Disrupting the Default: Must it fall under “development” if the geography is Africa?

By | April 11, 2021

Where does it say that if the geography of the study or innovation or project is in Africa then it must be ‘development’? Is it Tuesday, that it must be Belgium? Will the ‘tyranny of dominant logic’ continue to hold us in thrall regardless of all the massive changes overtaking our world today; including the way connectivity and internetworking has brought us closer to peoples from far away as they share their lives and hopes and dreams on the small screen?

As I continue my literature review on the themes of participation in shaping one’s own working environment, and the overlooked integration of mobile telephony into the daily lives of the invisible masses, I cannot help but notice that regardless of the theme or topic being discussed, if its Africa it must be lumped under development.

Does the African not want to think in the designerly way? Must her acquisition of AI knowledge through an online course be considered capacity building while Nokia’s Chairman gets the accolades for doing the same? Isn’t he being empowered to make informed decisions on investments and product development directions as much as the young woman from Africa is being ’empowered’ by a ‘free online course’ on ‘artificial intelligence’?

It is to Africa’s scholars and thinkers I turn to in order to understand these issues better. In their day, they’ve referred to it as the colonization of the mind, given the imposition of language, customs, religion, et al upon the colonized African.  In 2021, I refuse to fall into the trap of clustering these questions under the umbrella category of ‘decolonization’; twin sister to ‘development’ – a lot of prose and poetry is written, but few clear processes, methods, or analytical frameworks for identifying barriers and lowering them for real world transformation and innovation.

It should go without saying that this was one of the reasons for choosing my adopted homeland to relocate to from San Fransisco and Singapore more than a decade ago. There’s a rather unique legacy in mindset, worldview, and collective history. Finland has never had colonies and instead is one of the rare Northern/Western European countries to have an Independence Day. If it wasn’t the Russian duchifying the poor Finnish peasant, it was the Swedes encroaching across the waters for centuries.

Instead, I turn to management and organization theory, pointing to the late business school professor, Dr. CK Prahalad’s conceptualization of ‘dominant logic’. Memorably, he has said, that it is the tyranny of dominant logic that socializes us to accept that development only flows one way; or that innovation emerges only from the luxurious work spaces of the air-conditioned global North.

Throwing off the yoke of dominant logic is more than just chasing the people out, as any Indian, Kenyan, or Zimbabwean will inform you. Its more critical to learn to question the default settings of one’s own mental models; education system; and the attendent plethora of implicit and tacit assumptions that accompany like jongleurs and fishwives did a walking army.

My rejection of this default setting of development if its Africa arises from my refusal to accept the criminalization of the informal economy by the way its labeled and categorized – its definitely not skulking in the shadows of African cities and villages even if it might be in the OECD’s tax havens. And my very public rebuttal of the ‘vulnerable, marginalized woman selling by the side of the road’ so favoured by livelihood strategists who’d never dream of using the same labels for their local Deliveroo guy or hot dog stand.

Reframing the problem space unleashes whole new opportunities – something that’s been long established in the literature of innovation and design. This is what I’m suggesting here when it comes to the way we categorize and consider the operating environment and economic ecosystems in their African landscape, be it rural or urban.

My recent review of Weick’s work on the role of words and text in enabling sensemaking for transformation and change only serves to underscore my belief in the intangible power of keywords and taxonomy to restrict or unleash new directions for creativity and innovation.

Until we divest ourselves from this default setting we’ll never break out of the box of cookie cutter approaches to product development and solution design – be it a service or business model or payment plan – that caters to the African’s long ignored contextual needs. Innovation does not come with citations.

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