Vintage Osinbajo on the digital economy – Niyi Akinnaso

No Comments » July 11th, 2016 posted by // Categories: Other Peoples' Essays


Vintage Osinbajo on the digital economy

Thinking with You    Niyi Akinnaso,

Elizade University, tucked away in the woods of Ilara-Mokin, is a serene 21st century university campus, reminiscent of some elite private universities I know in the United States. It was more than a suitable location for Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s lecture last Friday, July 8, 2016. For about 40 minutes, he kept his audience captive with a Powerpoint presentation, enlivened with images, on a topic, which many at first thought was going to be another version of the administration’s change agenda.

In no time, however, it was clear that the title of his lecture, “The future is here sooner than we thought” was about another kind of change – the change from the goods economy to the services economy, spurned by recent developments in digital computing, communications technology, and the Internet platform. In example after example, Osinbajo illustrated with illuminating images a broad range of economic activities made possible by these technologies and the various software applications associated with them.

One technological development Osinbajo talked excitedly about is the Internet of things. It is Samsung’s attempt to create a network of physical objects and devices and the internet connectivity that enables them to “talk” to one another as they collect and exchange data. The internet of things is being described as the infrastructure of the information society. With this kind of infrastructure, you can use your phone, even when you are miles away from home, to lock your door and turn off or on appliances. The goal is to create a more direct integration of the physical world into computer-based systems, hoping that such an infrastructure will improve efficiency and spurn economic benefits.

Drawing upon examples from various sources, including social media, robotics, drone technology, digital printing, and the Internet of things, Osinbajo examined the social, cultural, political, and economic implications of recent developments in the digital revolution. He also noted the impact of computer applications and communications technologies on developments in medicine and the auto industry.

Osinbajo highlighted several major implications of these developments for Nigeria, including labour losses as more and more technology is deployed in the workplace; the displacement of oil as the mainstay of the economy; and the need for Nigerians to embrace technology and become multi-skilled.

True, these technologies offer endless possibilities for wealth creation, they have disruptive effects on job creation. Robots and unmanned drones are particularly notorious for displacing human employees. Compare, for example, the fight against ISIS by the United States and the fight against Boko Haram in Nigeria. The US relies primarily on unmanned drones, while Nigeria relies on ground troops. By the time Nigeria is digitally prepared enough to adopt war drones, reliance on troops for fighting insurgents will reduce drastically.

A more poignant example  of job losses in a digital economy is offered by the banking industry. Banks are cutting down on employees due partly to the more widespread use of the ATMs and partly to the adoption of online banking. Over time, as these digital platforms penetrate a larger pool of customers, fewer and fewer hands will be needed behind the banking floor counters. For quite some time now, auto industries and other manufacturing outfits have been losing workers to robots and other automated devices.

Another implication for Nigeria is the developing obsolescence of fossil fuel due to the use of computer technology to develop alternative sources of energy. Already, many foreign buyers of Nigerian oil have been investing heavily in alternative sources of energy, which has encouraged the production of more and more electronic cars. With the price of oil hitting historic lows this year, reduced demand can only complicate matters for an already distressed economy.

Yet another implication is for Nigerians to acquire multiple skills in order to be able to cope with the demands of the digital economy. Today’s graduates, Osinbajo advised, should be “versatile operators” and not simply mono-skilled. It is not enough to be a graduate of economics, accountancy, international relations, or mass communication. To be gainfully employed and make money in modern society, graduates must acquire IT skills and share in a network of creative peers that could benefit from the IT value chain. He gave several examples of young Nigerians, including an assistant in his office, who are versatile enough in the digital economy as to be able to make a handsome living in it.

These developments must be put in historical perspective. Up to the 1970s, those who controlled the world, as it were, were owners of physical capital, that is, factory and land owners. It was the age of who owns what. Subsequently, those who controlled knowledge and information began to take over. By the end of the 20th century, the information age had fully arrived, with information experts, innovators, and disseminators of information, controlling not just information and knowledge but also our view of the world. We had entered the age of who knows what. People like Ted Turner of the CNN, Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple, Mike Zuckerberg of Facebook, and the owners of Time Warner, Inc. took over the stage, creating or using computer software and applications to benefit the world, while also making plenty of money in the process.

The question is: What is the Federal Government doing to make Nigerians creators and not just consumers of knowledge and information? Osinbajo indicated that the current budget provides for the creation of technology and innovation hubs, beginning with two super hubs in Abuja and Lagos and one each in the six geopolitical zones, to be fully equipped in partnership with technology companies. In addition, 50 top innovative start-ups would be invited to meet with major technology and innovation companies as well as collaborate with the Federal Government. Finally, a programme is underway that would train up to 100,000 software developers, hardware service professionals, animators, graphic artists, and others.

The problem with facilities, such as the technology hubs, and capacity building programmes like the ones proposed is their monopoly by the elite and their children. Efforts should be made to make such facilities widely accessible. It even could have been more helpful if some of the training centres were located in some federal and state universities, where would-be graduates will benefit from the experience.

Surprisingly, the substance of Osinbajo’s lecture was not covered in the dailies on Monday. Instead, the focus was on his response to the comment about the need for restructuring the country made by the Ondo State Governor, Dr. Olusegun Mimiko. Citing Britain’s recent vote to exit the European Union, Mimiko argued that restructuring the country along the lines suggested in the 2014 National Conference Report would go a long way in dousing the agitations for autonomy and self-determination by various groups. He also raised questions about the lopsidedness in resource allocation in favour of the Federal Government.

Responding, Osinbajo appealed to the elite to be careful about discourses on ethnicity, religion, and region, as such discourses have a way of reifying cleavages and differences. He suggested that the Niger Delta Avengers is fighting for selfish interest rather than self-determination. Billions of naira, he added, had been allocated to the Niger Delta, without appreciable signs of improvement in the region. It would appear, he implied, that the NDA was fighting for its own share. My question to the Vice President is simple: What sort of intelligence do we have that could not figure out the sponsors of the NDA and their motivation?

As for resource allocation, Osinbajo was blunt: Giving a larger share to states and local governments will make no difference “because we are not earning enough from oil and taxes anymore”. It is high time the economy was diversified, he concluded, focusing, for a start, on agriculture.

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