities and aspirations – as opposed to Africa as viewed from the outside in.” (Jamie & Mugendi, 2017)

Afrika is an unstoppable force. By the year 2050, the continent’s youth demographic will exceed that of Europe’s by 10 times. The need for corporate Africa to create a vibrant economy to support young people so that they can aspire to – and achieve – greatness is more urgent than ever before.  As Africans we need to be part of creating better futures for the continent.

 

When Corporates start disrupting themselves

The problem is that corporations are struggling to respond appropriately to complex problems! While they agonise over social media guidelines for their employees, they’re being silently disrupted by start-ups that will significantly change the way businesses look and operate.

 

A classic case in point is Kodak, often cited by innovation speakers as a caveat of the risk companies run in failing to embrace innovation.

 

A global leader in its field for over 100 years, Kodak built the first digital camera in 1975. At the time, it accounted for 90% of film and 85% of camera sales in America. But, although the company had already created the ground-breaking technology, it was so focused on using digital technology to get people to print more photos that it was silently disrupted by social media networks like Facebook and Instagram.

 

However, the company’s troubles began even before it filed for bankruptcy in 2012. In an interview with The New York Times in 1999, former Kodak CEO, George Fischer, said that the company regarded digital photography as, “the enemy, an evil juggernaut that would kill the chemical-based film and paper business that had fuelled Kodak’s sales and profits for decades.”

 

Its failure to inculcate a culture of innovation that would equip it to embrace disruption is what led to Kodak’s demise.

 

Bearing in mind how much technology has developed since then, five years down the line there is one certainty: the next wave of disruption will take place at an even faster pace. Regardless of your profession or industry, your landscape is going to be disrupted.

 

What will distinguish the corporates who make it from those who succumb to the same fate as Kodak, is their ability to embrace innovation and embed it into their DNA. To survive, companies will have to integrate systems thinking into their organisations – they need to be able to spot the dots on the horizon before the competition does. Technology artefacts or digitisation programmes are no guarantees of survival.

 

This is not easy for professionals who have been trained to view the world through a particular lens, resulting in siloed approaches to wicked problems.

What is required in this world of rapid change and disruption is a new management paradigm to help companies and individuals understand and embrace innovation. Linear business planning processes are good for managing your month-end revenue targets – but they won’t help your company survive the next decade. For that, corporates will need to embrace a culture that is creative, disruptive, agile, passionate and inspired … To create space for risk taking, where people can thrive in the midst of uncertainty.

 

Introducing design thinking

Enter design thinking, a methodology that has gained much popularity over the last two decades. Originally applied to good product design, many global brands have discovered that design thinking can be a wonderful tool for thriving in this complex world.

 

Companies the likes of Philips, IBM, Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble use design thinking principles to help them shape their company strategy and culture by breaking down silos, driving innovation, and shifting focus from linear bureaucracy to agile solutions.

 

“These companies, which use design strategically and integrate it through their business processes, tend to grow faster and have higher margins than their competitors – the identified companies’ returns were 2.28 times larger than the S&P’s returns over the previous decade.” (Rae, 2014).

Design thinking proponents can cite a range of success stories. The founders of Airbnb discovered design thinking in 2009 when they were struggling with critically low turnover – it turned them into one of the most successful online businesses globally.

Companies such as Toshiba, Sharp and Panasonic have also embraced design thinking and are now using their previously disbanded factories to grow vegetables in climate-controlled environments, using a special formulation of nutrients and fertilisers.

Microsoft has adopted the methodology to become a leader in creating co-working space for millennials.

 

While these companies have incorporated design thinking into their corporate culture, other companies are starting to make large investments into physical infrastructure in support of this approach. IBM has made a $100-million investment into building a massive design organisation which includes a design studio in Austin, Texas. Oracle is funding the construction of a design tech high school on its campus in Redwood City, California – the school will be the first U.S. high school on a technology company’s campus and an indication of the company’s commitment to design thinking.

Embedding design thinking into the culture of a rigidly structured corporation however is not easy and has to start with support from the very top. You cannot experiment with design thinking in a little dusty corner of an unused office; if corporates are to respond to disruption, innovation must be at the forefront of their strategies. And that process of innovating must incorporate design thinking so that engineers can operate in a wider ecosystem, and learn through a process of doing and exploring.

 

Understanding the end user

At the core of design thinking is a genuine empathy for the end user, which results in helping organisations to become more human-centric. In an African context, there are crucial questions that should be asked. Is the end user in Africa different to the end user in the West? Are the same principles that have been successfully implemented in America and Europe going to work in Africa?

An integral part of this process will be employing transdisciplinary epistemological tools like Afrikology, which contributes to the emerging narrative by providing a lens that goes “beyond Eurocentrism, or other ethnocentrisms It recognises all sources of knowledge as valid within their historical, cultural or social contexts and seeks to engage them into a dialogue that can lead to better knowledge for all”. (Wanda, 2013).

 

For companies operating in Africa there exists an undeniable need for design solutions that speak to the dreams and aspirations of Afrikans, while preparing Afrika for a sustainable future built on innovation. That will mean pioneering our own path.

 

Using design-thinking principles, lessons and success stories, we can ensure that the solutions we implement are relevant and appropriate for an Afrikan context, while pitching Afrika at the forefront of innovation.

 

Conclusion

By adopting an Afrikan design innovation strategy, Afrikan companies can enrich their existing products and services, making these more human-centric. It will also aid us in thinking more systemically when contributing to Afrikan development plans and global initiatives such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

 

Maybe, just maybe, Afrikan Design Innovation is the key to unleashing the creative and innovative resources of the Afrikan continent. It begins with us writing our own stories – a bold new Afrikan story that reflects the growing self-confidence of a prosperous, creative and inclusive future…

Published by Institute of Futures Research July 2018

10 Comments

  1. Adyns68

    Reply

    I think afrikan design innovation is a good initiative and can make a contribution to position Africa as better place in the world. We need so many other things to be associated with this initiative in order to give more value to Africa.

    I agree that we need to take advantage of our culture and identity, to make it our source of inspiration. We do not always need to copy what is done elsewhere. I am an advocate of what I call “take what is good” or what you can associate to your culture to make things better. But for us in Africa we don’t take and associate, we take and forget about what we had. All we have in our culture is not bad, we just need to add what we lack or what is compatible to our culture.

    It is exactly what China has done and today they are leading the world in so many ways.

    If we learn to do that we will improve.

    • Abbas

      Reply

      Hi Adyns thanks for your contribution to the discussion. You are absolutely correct we need to embrace who we are as Afrikans and be proud of our rich history and culture. Its not about catching up with the West, its a different narrative that we need to write.  Its a mindset that we need to overcome that says everything from Africa is bad or second best.  Ultimately we need to tell our own story: “Until lions have their own historians, stories of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”

  2. Dave Sweney

    Reply

    Design innovation and how it is affecting the dynamics on a grand scale down to the corporate level is an important change to note for all parties from the consumer to the leaders of governments across the globe. That includes the Afrikan region you mention.

    Especially in that part of the world, there is a unique opportunity to build systems that address the needs of the people and consumers both in that area as well as prospects and countries where they can sell their services and products outside the region.

    I live as an expat and have for years, and in that role, I have seen the many changes to how businesses work. You are right that a new and better focus is becoming the norm, and it goes beyond the old concepts of globalization that have failed to bring the promised rewards for many.

    Africa is one of the fastest growing areas of the world today in population, job growth, and economies. Not in all areas, but in many areas. There is more to be done, and using Afrikan Innovation Design principles will help them do more and be better.    

    • Abbas

      Reply

      Hi Dave thank you so much for contributing to this narrative of Afrikan Design Innovation. You are correct the world is looking for something different, something beyond globalization, something that can help close the inequality gap. Unfortunately the inequality gap in Africa is severe and more visible because of poverty.  There is a huge opportunity to start this new narrative that places the citizen at the centre of everything we do.  By embracing this human centric approach we can grow a new culture that is more empathetic towards the needs of those who need it most. Thanks for your support.

  3. Gaurav Gaur

    Reply

    Hi, Abbas.
    Thanks for the information on Afrikan Design Innovations.
    It was an awesome brainstorming session to go deep into your thoughts.
    We know that Kodak failed being a world leader for a century and it can happen to any company not focussing appropriately on design innovation. And you said it correct – design innovation will not flourish in a dusty barren corner of the office, it needs to be at the forefront of paradigm shifting agenda. We need to change – no if’s and no but’s.
    Warm Regards,
    Gaurav Gaur

    • Abbas

      Reply

      Hi Gaurav thanks for visiting my page and for your feedback. Yes you are correct we need to move beyond teh concept of setting up an innovation team or unit. If we are serious we need to embed a design innovation culture into the DNA of the business.  Companies who have done this are extremely successful and more capable of adapting to change. With the rapid pace of disruption these are the organisations that will excel and survive in teh future. 

  4. Neksummi Matthias

    Reply

    I am an Afrikan and so happy coming across this post. We sure need to start writing our own narratives. That is why I feel honoured being part of what Tony Elumelu is doing in the Afrikan continent through the Tony Elumelu Foundation. 

    This is a Nigerian billionaire who believes in Afrikapitalism and has committed $100,000,000 over the period of 10 years to support 10,000 (1000 yearly) Afrikan entrepreneurs who would in turn create job opportunities for thousands of other Afrikans and he’s doing a very good job. 

    Another Afrikan business man I respect is Strive Masiyiwa, a London-based Zimbabwean businessman, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. These are men who are changing the Afrikan narrative and are big inspiration to us that are coming up.

    This is a great post and timely too. Kudos.

    • Abbas

      Reply

      Hi Neksummi thanks for visiting and contributing to this important narrative. Yes I agree these are great role models of the new entrepreneur that we need in Afrika.  Afrika needs to put forward a new narrative that is supported through action by people like Strive and Tony.  Would love to hear more about the work you are doing with the foundation and how we can grow this narrative together.

      • Reply

        In about a month from today, Entrepreneurs from across Afrika are going to converge on Abuja for this year’s Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Forum. Three Afrikan Presidents will be speaking at the event. Presidents of Rwanda, Senegal and DRC. Top policy makers and other speakers will also be speaking at the event. All entrepreneurs who got this year’s grants will be coming from across Africa and past alumni and mentors of the program will also be there.

        • Abbas

          Reply

          Hi Neksummi thanks for the heads up on this event, just checked out the website, looks like an awesome event for young entrepreneurs in Africa. Lets communicate directly be email. Regards

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