Predicting Africa’s multiple futures

“Amid all the uncertainty surrounding disruptive technologies, managers can always count on one thing: Expert forecasts will always be wrong. It is simply impossible to predict with any useful degree of precision how disruptive products will be used, or how large their markets will be”

“The Innovator’s Dilemma”, Clayton M. Christensen

Predicting the future of one of the most disruptive technologies of recent times – the mobile phone – was precisely what Rudy de Waele asked twenty-eight mobile technologists to do earlier this year. And to make things a little more interesting, these predictions were meant to focus on Africa alone. Good friend Erik Hersman and I were asked to help ensure that people we felt were best placed to contribute – African technologists, or people with considerable practical experience working with mobile technology on the continent – were represented.

The result is here.

As Clayton Christensen points out in his excellent book, predicting the future is never easy, and almost always ends in failure. During a workshop at Stanford University back in 2006, it became abundantly clear that one of the biggest challenges facing predictors was “breaking the shackles of current thinking”. 80% of people get caught out here, and to a large extent this is reflected in Rudy’s paper:

1. Pick a technology or service currently in use.
2. Predict that in xx years time there will be more of it.

The easiest way to obtain a “shackles-free” out-of-this-world prediction is to ask children, and you’ll find they have just as much chance of being right as an adult (or an expert). Quoting a PC World article I wrote on the subject a couple of years ago:

Ask people what that mobile future might look like, and we’ll likely get answers that take us in one of two directions. Adults will probably be constrained by the parameters of what they see around them today, so predictions on what a mobile phone might look like in, say, ten years, would most likely center around smaller, lighter and faster. Children, on the other hand, would probably let their imaginations run riot and talk about phones that are invisible, implanted in our brains, or both

One thing that particularly struck me about Rudy’s “Mobile Trends 2020 Africa” exercise lies in the title. Are we assuming that mobile technology in Africa will have a very different future to mobile technology in the rest of the world? Perhaps so – I’ve previously argued that “many future mobile innovations will be borne out of the realities of the developing world”.

If that were the case then that would be a future I could get excited about.