Reflections on the Ross (2015) “The Industries of the Future” and it’s potential lessons for #Tanzania

The Industries of the Future Book Cover The Industries of the Future
Alec Ross
Business & Economics
Simon and Schuster
2016-02-02
320

A prompt to pick up this book from the shelf of many was triggered by the President of Tanzania (Dr. John P. Magufuli) new policy and emphasis on industrialization. I have been battling to accept the relevance of this policy in the 21st Century even when I consider Tanzania’s “competitive advantage”, which is often associated with its natural resources.  Wrongly. Narrowly.

My understanding of the current policy is that the kinds of industry we are pushing through are those that would fit for the 19th and early 20th centuries.  They are the kind of industries that robots, and not human beings, should be working at. Soon robots will be inevitable in all of those kind of industries whenever location they will be. Thus, justifying those kinds of industries through employment is not a very sustainable approach.

Reading Alec Ross’ mind provoking and somehow scary book “The Industries of the Future” further underscored my understanding. It also crisply sharpened my thinking to go beyond and appreciate the ‘soft’ industries that are defining our future. The book argues and shows how technology and innovation will compose the industries of the future in every angle of human being needs and wants. Be it medicine, finances, wars and weapons, retail, communication, etc.  The need to be innovative in the context of fast changing technology is not negotiable for any country that wants to be competitive in the 21st century and years to come.

Ross structures his book under 6 chapters, each with critical arguments and examples of the technologically changing world and its impact in our daily lives. He starts by talking about Robots their artificial intelligence that might rival human intelligence if we don’t sharpen it; he then moves on to discuss genome and development of genetic codes that would revolutionize medical treatment; codification of money comes next and how markets would be defined by algorithm of trust; then the new kind of wars of which the cyber space becomes the battle field that- given the subsequent codification of all aspects of our lives- could shut the world down more effectively than a nuclear weapon;  in bringing in some kind of remedy, Ross talks about Data as the raw material of these new type of industries; and finally he has a conclusion on the geography of the future market.

In having those coherent arguments, Ross combined his experience as an innovation director in the State Department as well as interviews with technology innovation leaders such as the founder of Google (Eric Schmidt), the founder of twitter and square, and many other million dollars worthy tech start ups founders in the USA. Impressively, the book is global as it covers examples from other parts of the world including Africa- DRC, Kenya, and my beloved Tanzania.

The book goes beyond showing the fast technological changing world that define and dictate new ways of doing things to provide suggestions for how to effectively integrate and compete in this world. In that Ross, speaks of data and the need to mobilize, manage, and use big data for decision making. In this, the highlight is the centrality of making evidence-based decisions. The increasing need for the evidence underscores the supremacy of data in this century. The big data is thus becoming a raw material for the future industries.

Reflecting on the book in the context of Tanzania, it is of utmost important for the government and equally so for the citizens of Tanzania to rethink and revisit our conceptualization of industrialization.  The reconceptualization of industrialization policy will help us all to appreciate soft industries (i.e. industries of the future) and their significant contribution to the economy.

There are a number of innovations in the country that should be considered as industries and so get incentives. These include the increasing number of start-ups that are small scale but already marshalling and attracting enormous resources as well as providing employment.  Without mentioning one by one, in totality, the government, for example, should consider the hub- i.e. BuniHub – as a key industrial base in the country hence prioritize its research funding plus other relevant incentives.

Such could also enhance how we do tourism, which is one of our potential niche and leading service industries. Tourism is a dynamic industry. The way tourism is evolved is revolutionary. Think, for example, of how cities use Snapchat to amass all fun going on at one particular time in the very city and then disseminate it instantly to potential tourists. This is why local based social media platforms and start ups have to be supported and incorporated in the government policy of such industries.

It was encouraging that Ross’ sees a great future for developing world, such as African countries. He indicates how they can skip a lot of processes that developed world passed through to get where they are. For example, he shows how the developing world passed universal landline phone connections to having mobile phones. This shows enormous potential for Tanzania.

Nevertheless, there are conditions- which Ross mentions implicitly- but I would like to list them here as conditions and recommendations for Tanzania:

  • Economic openness- if Tanzania wants to be successful, it has to ensure and encourages economic openness. This does not mean removal of protectionism. No. I personally believe that the country has to place a certain and calculated measure of protectionism to its infant industries and business from fierce and merciless international competition. However, the domestic economic policies inside the country must be business friendly to allow economic vibrancy and mushrooming of viable start-ups.
  • Political openness is equally important – civic space allows exchange of ideas and booming of social media platforms (one of the soft industries). Being a control freak will take us only a few steps ahead before stumbling between a hard rock and stony surface.
  • Women: acknowledging the integral role of women in economic development. In that, when women are empowered there is more potential for growth. The examples cited are China, whereby its empowerment of women (as key work force and business people) has contributed to China’s rise way above Japan, which is stuck in a system that takes qualified women out of professional work after having a child.
  • EDUCATION: the future industries are dependent on high quality foundational education. This, in the case of Tanzania, means basic education (primary and secondary). When Ross interviewed Eric Schmidt (Google founder), he said “the biggest issue is simply the development of analytical skills. Most of the routine things people do will be done by computer, but people will manage the computers around them and the analytical skills will never go out of style”. The key in building this analytical skill is to ensure that our basic education teach our children to “learn how to think”.

The above suggestions are for all Tanzanians. Policy makers, nevertheless, have high stakes in this. They need to understand IT and appreciate its role.  In this, I will end by a quote from the book.

“The obligation of those in position of power and privilege is to shape our policies to extend the opportunities that will come with the industries of the future for as many people as possible”. (p. 249)

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