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How can emerging nations respond to disruption: look to the voluntary sector for long-term success

As a society, we’re poised on the edge of radical, deep-rooted technological and scientific advancement unlike anything we have previously experienced.

A range of highly innovative developments will transform literally every aspect of our world – and the process has already begun. Consider how the smartphone, now a ubiquitous tool and toy, has changed the very fabric of our daily lives in the course of just seven years. Now multiply that impact with the simultaneous arrival in daily life of developments such as immersive multi-sensory internet services, the connection of everything via the Internet of Things, the rise of artificial intelligence with the prospect of systems that can outsmart humans and large-scale adoption of digital currencies that no government controls.

In parallel to a wave of largely digital developments, the physical world will also be reshaped by innovations such as home-manufacturing through 3D printing, robotics in every sector from manufacturing to driverless vehicles, intelligent materials that change their properties over time and human augmentation encompassing physical, genetic and cognitive enhancement. We could continue with this list of potentially transformative new technologies and techniques on the horizon, but the examples cited here should give you a sense of the pace, depth and scale of disruption we will experience in the coming decades.

In a world of disrupted development, economic changes will be driven by scientific and technological opportunities, innovative services and products and new production methods. As a result, jobs, professions and even entire industries, will emerge, grow, be radically refocused, shrink, or disappear completely. Whilst we can’t be sure exactly how things will play out, what we do know is that society needs to be better equipped to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing reality. The impending tsunami of change creates an urgent need for us to upgrade our skill sets, encourage life-long learning and invest in meaningful, extensive adult education programmes. This could in part be structured through incentivising tax breaks offered to companies dedicated to equipping their workforce with new skills, and to individuals taking part in continuing education courses and learning experiences. The volatility of the commercial environment and the rise and fall of industries will place a growing focus on the importance of small businesses for sustainable economic development. Hence, facilitating local innovation and entrepreneurship will be vital to economic success.

Governments of emerging nations have a real opportunity here to scan the trends, forces and ideas shaping the long-term future and understand the coming disruptions. It is critical that they learn how to respond to these developments and position their societies and markets to best benefit in terms of employment, welfare, education and lifestyle. The most astute and forward thinking emerging nations will see the value of investing in future-proof infrastructure, technologies and education programmes that can accelerate growth – potentially leapfrogging generations of development.

Effective strategies for investing in entrepreneurship should draw on successful practices already being adopted by the voluntary sector, charities and NGOs already active in the field, often working at the very bottom of the pyramid. Whilst effective nation-wide innovation and entrepreneurship programmes may need to be co-ordinated and funded through a central strategy, the key to success is local execution. There are a wide range of proven examples of the third sector working at grassroots level to improve literacy, build capacity, and nurture business skills relevant to the requirements of the local market. By supporting and sharing current successes from the voluntary sector, learning lessons from their experience on the ground and following and scaling-up proven pilot projects, governments can build larger, effective national strategies for innovation and entrepreneurship – without reinventing the developmental wheel.

Investing in education and entrepreneurship on an emerging nation’s budget calls for more creativity and flexibility than in deeper-pocketed countries, perhaps, but here again lessons can be learnt from the charities and foundations that have proved themselves to be experts in getting results on limited resources. Tapping into this expertise, bringing existing local projects to national scale and partnering with other initiatives are smart ways to upgrade the skills of society at large in the face of future disruption.

Innovation and entrepreneurship will be critical to the development of a nation’s ICT industry in particular. The sector will be the backbone of technological change, the bringer of unparalleled opportunity and the harbinger of an entirely new job market. Much of the development will take place in pioneering start-ups and small firms which will need all the help they can get to turn good ideas into sustainable employment – creating businesses. Hence, government support for the creation of new sectors, new SMEs and new educational and training programmes will be essential to the viability of the ICT industry of the future – a strategy driven out of pragmatism as much as philanthropy. Without this support, where will skilled workers and affluent consumers be found if adult education, innovative start-ups and new routes to employment are not adequately funded?

Over the next 5 to 10 years, widespread disruption in society will begin to take hold, cast-iron job certainties will disappear, current industries will shrink or disappear and new ones will emerge. A decade from now, we will be able to look back from, say, ITU Telecom World 2025 and see where we, as government and industry leaders were prescient in our response, where we were slow or naïve, and the consequences for our society.

Join me at the Leadership Summit on The Future at ITU Telecom World 2014 to start that journey.

Rohit Talwar, CEO, Fast Future Research