Opinion & Analysis

Missing link in Kenya’s digital growth dream

We need to offer young people the opportunity to participate and contribute to national development. FILE PHOTO | NMG
We need to offer young people the opportunity to participate and contribute to national development. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Is Kenya’s future already here? The thought came to mind in observing the bevy of high-priced lawyers strutting high-data, high-tech stuff at this week’s hearing of the presidential election petition.

So, the portal was not the same as the screen. Statistics are not results, unless they are provisional.

Forget algorithms and “lines of best fit”, even Pythagoras and his hypotenuse can’t explain voter choice. It reminded me of the opening scene in a training video I used a generation ago titled Iintroduction to Computers’ — in which the presenter ominously asks “Do you know how to boot up, and DOS down?”

In those pre-Windows, early Internet, zero social media, pre-laptop and mobile days in Kenya, that was “scare talk” for asking if one knew how to switch on a computer. It always worked like a dream.

Let me state from the outset that this isn’t a commentary on the Supreme Court decision we expect today.

However, this past fortnight has surfaced a truly inter-generational digital divide between our elder politicos and professionals, mostly technology “luddites” in a digital world, and our burgeoning youth, who bombarded social media with analyses, comments and even wild speculation around the Kenya Integrated Election Management System (KIEMS) at the core of the electoral process.

Because the national mood still feels like we are at the end, rather than beginning, of a school term, I will resist a further exploration of our super-expensive KIEMS, which like our equally costly Integrated Financial Management Information System, has not yet earned widespread public trust or demonstrated true taxpayer value.

That’s a story for another day. Instead, let’s see what our currently technology-led digital future is beginning to look like.

First, it’s increasingly about an understanding of data — quantitative and qualitative. During this election season, we have seen more analysis, greater insight and much more message dispersion than ever before.

Much of this no doubt influenced pre-election strategy. But there’s also been a veritable mountain of post-election data — beyond traditional media — that’s connected with our eyeballs in the past fortnight.

Second, we’re finally beginning to connect the dots. Outside of technology and data, the ability to link disparate pieces of data into information messages is key to our digital dream.

Yes, our social media echo chambers often connect these dots in a subjective way that reflects personal confirmation biases, but there’s still enough positive emerging stuff to suggest that this media could be a force for good.

Technology, data, dots — this we know. What’s missing? Let’s refer to author John Naismith’s 1982 best seller – Megatrends – which identified seven trends for the global future, one of which was something he called “high-tech, high-touch”.

At its simplest, understanding the personal, human dimension in high-tech. In our context, bringing “high touch” to our digital development agenda.

What would this look like? Think about a data-driven, high touch digital agenda that addresses our perennial food crises, through humanised tech initiatives ranging from early warning to farmer support on farming methods, and market information, stretching even to initiatives around biotechnology.

Or a digital education agenda that is as much about hardware gadgets and content as it is about learning processes and shared experiences, as well as linkages with the jobs market.

Or a digital health agenda that promotes healthy lifestyles rather than self-medication; and moves beyond the procurement attractiveness of curative equipment to preventative health promotion at community level. How about using digital to promote security in our private spaces and public spaces?

Mostly in our current post-electoral context, can we find a digital agenda that moves beyond the success of e-citizen and other digital government initiatives, to one that promotes citizen participation in public affairs — beyond elections? Especially at the devolved level that underpins Kenya’s future?

Yes, technology is not democracy. Neither, for that matter, is digital. But what if we turned our minds towards a problem-solving national digital mindset that is technology-based, data-driven, dot-connecting and high-touch?

Isn’t this where we begin to offer young people the opportunity to participate and contribute to national development and human progress?

Simply, if those lawyers sounded like Kenya 1.0 dinosaurs, doesn’t that mean we’re already consciously and unconsciously creating, in our unique bottom-up and opportunistic ways, our Kenya 2.0 future?

After all, if our politics continues to drive us to distraction, let’s remember that nature abhors a vacuum.