The future is not technology, it is human

When Apple launched iTunes no-one could have predicted its success. In a market where piracy abounded, who would ever have imagined that anyone could find a way to profit from the sale of music? Yet, its success is legendary, and the reason, says Stafford Masie, former Google Africa boss, is because Apple’s CEO understood people.

Famously quoted as saying that he did not have faith in technology, but faith in people, Steve Jobs recognised that the reason people were going to Napster and pirating was not because they were inherently bad and didn’t want to pay, but because traditional payment models were broken. By giving people an easy way to pay for exactly what they wanted when they wanted it music sales shot up.

For Maisie, this story exemplifies the truth that innovation is not about technology, but about people. In fact, speaking to students at the UCT Graduate School of Business recently, he argued that the future of technology lies not in the invention of more technology, but rather in its gradual receding into the background. In the same way that electricity is no longer the noisy, show-off presence that it once was and we take it for granted; technology inevitably moves into the background and the human story takes centre stage.

Through the ages, the most successful innovators, like Jobs, have understood human nature, and the inventions that have defined civilisations largely came out of a single purpose; to make every-day living easier with less hindrance for human beings. From the pivotal engineering construct of the arch, which enabled the Romans to construct ever more elaborate structures and, literally, to conquer the earth, to the much-contested success (contested in South Africa at least) of taxi-app Uber, successful innovation and design makes things easier, simpler, more efficient and more fun for people.

David Kelley, legendary design-thinker and founder of IDEO and Stanford Design School, calls it human-centred design, and he says that it all boils down to good old-fashioned empathy. “Try to understand what other people value,” he says. Masie agrees. He says that innovative business should set out to derive less value than it creates and that this is one of the key pillars of building a sustainable economy – something the world could do with more of.

In Africa, the definition of business model innovation should lie in offering real solutions to real problems impacting real people. Were we simply to innovate technologically, in order to compete globally, we may come up with products that are totally irrelevant to African citizens. I would like to see us developing products and services instead that are relevant. How can business improve service delivery in rural areas, for instance?

This is not to say that technology is irrelevant in Africa – far from it. Technology is essential in overcoming the challenges on the continent. Added to that, the next billion users of the internet and other technologies are going to come from Africa – and the scramble for their custom has already started. If local is lekker, innovators who understand their market’s own challenges have a built-in advantage.

You don’t have to look far for inspiring examples. Lumkani, an innovation that was refined on the UCT GSB Masters in Inclusive Innovation, is a tech start-up and social enterprise that wants to minimise the loss of life and property caused by fires in slums via the world’s first networked heat-detector. M-Pesa is a mobile-phone money transfer service born in Kenya that allows users to deposit, withdraw, transfer money and pay for goods and services with a mobile device and is busy taking the developing world by storm. Wyzetalk is a South African social business platform that drives intra-business communication and collaboration that is also hovering up market share at home and abroad.

Ironically, the combination of the social and infrastructural challenges faced in Africa might mean that the innovations and products made on the continent are more robust because they have to work that much harder to succeed. Maisie believes that African innovation leads the world precisely because of this.

The opportunity for needs-driven, human-centred design on the continent is vast. And there is no guessing where the combination of empathy and innovation in such a context will lead.

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