Brave New World for Business and Technology

Does the political and economic situation in South Africa fill you with a sense of dread? According to Dutch lifehacker, thought leader and serial entrepreneur Martijn Aslander, it doesn’t have to. Not because everything is fine and dandy, but because new advances in technology are changing the world so rapidly that most of the things giving us sleepless nights now will soon come to seem like the quaint problems of yesteryear.

Aslander was the guest speaker at a Techno Park Business Forum event, entitled “Living in a New Renaissance”, that was held at the Stellenbosch Academy of Design and Photography in Techno Park on the evening of 22 May. Over the course of two mind-expanding hours, Aslander, who describes himself as a “stand-up philosopher for technology,” mesmerized the audience of more than 70 Techno Parkers with a cascade of examples and ideas about the ways in which the new digital economy is changing the fabric of our societies.

Aslander began his talk by describing the accelerating rate at which new technologies are adopted in modern societies. The first mobile phone, he reminded the audience, was comparable in size to a brick, and no one could understand why anyone would go to the trouble of lugging one around. But today more than 2 billion people across the planet are walking around with a smartphone in their pocket, each with more computing power than existed when Ronald Reagan became president of the United States in the early eighties.

One result of the explosion in mobile computing power is the rise of what Aslander calls the network economy. “Think of every problem on the planet as a puzzle,” he explains. “And how do you solve a puzzle? You get more people to work on it. That is precisely what the network economy is doing for us: it’s getting more people to solve puzzles.”

Millions – indeed, billions – of people around the world enjoy access to digital services and knowledge repositories like Wikipedia, WhatsApp, Facebook, Youtube, Google Maps and the like that are constantly getting faster, better and cheaper. The result is playing havoc with a global economy that is still based on an industrial-era model of individual ownership over innovative technologies. Traditionally, Aslander explains, a new innovation would lead to financial gain for the owner of that innovation, which would then be the basis for broader economic growth. Now, with instant access to the latest innovations in almost any field at the click of a button or the touch of a screen, he suggests, the old model is in trouble.

Aslander points to Jack Andraka, a teenager in Maryland who came up with a new way to diagnose pancreatic cancer, and William Kamkwamba, a Malawian youth who built a wind turbine using tree branches and materials gathered in the local scrapyard after dropping out of school at age fourteen due to not having money for school fees, as examples of the extraordinary potential of the network economy.

Aslander explains that our political economies are based on a scarcity of resources. Now, with the sheer abundance promised by the digital information revolution, the cumbersome bureaucracy of state machinery – to say nothing of a political elite that preys on empty promises to the poor – may not be able to sustain itself much longer. He predicts, in fact, that most of the venerable institutions that currently undergird our society – banks, insurance firms, big energy companies, and the like – may soon follow the way of the dinosaurs.

When someone from the audience asks whether Aslander thinks the network economy can save us from one of the gravest threats to life as we know it, namely climate change, he shoots back by asking how many people in the audience are vegetarians. One or two tentative hands rise at the back of the room. Aslander laughs – “South Africans sure like to braai!” he jokes – and mentions that roughly a half or a third of CO2 production in the world is caused by the meat industry. The clincher, however, is that people have figured out how to grow meat in labs, and that this technology is becoming, like everything else, cheaper, better and faster. So even despite the world population boom, we may be able to soon find effective ways to curb climate change.

Aslander is an unrepentant optimist about what technology, and especially the new knowledge economy, can do for us. “A pessimist never solved any problems, so I decided from a young age that I was going to be an optimist,” he admits freely. When he is asked for some advice about how to prepare for the major upheavals coming our way over the course of the next decade,” he merely shrugs. “No one can really see what’s coming,” he says. “The best thing may be to take it as it comes, see what works, be open to new ideas. And try to figure out how you can make the world a better place for others.”

Afterwards, munching on the snacks provided by Techno Park’s own Rocco & Riley, the Techno Parkers in attendance had lively discussions about the implications of the network economy for the way we do business in the Park. Some confessed to being blown away by Aslander’s ideas, while others expressed their optimism at harnessing new technologies in creative ways. Most, however, left with a giddy sense of excitement about what the future holds.

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