On 16 November, Stefan Dercon from Oxford University gave a lecture on “Pathways for Inclusive Growth in the Digital Age” for the ID Department’s Cutting Edge Issues in Development lecture series. Read about what two of the Department’s students took away from his lecture.
The fourth industrial revolution is the buzz-word of the decade. Here we are, living it, breathing it, talking about it over and over, without truly knowing what it means. The economist Stefan Dercon offered us some clarity at another exciting Cutting Edge Issues lecture today. The typical talk on the impact of technologies on the world is usually either skewed towards an apocalyptic “I,Robot”-styled vision, or towards an idyllic “Wakanda”-styled world. Mr Dercon did mention Wakanda, but he clearly didn’t lean on any of the two sides. He came to the stage with a refreshing middle-ground perspective by mentioning that technology’s impact does not have to be assessed from a place of fear of either one scenario, but rather with the assumption that whilst technology is not a silver bullet for development it can be a tool for empowerment. Mr Dercon continued his talk with constant consideration of the inevitable drastic changes that technologies will bring to our economies, but these were never strong enough to overpower his positive outlook on the future.
As the future of work is at the top of all agendas concerning technological developments, Mr Dercon made his personal standpoint very clear, “it’s not simply about substituting labour”. He delivered his talk emphasizing the central role of the continuous quest for efficiency, thereby shaping the discourse on ‘machine vs. man’, to how machines can enhance peoples’ productivity and unused potential. In this light, Mr Dercon sees the growing role of different technological sectors as a pivotal opportunity for developing countries, especially in Africa. As Asia took advantage of the third industrial revolution to catch up to the West, and even outcompete western tech start-ups, such as the Indonesian Go Jek did with Uber, Africa still lags long behind. After having missed out on the first and second industrial revolutions due to the extensive roots of colonialism into African political economy, missing out on the third was the critical juncture that differentiated the development destinies of Africa and Asia. Hence, maybe, the fourth would be one more chance for at least some African countries to latch onto.
In this regard, Dercon was extremely optimistic. Although he admitted he could not foresee a continent-wide development spring brought about by the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution, he does feel like some countries, especially Rwanda, are looking promising. He sees in some African countries the same potential as their counterparts in South-East Asia, where the informal sector takes up huge chunks of the total economy of the country and it is exactly those in it that have been empowered by technology. A man on a bike can now capitalize on riding it to customers waiting for food from street markets registered on an online service to be delivered to them, all contained in a wonderful technology we call app. The main point here is that these technologies are all around us and this revolution will and is happening; therefore, the best chance for Africa’s success in thriving in it depends on its ability to govern its own domestic tech space without overreliance on western intelligence that could further extend the core-periphery relationship in place. Africa has a chance, but is it able and ready to independently grow?
Sofia Galanek is currently an MSc Development Management student. She previously studied International Relations at King’s College London with a focus on East Asia and Latin America, where she wrote about sustainable development in Brazil and its trade patterns with China.
When I first read the title of Stefan Dercon’s presentation, Don’t Panic, Prepare: Pathways for Inclusive Growth in the Digital Age, I was a little weary about the impending technical and historical examples and arguments I assumed would take up the next two hours. I was surprised, however, to hear Dercon start his presentation by saying that up until about a year ago, he himself didn’t think technology was important and was late to join the smartphone trend. I was intrigued to hear how the rest of his presentation would unfold.
Over the course of his lecture, Dercon managed to cover a few different sub-topics and did so in very interesting ways. I would say that out of many of our past speakers, Dercon really took home the gold in his enthusiasm and ability to engage with his audience.
To start, he provided the audience with a historical framework to better understand what the 4th Industrial Revolution was, which was not only useful, but coincidentally personally relevant. As part of our program, students have the option to work on consulting projects throughout the year and earlier that day, some of the groups presented their initial project plans to their classmates, and one group actually introduced the concept of the 4th Industrial Revolution as it was relevant to their project. It was a very encouraging feeling to be listening to an esteemed guest lecturer elaborate on a topic that my peers had not only just introduced me to, but would also be spending many of their personal hours learning about and working with.
Secondly, in a style that personally suited me, Dercon used various examples to highlight his point. When discussing three types of cost reduction and their related impacts on technology, he started from the days of the Spinning Jenny and worked his way to Kiva, Mpesa, and Siemens by reusing the same table with updated examples for each subsequent level of example. He tied together the reduction of cost related to producing goods/services with the cost of exchanging goods/services/information and the cost of networking and organization in a way that was organized and interesting- a feat that is not easy to do, especially at 5pm on a Friday!
Lastly, and possibly one of the audience’s favourite topics, was analogizing good technological implementation with development to the fictional city of Wakanda. What could have been a cheesy and superficial comparison, was actually a well substantiated and helpful example of ways to include both technological advancements with human connection to create modern and developed societies.
Stefan Dercon definitely gave a presentation about Pathways for Inclusive Growth in the Digital Age, and he did so by practicing what he preached: including and engaging his audience and illustrating his points with media and technology.
Janani Sundaresan is pursuing an MSc in Health and International Development this year and is a 4th year medical student from Texas, USA. Her interests are in learning more about how poverty and inequality affect health in low middle income countries.
IMPORTANT CHANGE: This Friday, 23 November, it will be Prof Duncan Green of the International Development Department and Oxfam giving a lecture instead of Owen Barder. He will discuss his book How Change Happens, with a special focus on how power analysis and systems thinking enhance our ability both to understand and influence social and political change. The lecture will be held from 4 to 6pm in the Sheikh Zayed Theatre in the New Academic Building at the LSE. External guests should contact S.M.Neuenschwander@lse.ac.uk to reserve a seat.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.