TED Global 2013: Think Again

Global clues to drive African innovation

What do an ex-prime minister, a provocative Chinese venture capitalist, a political philosopher, two Harvard professors, an African innovation expert, and a guy talking about “why not to build a killer robot” have in common? They were part of the line-up at TED Global 2013, in Edinburgh. The conference, themed “Think Again”, sought not only to share Ideas worth Spreading, but to challenge perceptions on many world issues.

By Sarah Meder

A notion of ‘global markets’ was a common thread across a number of speakers who challenged thinking on topics such as international borders, democracy as a cookie-cutter solution to economic prosperity, and aspirations of a bottom-up approach to government.

Saratoga’s head of innovation, Jason Haddock, returns home with insight from global speakers to inspire and guide innovation in Africa. Haddock shares his views on topics and speakers that he found most relevant to the African economic agenda.

Lessons from ancient Greece

Perhaps the most controversial of the speakers was former Prime Minister of Greece – George Papandreou – who spoke about lessons learned from the Greek debt crisis. Kicking off with “I’m about to give a speech unlike any I’ve ever given before”, he did not disappoint.

In ancient Greece, the market and politics were interwoven and perceived as one – and were superseded by the power of the people to govern themselves. This, according to Papandreou, is what a true democracy is. He views Europe as an example of globalised politics where citizens of each independent nation make up the European Union. However, he goes on to suggest that “although we have been very successful at creating global markets, we have failed to globalise our democratic institutions”. In other words, the global economy has yet to empower world citizens, as political impact is still only felt at a local level.

A tale of two systems

Eric X Li offers a contrasting view of democracy in “A tale of two political systems”.
Li proposes that the evolution of society in both the East and West was linear, but which culminated differently (in communism or democracy, respectively). While China’s one-party system is often criticised by the self righteously democratic West, they have experienced huge and stable economic growth. Despite its many problems, Li’s prediction is that China will outgrow the US as the world’s economic leader.

Michael v Michael on the marketisation of culture

In a fascinating synthesis of ideas, Michael Sandel and Michael Porter debated to what extent market practices should influence society.

Porter believes in the power of markets to solve social problems, suggesting that the flow of wealth will stem from businesses with a social conscience. On the flip side, Sandel, who views global markets as being over-commoditised, fears that market thinking will alter the character of social practices so that we’ll end up with a market society “where almost everything is up for sale”.

Daniel Suarez briefly touched on a similar concept while talking about why we shouldn’t build killer robots, during his talk on the military use of drones in combat. While there are now laws that say the final “kill decision” must be made by a human, he said the same drone technology could be used in order to transport much-needed medical equipment, supplies or even food to remote areas in places like Africa.

Mobile is the new gold

South African Toby Shapshak took to the stage to challenge the perception that innovation is found only in first world countries. He illustrated how need and problem are fundamental and powerful catalysts for innovation, stressing that, in Africa, mobile is the new gold. While the global perception is that Africa is “mobile only”, we are rather “mobile first” – and our African-inspired solutions will go on to be used by the rest of the world.

Take for instance prepaid SIM cards (which many attendees would have picked up on arriving in Edinburgh): Shapshak points out that pay-as-you-go was an idea pioneered in Africa by Vodacom 15 years ago. Now, it is one of the most dominant forces of economic activity in the world.

Shapshak went on to touch on Square, an American innovation that has “liberated the credit card from the point-of-sale terminal.” M-Pesa – the African mobile money service – went further, and entirely removed the credit card from this equation. It is an SMS service that enables people to pay bills, buy groceries, send payments, and even – he jokes – bribe customs officials. In this case, the incredible limitations on Africa’s existing payment systems has sparked a supremely innovative solution. Currently $25 million a day (and 40% of Kenya’s GDP) passes through M-Pesa.

The rise of emerging markets

An image of Earth at night shows brightly glittering countries in stark contrast to Africa, which is mostly in darkness. It is those ‘dark’ places, without access to luxury commodities such as electricity and running water, where innovation becomes a necessity.

We can learn from the likes of Papandreaou, Li and the two Michaels from Harvard to better understand the political and market structures of nations facing various challenges. They offer an opportunity to step outside of a one-size-fits-all system and look to the value of solutions generated by non-Western countries. It’s interesting to see the shift of economic power away from countries such as the US, and the rise of new powerhouses such as China, as they, too, begin to focus on tapping into Africa. Looking at similarities between the current situation in the emerging markets, Africa is undeniably one of the last untapped markets in the world.

Local business should push to invest in local innovation; to cultivate our culture of inventiveness with the goal to create solutions with global impact. Ideas that – like Juliana Rotich’s ‘BRCK’ project – can be pitched as a global solution: “if it works in Africa, it can work anywhere in the world”.