The Future of the Future:
Out of Africa: the next billion minds

This article appears in the issue May 2008, [Vol 17, Issue 5]


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Human civilization began in Africa. My tribe got out early, more than 50,000 years ago. I guess that explains why I’m always among the first to leave a party. According to genetic ancestry researcher Spencer Wells, my haplogroup, M168, crossed the Arabian Peninsula and proceeded to populate the other five continents. A haplogroup is a large clan of people who share a common ancestor, as indicated by a unique genetic marker.

Over the centuries, many new haplogroups branched out from M168, as the great human migration slowly progressed. That migration, consisting initially of fewer than a thousand people, ultimately produced an incredibly rich diversity of knowledge and culture. The knowledge has come in the form of major evolutionary breakthroughs, as well as some very painful lessons-learned.

For most of our history, knowledge and culture remained isolated in the regions in which each of the haplogroups settled. The indigenous peoples of the Americas became one with the land. The nomadic reindeer herders of Siberia, the Chukchi, adapted physically to survive in extremely cold temperatures. They still live there, as they have for more than 20,000 years. Asia focused on the inner realms of the mind, through meditation and philosophy, while Europe gave birth to a renaissance in the arts and sciences. Add a dash of New World economic freedom and entrepreneurship, and we have the explosion of technology we see today. That technology wave resulted in a new type of migration—the migration of knowledge.

We can view the history of human migration in three major stages, or epochs:

  • Epoch I—mass migration (global diversity through physical adaptation), first 50,000 years;
  • Epoch II—mass transportation (global commerce, enabled by the mechanized movement of goods and people), past 200 years; and
  • Epoch III—mass communication (near instantaneous knowledge migration, enabled by six billion interconnected minds), next 50 years.

From natural resources to knowledge

In Epoch II, countries rich in natural resources exported their raw goods, while relatively low labor and shipping costs turned regions such as Asia into industrial powerhouses. In the meantime, Africa has patiently awaited its turn. Africa’s rich culture and natural resources have not resulted in financial and intellectual wealth—partially because of serious missteps, inflicted both externally and internally.

We have seen in previous Future of the Future articles how the old business, economic and organizational models no longer work. That is particularly true in the case of Africa, which has received billons of dollars in aid from large, legacy institutions, with very little return on investment. A recent program, One Laptop Per Child, though paved with good intentions, appears to be headed down the same path. Africa continues to languish economically, while its population suffers from widespread health problems including HIV/AIDS, malaria, malnutrition and infant mortality.

Those are formidable challenges, demanding all the brainpower we can bring to bear. That’s where Epoch III comes in.

An unprecedented opportunity

Recall the lessons of TQM (Total Quality Management). In the old days, most process innovations were developed in isolation, by corporate staff, and passed down the hierarchy. Eventually we figured out that the best innovations came directly from the workers on the plant floor.

The same notion applies to developing countries. We need to get out of the ivory-towered institutions, and bring the capacity for knowledge discovery, sharing and application directly to where it’s needed most—in the poor, remote villages. Recent breakthroughs in grid computing, wireless connectivity and other supporting technologies will make that not only possible, but also affordable.

With the right infrastructure in place, we will begin to see true global knowledge transfer. Knowledge created in the developed world will be adapted and shared locally in poor countries. At the same time, empowered by technology and a burning hunger for learning, the billion minds of Africa will push new knowledge back out. That will help us tackle global Epoch III challenges, such as making the transition from fossil fuels to renewable resources, and dealing with the creation and sharing of new knowledge on a massive scale.

The current epoch is characterized by the mass migration of human knowledge back to its point of origin. We will have come full circle, back to a single human civilization, with no limits on our capacity for discovery.

Whatever your role, whether you are in the government, commercial or non-profit sector, you should be looking to Africa for growth opportunities of all types: business and entrepreneurship, social, educational, spiritual and cultural. Stay tuned. A true renaissance is in the making. You won’t want to miss it.


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