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

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Uber phenomenon, and as everywhere else we worried about fairness and about compliance with regulations (now quaintly outdated).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.

NCIC does more work than what comes to surface

A month ago I was privileged to attend the launch of Alice Wairimu Nderitu’s book on national cohesion and integration, Kenya, Bridging Ethnic Divides. Ms Nderitu was a founding Commissioner of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), and before and since she has enjoyed a distinguished career promoting the cause of cohesion and integration, in Kenya, Nigeria and elsewhere.

The chief guest at the launch was Dr Fred Matiang’i, the Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Interior, and in his remarks he said that if he were still at the Ministry of Education he would have ensured the book was made standard reading at all the teacher training colleges, adding that he would recommend to his colleague that this be so.

Let me go further: in my view every Kenyan owes it to themselves to read this book. Not just Kenyans, but all those who seek a richer understanding of how ethnic tensions come about and sometimes get out of hand, and how thoughtful, purposeful people like Ms Nderitu, her colleagues in the NCIC and others set about identifying the root causes of the problem and seeing how to build a more cohesive and integrated society in which everyone can grow and prosper.

The NCIC is largely known for going after those who utter hate speech. But this is just the visible tip of their cohesion nurturing iceberg – the one the media relishes, as it is usually prominent politicians who are put on the spot by the commission.

Being taken behind the scenes by this former NCIC commissioner is therefore particularly valuable, as it reveals the almost unknown mass of the NCIC iceberg.

She writes eloquently about Kenya’s two-steps-forward, two-steps-backward history of ethnic relations (a great summary of the country’s past, from colonial and even pre-colonial times onward); about the build-up to the formation of this, the only permanent independent commission to have been formed following the 2008 post-election violence; about how they dug into their subject, consulting widely and evolving strategies to move Kenya forward on a more sustainable basis; and about how they have been engaging at all levels in our society and in all corners of the republic to move us forward.

At the launch Ms Nderitu told us that when she was a commissioner with NCIC what drove her was to make a difference. She talked about the establishment of the District Peace Committees, designed to provide early warnings of unrest, leading to swift responses. “We knew violence was coming,” she remembers being told, “but we didn’t know whom to tell.”

She recognised what a painful topic ethnicism is, and drew attention to the need to develop facilitators who can bring people together – from the youngest age.

During her time with NCIC I supported the commission in various ways, so I know from personal experience how serious she and her colleagues were, and how many quiet initiatives they undertook. It is indeed in the nature of such work that to be effective much of it must take place behind the scenes, and so to read about it now is the more necessary. Their successors too, the current team, are equally assumed by many to be little more than “The Hate Commission”, and it is an equally unjustified jibe.

Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia was the opening speaker at the launch, and he commented that “writing is a spiritual discipline that clarifies the mind and processes confusing emotions,” adding that “a difficult day can be redeemed by writing about it.”

Reading too can serve such a purpose, although probably more mildly. So I conclude by urging everyone to indulge in the spiritual discipline of reading every page of Kenya, Bridging Ethnic Divides, and through doing so to process your confusing emotions.

But however necessary, that remains insufficient. To reach the necessary readers must not only conclude that Kenya’s ethnic divides have so sadly held Kenya back from fulfilling its potential.

We must not only decide to reach out to “the other” in and beyond our communities. We must influence others to do so. Not least our politicians, so they can seek votes and enjoy power through different paradigms.