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.
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