IRI2038: A Blueprint for Developing Africa?

By Greg Holden, Business Writer & Social Media Manager, IRI

By planning for a possible future, do we inevitably allow for that future to come true? Take one of the foresight scenarios from the IRI2038 Futures Project. It’s called “Africa Leapfrogs Developed Markets” and it anticipates a time, 25 years from now, when the African economy will accelerate in growth and dynamism beyond the developed world at present. How could this happen given what we see from the African continent today?

Following an assumed trajectory of the Western world’s post-modern value system, it is thought that countries will begin to severely restrict what industry can do with Mother Nature over time. Environmental regulations become too stifling for traditional business and capital growth while legacy factories and power grids limit how developed nations innovate in this overly restricted space. So what can industry do? Very little, according to this scenario. But fear not, hope may be found elsewhere. It just so happens Africa sits atop a vast reservoir of natural resources not bound by our value systems and not plagued by our legacy infrastructure. Such are the assumptions that drive this foresight scenario.

The world is changing rapidly and economies are evolving, that much is certain. Does a commitment to traditional manufacturing make sense in a world witnessing the rise of at-home 3D printing? In a word: no, but it’s obviously not this simple. But we should still plan for a future where Africa’s wealth of natural resources and developing workforce transform the continent into an economic powerhouse.

This is what happened at IRI’s Future Summit in November. Innovation leaders from some of today’s largest industrial organizations worked through a series of backcasting workshops, in one of which the above scenario about Africa was presented. They were asked to focus on several major implications such a scenario implied about the world in 2038 and then work backwards in various yearly increments to answer the question, “What should my organization have accomplished by [year xxxx] in order to prepare for this future?”

The conversation, however, took the form of a blueprint on how to develop Africa so as to make this scenario more plausible; a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, if one were to see it as such. As an example, here is one line of thought worked through during the backcasting session:

The main implication of this scenario is that by 2038 Africa has become an integral part, and leader, of the global innovation ecosystem where speed-to-market is everything.

  • By 2032, IRI members said that cutting edge eco centers for energy research on the continent should have been launched to investigate ways Africa’s resources can respond to the rising energy crises globally.
  • By 2025, companies should have helped form competency clusters in the African workforce through specialized training programs and educational outlets, supported by online courseware.
  • By 2019, at least 20 major companies should have established R&D centers across the continent’s major cities to connect the region’s workforce and resources and to coordinate their allocation for better efficiency. Localized university hubs should also be formed by this time.
  • By 2014, companies should have recognized the investment opportunities present in Africa and begun what some ominously deemed the “second colonial wave,” in the form of purchasing local businesses to help scale them for the coming transformation. It was also assumed that corporations would begin to bargain knowledge and development in exchange for better access to the region’s natural resources, creating a two-way street for growth and advancement.

Should all of this happen, Africa may indeed end up a global leader by 2038, according to the foresight scenario.

Starting in 2038 and working backwards is an interesting exercise, and one with which IRI members were highly engaged, but read this list again in reverse order. See that this is not just an intellectual exercise, but rather a blueprint. Africa possesses a wealth of natural resources in a world that is beginning to bicker about scarcity. The growth of 3D printing and cheap online degree programs allows less developed regions, like Africa, access to industrial and scientific advancement and opportunity in ways never thought possible just ten years ago.

While we today may scoff at the idea of Africa leading the developed world, we can still look to the future and see a scenario in which Africa is no longer “third world” and then work backwards to realize how to make this so. IRI has taken the first step with its IRI2038 Futures Project (which you can read more about here) and backcasting workshops. What else can we learn by peering into the future and working backwards? What issue would you perform a backcasting workshop on like the one held at IRI’s Future Summit?

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