The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

Digital information technology has reshaped our lives, the way we communicate, and our production systems. However, it has not yet fulfilled its promise of peace, justice and human dignity. In a world where we see so much progress, why are we still witnessing the repression of citizens, rising inequality and the destruction of natural ecosystems? The model of infinite growth adopted around the world is unsustainable and has generated the greatest inequality. We must rethink technology, not as an end in itself, but as a tool that assists in redefining the economy. For this, we need a revolution of values, where new technology becomes the bedrock for a solidarity economy, and results in the development of new public commons.

We live in the digital age. Information technology has reshaped our lives, the way we communicate, and our production systems. Now robotics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence may allow us to leapfrog old infrastructure and technological choices, and fulfil the promise made by digital technology at the start of the millennium: a promise to future generations that they could live in a world based on peace, justice and human dignity.

But are we making the right choices? Our world faces an ecological emergency. We currently use the resources of 1.5 planets every year, but if we all had to live like Americans, we would need 4 planets. We cannot continue the growth paradigm that just measures GDP and ignores the value of billions of people who live sustainably in communities around the world. 

Infinite growth is an unsustainable model that runs contrary to the natural cycles of Nature. This growth paradigm holds the greatest risk for humanity. Already, 80% of forests have been eradicated, a third of our arable land is poisoned with chemicals used in industrial agriculture, and much of the large coral reefs have been destroyed by pollution. This growth ideology has also generated the greatest inequality, with 1% of the global population owning more wealth than the remaining 99% – and the richest 62 individuals owning more than the bottom 50%. 

What should we do? In the mid-Nineties, sub-Saharan Africa had fewer phones than the city of New York. Working together, African Ministers developed a policy framework that gave investors certainty and predictability, and harmonised the use of the radio spectrum. This led Africa to become one of the fastest growing telecommunication markets in the world. 

Today, millions of previously unbanked people, especially in East Africa, have access to mobile banking. Just like in telecommunications, the continent leapfrogged directly from analogue to digital technology. With political will, we can do the same in every sector. On a continent with an average of 300 days of sunlight per year, harnessing solar energy means potential for millions of jobs and many successful entrepreneurial ventures. Renewables could empower communities to develop new assets from which they could gain revenue – at a lower cost than the old technologies. 

A crucial part of this transformation will be to empower citizens through better access to information. Using exam and school location data, the NGO Twaweza has developed an application, ‘Find My School’, that the citizens of Kenya can use to check the relative performance of primary schools in the country. As a result, education quality, teacher performance and accountability are visibly transformed in the interests of the students and the country. A similar model allows Ethiopian coffee farmers to improve their bargaining power through the Ethiopian Coffee Exchange, an initiative set up by the Ethiopian Government. 

Technology must not drive the economy, but assist in redefining it.

There are many examples of youth activism on the right to good governance and democracy and against abuse of power and dictatorships. In North Africa, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, youth connected with social media took to the streets to show their power. Digital technology not only helped them to connect locally but, in a world where nation state boundaries are in many ways arbitrary, the world connected to their struggle, and acted in solidarity. 

The 2016 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, the most comprehensive open data index in Africa, measures the public goods that our Governments have an obligation to deliver to their citizens. The index measures a hundred indicators, ranging from health to education, and from economic opportunities to the rule of law. 

However, data from the Index reveals that over the past 10 years, overall governance improvement in Africa has been held back by a widespread deterioration in Safety and in the Rule of Law – affecting almost two-thirds of African citizens. In a world where big money and vested interests have captured governments and political parties, and where international conglomerates control more wealth than the nations’ citizens, we are exposed to abuse of power and the plundering of natural and mineral resources. In order to bring forward a genuine change, tools must be accessible to everyone – through proper design, appropriate costing, and education. When information transparency is standard, and when digital literacy is widespread, citizens are in a position to hold those in power accountable, whether in government, business, civil society or multi-lateral systems. 

Where do we go from here? In a world where we see so much progress in technology, why are we still witnessing the repression of citizens, rising inequality and the destruction of the natural ecosystems that bring us life in the first place? Could it be that ownership and control of technology, as well as access to it, still sits with political and economic elites? When 1 GB of data costs as much as 75% of the monthly poverty line income in many African countries, it is clear that an elite is controlling the digital revolution and that, yet again, many are being left behind. There is still a huge digital deficit in who has access to platforms. Internet penetration in Africa today is only 31%, as opposed to 53% in the rest of the world, and only 9% are using social media, limiting the capacity for coordinated collective action.

Maybe the real challenge of the digital revolution is to recalibrate the software in order to bring back the human values of service, compassion and solidarity, and to restore the balance between Mother Earth and ourselves. We must not look at technology as the answer, but rather as a tool. It must help us to bring about the collapse of human greed, not embody it. Technology must not drive the economy, but assist in redefining it. We must take the idea of the commons to the digital revolution. We must ensure new technologies are open source, and that they offer a space for all to participate, without centralised control. 

For this, we need a revolution of values, no matter what tools are being used. We need the technological revolution to drive a solidarity economy, based on the principles of sharing, peer learning and open source, an approach that will result in the development of new public commons. Technology is the birth-right of every human being. We cannot allow it to be appropriated in order to satisfy our generation’s selfishness and sense of grandeur. The premise for any future pursuit of justice is that global institutions play an active role in lifting the veil of secrecy, and that the new shape of global governance be built on open data platform.

Jay Naidoo

Jay Naidoo was the founding General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and served as a Minister in Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet. He is currently a trustee for Earthrise Trust, looking at new models of rural development and livelihoods. He sits on the board of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation that aims to support leadership and governance in Africa, and remains committed to social justice.