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Is innovation always Good?

This year, my father turned 72 years old, and we had a small celebration. During this, he slyly mentioned that the world he was born into no longer exists. At some point change was welcome but now it felt like nothing was permanent.

Don’t get me wrong, he was glad many things had changed since being born into a protectorate of the British government. In his life, he’s seen the Union Jack go down and the Uganda flag go up. He saw the promise of a free country run by the citizens of that nation almost get smashed during the various conflicts this country has had.

A man like m saw a man land on the moon, televisions replace radio and now the internet replacing TV. He went from knowing money was made of paper, to it becoming electronic images on his phone, to cryptocurrency coming of age. It’s been a great ride but one that he sometimes wishes would slow down a bit so he can find his place.

I think this sentiment rings true for many in our world. The pace of technological innovation has been outstanding since the personal computer, the internet and smartphones came onto the scene within 3 decades. The explosion of mobile money in East Africa has allowed for the average citizen to access a form of payment from the phone, able to save and obtain credit without having to go to a bank branch-something that kept the economy on life support during the lockdown. These tools are lifesaving.

However, with all these tools available, the BOU still reports that most transactions in the country are carried out in cash. For all the talk of digital, cash still reigns supreme. At the onset of the pandemic, Uganda was one of many countries that shut down the economy and encouraged people to work from home. This exposed how woefully unprepared most businesses were to provide their services digitally. But also showed the importance of having more than a brick-and-mortar presence, but to have a click and mortar presence.

While this seems like it should be seamless, there’s a huge assumption made that everything is digitizable -or rather is ready to be digitized. The process of digitization is simply the first step towards becoming a modern enterprise. Documents are in digital form, processes for approval and service delivery are taken online by reducing the number of human and physical touchpoints and replacing them with software. Doesn’t sound too difficult till you realize that the digital connectivity in Uganda when measured by phone ownership (7 in 10 men, and nearly 6 in 10 women own their phone and access to internet is at just 16% for men and 10% for women)1.  meaning that change still requires huge investments in digital infrastructure, to scale.

Secondly, the move to a service-focused industry relying on digital technologies is always a painful one especially for a labour-intensive market like Uganda. The incentives to resist are just as present as those to embrace new technologies. Schools for example were woefully unprepared to provide educational content online despite the fact that digital learning platforms have existed for years. Traditional security measures within corporate entities meant adjustments to allow their staff to do what they had always been able to do, but rules were in place that meant work was a place you went to rather than the output of your intellectual efforts which can happen wherever you are.

Right now, the question before all of us is how much will return to normal and how much is now normal. Is work from home going to be the new option to reduce commute times, expand employment opportunities beyond people within daily commuting distance to their employer? Will services such as banking which have traditionally been thought of as in-person services (you go to the bank to get service) successfully pivot to becoming services like mobile services where you receive the service where you are and only go to a store when you have a specific need?

The biggest change therefore is not so much in the technology but in changing how we approach our work, our lives, and communities. The ability to replace fear, hesitancy, and mistrust of digital in the people most vulnerable to change for example the seasoned banker afraid they’ll become irrelevant.

Joseph Schumpeter once called Innovation “creative destruction “because as much as it’s a new way of solving problems, a birthing of something new, it often means the death of something old. No matter how much we say we like change, what we really mean is we like change that is under our control.

The onset of digital technologies in transportation (safe boda, Uber), hospitality (Air Bnb), catering (Jumia Food, Glovo), financial services (mobile money, e-banking) means that the way we did things just a few years ago is under threat. Experience built up over years in doing something one way has to make way for new methods. Jobs will have to change or are under threat of being replaced by automation. Great for the service, but precarious for the service providers.

Like my father before me saw the promise of a new country with new opportunities in the 1960’s, I see the overwhelming good of digital solutions in making quality of life better. However, as bright as the future is, we cannot be blind to the intentional approaches we must take and consider the “causalities of this change”. As businesses and governments, we have a responsibility to provide the right guidance and support as our population goes rapidly into the digital world.

References

  1. From “FSD Uganda 2018 Finscope survey” which found that one of the drivers of financial inclusion was digital connectivity but that there is a wide gap to be covered.

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What do you think?

Written by Joel Muhumuza

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