Automation: What I saw in Stockholm and my Growing Fear for Africa

At the twilight of my month-long design residency in Sweden, last July, I took out time to meet with an old friend in Stockholm. We were course mates at design school, and had agreed to have dinner that evening at an Italian restaurant in commemoration of our days in Florence. We met at the campus of the Royal Institute of Arts at Skeppsholmen and strolled from there to Stockholm's medieval downtown, Gamla Stan. We leisurely wove through Gamla Stan's labyrinth of cobble-stoned streets, and narrow alleys for at least half an hour, before we spotted an Italian restaurant. Once we entered the restaurant, the cashier issued each of us a plastic chip card that looked just like EMV cards, but bore only the insignia of the restaurant on them. The place was packed to the rafters and we had to wait in line to get a free table. After waiting for close to five minutes, we eventually found a vacant table. I surveyed the crowd of diners again, and couldn’t help wondering how hard the waiters there worked.

When it was time to order food, I walked up to the chef at the service counter, and was issued a contraption that looked like a covered 'saucer'; my first impulse was to take the 'saucer' back to my table and eat the appetiser inside it, then I got confused when the the chef entered my order into his computer and asked me to place the issued plastic card on top of the 'saucer', it gave out a faint beep, and he said I could go back to my seat, and that I would be notified as soon my order was ready. I went back to my seat and sat down, after which my friend who had been keeping vigil over our table left to place her order. I looked around and observed that most people had my kind of small 'saucers' on their tables as well, but none of them made any attempt to open or even eat out of them, so I laid mine gently on the table and went about other businesses, as I waited for my meal to be sent in. I got busy with one of my favourite past times - mental design critique. I was seizing up the decor and spatial layout of the restaurant; taking mental notes, of what I liked and what I would have done differently. I was deeply engrossed in my sanctimonious reverie, when the 'saucer' started vibrating, and emitting an intermittent glow of red light. It was the chef buzzing me-my meal was ready. I looked at the buzzing 'saucer' again, and then smiled ashamedly at the thought of almost ripping apart a 'harmless' device in search of a freebie. I waited for my friend to get back, after which I went for my food.

When I got back, I asked my friend what she thought about the 'saucer’. She smiled, and went on to inform me that Near Field Communication (NFC) devices like the one we were given, are becoming a common feature in restaurants these days-as most Scandinavian businesses are turning to technology to save cost on manpower; and that, the 'saucer' effectively eliminates the need to have an army of waiters in a large restaurant like the one we were at. I turned this over in my head for a while and agreed that it was truly an ingenious innovation, considering that the Scandinavia has one of the most generous pay packages in the world for blue collar workers, hence by this supposedly simple technology, the restaurant could have made savings on at least half a dozen waiters at just one of its outlets. Then for a moment, I couldn’t help imagining the possibility of this technology being introduced at my favourite restaurant back home in Abuja. And I was instantly startled by this juxtaposition, because, I kept wondering which of my waiter-friends would be asked to go home; all the guys, whose names I now know, and whose good-natured disposition keep me going back even when I thought the vegetable soup there, no longer tasted as good as I knew it to. This unsettled me for quite a while; because I suddenly realized that ingenious technologies like this had the potential to further enlarge the well over 'one-hundred million-man strong' army of the unemployed, across Africa and other developing and emerging economies in the global south.

I imagined these technologies were symptomatic of a very unsettling future for economies in Africa, especially with the ballooning global rate of unemployment which according to ILO’s World Employment and Social Outlook – Trends 2016, is expected to rise by as much as 2.3 million in 2016 and by a further 1.1million in 2017, which will eventually bring the number of global unemployed to about 200 million in the next couple of years (WESO 2016). These projections by ILO does not even take into account the number people who are underemployed, or those grumblingly employed at poorly paid jobs they would rather not do, if they had a choice.

I am even more frightened by the plausibility of job automation in Africa because, most countries in Africa have wholeheartedly embraced globalization. Especially as evident by the attendant successes of Africa’s home-grown capitalists, all of whom have acquired the shrewd business acumen of their opposite numbers in the west, and the accompanying greed that goes with it. This group will have no qualms adopting these technologies if placed within their reach.

In spite of how much technology has done for the growth of African economies, I still believe that rather than the blanket adoption of all new technologies and innovations, Africa must allow it local sociocultural and socioeconomic realities dictate how much it’s economies evolve with it. This might not be the most profitable thing to do for most businessmen and women, but it is without doubt, the right thing to do. This is because, the gulf between the rich and the poor across the continent is already too wide as it is, and Africa must do all that it can, not to deepen the ravine too.

Africa must acknowledge that this widening gulf isn’t infinitely elastic, and at its breaking point, the continent will be confronted with the appropriate repercussions. And that the continued widening of the wealth gap and the accompanying kerfuffle will eventually set the stage for widespread social unrest that will in due course consume all the fortunes built with indifference to the plight of the larger populace. This is even more pertinent considering that most countries in Africa have barely enjoyed up to five decades of uninterrupted political stability. Consequently, all the pre-existing socio-political faultlines are still quite visible in our polity; hence too many jobless people on the street, poses a real and imminent danger for the generality of the citizenry. Therefore, I believe is in the overall interest of the continent, that it makes a conscious decision well in advance, to skip every technology that upsets the prevailing ersatz peace in its communities; so as to guarantee in the long run, the right social climate for the continued existence of its local businesses.