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Ideas & Debate

It’s futile to stand in the way of new technology

It’s futile to stand in the way of new technology. FILE PHOTO | NMG
An Uber application displayed on a phone. It’s futile to stand in the way of new technology. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Ah, new technology: it threatens and disrupts. It always has and it always will. In 19th century England a group of textile workers known as Luddites destroyed weaving machines to protest against their “fraudulent and deceitful” use that was designed, they alleged, to get round the then labour practices.

Luddites feared that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste as machines would replace them, and over time the term Luddites has come to mean being opposed to new technologies in general.

Another example of “Luddism” comes back to me from my early days in the IT industry in the 1960s and ’70s, when trade unions in many countries aggressively opposed the introduction of computers because they were going to destroy large numbers of jobs – in this case white collar ones.

In 1980s Kenya this was manifested through the imposition of a combined import duty and sales tax of 143 per cent on computers, as they were branded “labour-saving devices”.

The longstanding battle between the unions representing workers in the local tea industry and the tea companies who employ them over the introduction of tea-plucking machines is a further example of the inconvenient meeting the inevitable.

What led me to think about these examples of resisting new technologies is reading The Upstarts by Brad Stone, about how companies like Uber and Airbnb are changing the world.

Stone, the author of The Everything Store – an earlier book on the rise of Amazon – describes in gripping detail how a few extraordinary individuals, filled with creativity and vision, energy and ambition, defiance and obstinacy, have redefined the transport and hospitality industries. Do get hold of The Upstarts (available at the Yaya Centre Bookstop) and follow the roller-coaster ride of the movers and shakers of Uber and of airbnb as breakthrough after breakthrough was followed by setback after setback, in city after city around the world, to the point where now their presence has become accepted as the new normal.

In Kenya our cab drivers launched protests against the Uber phenomenon, and as everywhere else we worried about fairness and about compliance with regulations (now quaintly outdated). We pondered over how the benefits of the mobile-based app should be spread between Uber, its drivers, its passengers and KRA. As we did regarding airbnb and the players in their ecosystem.

In among these weighty issues lies the leadership challenge of how to help the victims of new technology, in whichever century, to deal with and overcome loss, even as others enjoy the benefits of the new paradigm.

So while I love just pressing a few keys on my mobile phone to have a super-friendly low-cost Uber driver pick me up in just a few minutes, I mourn for the old-style cab drivers whose hitherto secure income streams have all but dried up.

No wonder Yellow Cab drivers in New York have been committing suicide, and no wonder hotel owners are pulling their hair out in frustration. In this era of the most rapid, transformative and unpredictable change we have ever witnessed, the underlying long-term leadership challenge is to prepare those they lead to be flexible and agile, able to let go of existing paradigms and to competently and confidently leap into new ones.

This of course must start at the earliest age possible, and it must never fade. It’s good that Kenya’s leaders have got the message, resulting in such strategic initiatives as our new Curriculum Framework, the boosting of technical and vocational training, the dramatic review of the role of universities and the major emphasis on acquiring and using digital skills.

In Kenya, thanks to unusually high levels of energy and curiosity, more of us are able to deal with the challenges of disruption than happens in many other countries. However, very much including in the Western world, far too many are left behind as they lack the skills and attitudes necessary for filling the emerging jobs available in the modern world.

So as we focus on the government’s “Big Four” in the context of our Vision 2030, we must support those who are already fit for purpose and also help those who are not to be so.

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