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Interview with keynote speaker Dr. Njeri Mwagiru

Njeri Mwagiru is a Senior Futurist at the Institute for Futures Research (IFR) at Stellenbosch University Business School in South Africa. Dr. Mwagiru’s work focuses on strengthening capabilities of individuals, organisations, and states in Africa to navigate complexity and uncertainty, and to realise long-term goals and visions for the continent. She will be a keynote speaker at this year’s eLearning Africa Conference in Kigali, Rwanda.

eLearning Africa (eLA): The last time we spoke with you was in October 2019 for the eLearning Africa Report. The headline for that interview was “Optimism with a dash of realism.” How much did you, in the course of your research, factor in the possibility of a pandemic?

Njeri Mwagiru:  As futurists, we have an approach to environmental scanning that includes what we call ‘weak signals’ (current information to foretell changes in the future). There is also an attempt to anticipate what we call ‘wildcards’ or ‘black swans’ –– these are high-impact events that aren’t really expected in the course of your daily run of events –– but are nonetheless something you factor in. Major occurrences like pandemics, civil wars, environmental disasters, and anything similarly cataclysmic might be included.

Having said this, I think there has indeed been learning lessons for the futures community. For example, even though we’ve anticipated events such as the pandemic – and there are actually studies going back to about the beginning of the 2000s when simulations were run across various contexts in preparation for an outbreak – we haven’t seen a concomitant uptick of the requisite preparedness measures. You see this in regard to the environmental crisis as well. It’s not so much a lack of insights. It’s more our short gaps in putting in place the responses that might mitigate some of these events and also ensure that our preparedness for these crises is as good as it can be.

eLA: How much has COVID-19 either bolstered or changed your work, your projections, the academic focus, looking ahead?

NM: Yes, I think it’s definitely been bolstered, and I will now work in terms of a broadly increased interest in futures thinking that anticipates preparedness. There’s been a span of scenarios that have been developed as a result of COVID-19.

Furthermore, due to the crisis, the public has shown interest in thinking whose focus is on long-term implications, which is great for us in that it offers an opportunity to open up conversations around alternative futures and multiple possibilities – and how we are preparing for them. On the other hand, I think the pandemic is also exposing ways in which change can be accelerated, which our community has seen as creating a need for our practice to be quietly located within current events and to make plausible predictions that can have relevant and sustainable impacts.

The uptake, for instance, in technology as a result of COVID-19 is showing ways in which imagined tech futures can quickly be accelerated and realised. Furthermore, as a long-term and future-thinking community, the question has arisen whether we have we contributed enough to shaping the kinds of society that these shifts will demand. The future has accelerated.

eLA: With technology, and specifically on the African continent in the African context, are you encouraged by what you have seen, or should we be more concerned about being left behind?

NM: I think it’s been encouraging because we’ve come to realise our interdependencies with other regions and the need to develop better self-reliance in case of eventualities like the shutdown of supply chains and the complication of logistics internationally due to the closure of borders. It has highlighted a range of gaps that we need to focus on.

COVID has put the spotlight on the importance of this kind of integration drive across the continent. It’s also mobilised a community response: I can say from our higher education vantage point that a lot of universities and institutions have put their best foot forward in terms of ensuring that students in difficult communities or outside of bandwidth have the requisite connection tools, the devices needed to continue their learning remotely. So it’s mobilised us more to address our challenges. However, I think it’s also shown that we need to be more focused in terms of some of these advancements.

The vaccine conversation is a good one. We need to ensure that our scientific and technological advancements are up to par for the kinds of crises that we anticipate. We shouldn’t be overly reliant on other regions to bail us out, which would result in geopolitical complications.

So I think the pandemic has highlighted the challenges, and it has shown how we can pull together to address these challenges. However, it has also really placed an emphasis on the fact that there are some critical areas that require attention – science and tech advancements in particular.

eLA: In January of 2020, you released the African Futures Vol 5 (02) report just before the world essentially went into the first lockdown period. To quote from your report, you cited UNESCO as follows: “sub-Saharan Africa is still the region with the highest out-of-school rates across primary and secondary schools, a staggering 97.5 million children between the ages of six and seventeen.” Of course, this 2019 statistic will have increased as a direct result of the pandemic.

The World Bank reported at the end 2021 that the pandemic could drive up learning poverty (the share of ten year olds who cannot read a basic text) to around 70% in low and middle-income countries.

How do you remain optimistic in this period of challenge, during which we’re seeing large numbers of children, particularly in Africa, who haven’t been back to a classroom since the start of the pandemic?

NM: I think you highlight some very important statistics. The pandemic has actually reversed up to two-and-a-half decades of social-development progress on the continent. In 2018/2019, six of the fastest-growing economies were in Africa. By 2020/2021, this figure had halved.

The schooling situation is just one indication of the impacts on lives and livelihoods.

My optimism comes from a realisation that despite these challenges, our opportunities remain and that the challenges have virtually lit a fire in our response mechanisms. We’ve seen the ways in which governments have been able to quickly mobilise social safety nets and create response measures that mitigate, as far as possible, the impacts of COVID. We have also come to understand the ways we can use these kinds of responses to confront other challenges as well.

I also think the increase in social uprisings and protests across different contexts internationally is a positive signal that communities and citizens themselves are becoming aware of their agency. The point is not to remove emphasis from the immense challenges that are facing us, but to recognize that these challenges are also placing emphasis on our agency to respond. We’re seeing mobilisation from these communities from the ground up in terms of demanding the kinds of changes that they need to see, and that they believe can actually be realised, given what has been witnessed in the context of COVID-19.

eLA: When we last spoke, a major theme that emerged in the conversation was what you referred to as The Fifth Industrial Revolution (5IR) –– a human-centred approach. Considering what has taken place in the two years since that conversation, is it still your view that this is where we are headed?

NM: Yes, I do see that moving ahead. Let me take it back to my comment about the pandemic accelerating tech uptake. I think we’ve seen the ways in which the tech era is being accelerated. On the one hand, we’ve seen how remote working has highlighted issues of well-being, so people are realising that there’s actually a way to better integrate work with our overall livelihoods.

In a similar vein, people have also realised that there is a need to avoid technology’s pervasive element. This can be observed in the ways in which legislation and consumers have pushed back against some tech “advances” that tend to instrumentalise people, or ignore people all together, so there’s certainly a new type of engagement with tech that increasingly demonstrates preferences.

We’re also seeing these parameters being placed more frequently on the tech world as well. My feeling is that they speak to what we’re referring to as the Fifth Industrial Revolution, which is to see a human agency in tech advancements. Take AI, big data, and the Internet of Things, which have become the face of the 4IR digital tech era. Rather than having this suite of trends take over our world, the trend in the 5IR is to integrate them in a more synergistic way, a more harmonious way that allows us to utilise technology to address our critical challenges.

While it calls for a skills revolution and for us to readjust how we engage ourselves, it simultaneously focuses more on innovation, creativity, and human agency. I would contend that COVID-19 has shown that, with the increase in technology uptake, there has also been an expansion of the discourse around the 5IR. Questions have been raised as to where human agency lies in this tech world and the extent to which the tech world is responsible to attempt to attain and maintain the highest ideals of human agency in terms of privacy, facilitating better health, increased well-being, helping to create integrated societies rather than divisive ones, etc. I think our scanning and observation of 5IR will continue as we continue to track these unfolding tech advances.

eLA: Considering the digital divide that exists, is the agency that we have in the African context equal to the agency of those in more technologically advanced contexts?

NM: In my view, definitely. I actually think the strongest signals of 5IR’s emergence is on our continent because we’re seeing that our home-grown technological advancements tend to respond to the social context and the challenges within the social context –– fintech, agribusiness –– it’s the use of technology to address challenges in terms of access to market trading.

Another phenomenon is the expansion of communications across disparate groups that has arisen in the face of lacking infrastructure and poor transport and logistics. The use of technology is allowing these rural communities to have better access to international and global communities.

Precisely because of the digital divide, African communities have had to be particularly critical about what types of tech are available to them and how to use them in the way that best improves their productivity, their well-being, and their livelihoods. It’s about putting people at the centre of technological innovations, where our communities are using tech to innovate and to resolve community and local challenges.

eLA: You’re going to Kigali to take part in the eLearning Africa conference this May. What are you hoping to share with the audience there?

NM: I’m hoping to share a futures perspective and to open the conversation around what we imagine the best futures might be in terms of education, specifically the education on the continent.

I would want to contribute to that mostly in terms of opening the discourse around different possibilities, but also in regard to the steps we would need to take to realise the possibilities that we prefer. I think we have a lot of opportunity now, with everything that has been opened up by the crisis, to really look at some of our fundamental assumptions about what we think is possible. However, we also need to revisit our capabilities, our capacities, and what we think we can actually do. I think it’s an exciting time to explore some of these questions.

eLgA: What do you hope to find in Rwanda?

Njeri Mwagiru: I hope to find a meeting of lot of diverse perspectives that will allow something new to come together and give birth to new ideas and empower them to emerge.

Njeri Mwagiru will deliver her keynote address in the Opening Plenary on Thursday, 12 May and will partake in the closing debate on Friday afternoon with the motion: “This House believes Africa urgently needs an African education model.”

One Comment

  1. Alex Mwakikoti

    Excellent interview and great insight of the future elearning for Africa. It will be interesting if the discussion on education in Africa will include the African philosophical projection for graduates devoid of the traditional or western/colonial reasons. That is, how do we address issues related to employment (or self-employment) to Africans who are continually completing degrees (both through e-learning as well as the traditional process).

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