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Our third speaker, Jean-Pierre, also born in 1998, represents a generation of successful entrepreneurs from Shape-it. Jean-Pierre, please share your story.
My mother, who loved entertaining, was a senior manager in the national Department of Information and Communication Technologies. Whenever visitors were invited to share a meal with us, a heated debate about the digital world its effects on Africa seemed unavoidable. As a boy I remember being so frustrated by the inevitable delay in the serving of dessert, something we only had when guests were present.
But, by the time I graduated from school, when the first comprehensive regulations were introduced, which addressed data governance and enabled a legal environment conducive to the creation of digital tech businesses, I had a greater appreciation for the seeds sown during those discussions. Many of those same guests had contributed to the drafting of the regulations or had aided their passage through parliament.
International collaboration around policymaking meant we had been able to recreate select portions of some of the most-forward-thinking regulations from around the world. Back in 2020 our legal policies already catered for regulation of robots and artificial intelligence, with guidelines for algorithms and their application to vulnerable groups of the population.
Because our regulation was more stringent than the legislation that existed in neighbouring countries, some of Shape-it’s future-oriented businesses initially took a knock.
At the time there was a strong push for young people to pursue careers in fields that would contribute to a national culture of innovation and I immediately gravitated towards data science.
From as early as our second-year, our data science lecturers encouraged us to start developing real data or tech applications that went beyond the theoretical. So, I left university with a degree in data science and a fledging tech product that had already achieved modest success in the market.
Observing the extent to which foreign digital entities were making decisions that undermined the autonomy of individual African states, he sometimes added, “Aim to be the musician, you don’t want to dance to the tune of the data coloniser! “
Some of my earliest innovations were in the field of cobotics as I was fascinated by the idea of robots and humans collaborating. My partners and I had considerable success in designing robots that could be deployed as an advance guard to respond to disasters and secure situations that were dangerous to humans. I’m proud that the triage interface we developed enabled prioritisation of serious cases, consultation with medical specialists and, coupled with 3D-printing technology, dispatch of urgent medical products within minutes.
In the late 2020s and early 2030s, when the worst ravages of climate change resulted in devastating mudslides in countries on three continents, our factories couldn’t keep up with the demand for RoboRescuers. And, after powerful earthquakes hit a string of coastal cities bordering the Pacific Ocean, there was a clamour for not only our rescue and triage robots but the technical skills of the many Shapers who had developed and programmed them.
We learnt so much about advances in IoT from some of these newcomers that we were able to leapfrog existing technology. A few of us started a new business focusing on sensors and deep learning to predict major risk events. Where possible, disasters were averted, in the instances where that wasn’t possible, at least the international rescue-and-respond command centres were forewarned. That meant that technology, supplies and RoboRescuers were already in place when disaster struck, thereby minimising the loss of human life.
While I was busy building those ventures, fellow Shapers had been developing the digital architecture that underpinned the success of the African Continental Free Trade Area.
Young people in the audience today may be surprised to hear that all over Africa cross-border (and particularly intra-regional) trade used to be hampered by inefficiencies and corruption.
By applying some of the logic of distributed ledger technology we were able to create a continent-wide seamless system that provided transparency regarding the origin of the goods, real-time tracking of goods in transit and secure digital payment facilities. Compliance with the rigorous Shape It data governance and cyber security regulations and the replication of appropriate portions of the regulations in other member countries, meant that the system enjoyed a high degree of trust.
In 2038, when the ICGC (International Climate Governance Council) was formed, locating the headquarters in Shape It seemed an obvious choice. A number of Shapers were appointed to leadership positions in the Council and l was honoured to chair it for the first four-year term.
The governance system was built on our secure digital architecture. The resulting transparency and cooperative human/AI labour practices made significant interventions possible in a short space of time. Within a few weeks a more equitable climate policy was introduced across the world. No longer could the countries generating the most waste, dump that waste in the least wealthy countries. Countries that were responsible for the biggest contributions to climate change were penalised for their actions.
The behavioural interventions specialist, who was instrumental in compelling Capetonians to reduce their water consumption back in 2018, was hauled out of retirement to head up the Climate Change and Consumer Behaviour Response Force in North America.
The Shape It approach to development hasn’t always made us popular. Would-be colonisers expressed doubt about the ability of a relatively small African country to compete against the global superpowers in a digital age. Even within the country some people grumbled about the emphasis on continuing education and the onus on individuals to keep reskilling themselves.
But a brief look at the agenda for this “Shaping the Future Conference” reveals where most of the evidence and anecdotes around designing the optimal future originate. We should not forget that many of these innovations have roots going back over 30 years and dare I say one or two of those roots may even have sprouted at my mother’s dining room table.