20 October 2011 – The Green Building Council of South Africa will hold its annual convention this month – 26 to 28 October in Capetown. Following is an article based on a presentation that Elena Bondareva will deliver at the convention on some of the challenges and opportunities that confront both the African continent and the worldwide community.

Today, the rate of change is accelerating. No major project or organisation is immune from the consequences. We need to explore the trends that are shaping tomorrow, how they can be leveraged to position our projects for the greatest success, and identify strategic risks that may can catch us out. The business model paradigm of the 20th Century is under threat.

Africa is uniquely positioned to take advantage of new trends. Opportunities emerging due to new technologies and innovations are largely untapped. The trends that are driving these changes, not even mentioning their impacts, remain largely ambiguous to most of us.

There is an unprecedented opportunity to gain insight into these trends, and into the types of innovations that they can make possible.

The Green Building Council of South Africa Annual Convention session (to be provided by Thinc Beyond) will provide a 360-degree perspective on the trends that are set to impact on how we live, work and play; that are likely to disrupt business, for good and for bad. And it will illustrate how to mine the imminent structural change for opportunities for your career, projects, or organisation.

The possibility for prosperity is a matter of perspective. On one hand, economic growth, the emergence of African entrepreneurs and technological advances are examples of positive change. On the other hand, generational poverty, political corruption and social upheaval continue to hinder progress. Despite much aid and advice, these long standing issues remain. It is time to think outside the square and ask: can innovation help us leapfrog these issues, rather than taking them head-on? Can it drive sustainable prosperity?

Let’s take a closer look through the prism of some of the major “pain points’”of the African continent.

The current stress on the ailing infrastructure in Africa is set to be exacerbated by both a growing population and the rapid migration of poor rural citizens to urban centres. The provision of housing, food, water and transport for millions of new urban residents is one of the great challenges of the 21st Century. The outlook is bleak, according to the World Bank, as Africa’s current annual spending on roads, public housing, schools and hospitals is $20 billion dollars short of what is required.

But do we need $20 billion spent on roads and buildings to prosper?

Rather than assuming this is merely a funding challenge, we see this as an innovation challenge. While a lack of infrastructure is an issue, it should also been seen as an opportunity. Key global trends offer the African continent opportunity for competitive advantage. For example, there are 1.2 billion people across the world that are no longer working in traditional office spaces, but are actively mobile, requiring access only to multi-media spaces.

Changing Places [EB1] is the name we have given the megatrend that represents an opportunity for Africa to build from scratch offices suited to employees of the 21st Century, gaining ground on the developed nations stuck with long term investments in infrastructure assets that are losing value. So what if we challenge why we move people and “stuff” across the  land, and reduce our dependence on costly infrastructure? If we don’t land on the stars, we might at least arrive at the next-generation infrastructure solutions.

Urban planning
Can innovative forms of urban planning radically reduce resource use?

Urban sprawl and cavernous shopping malls are increasingly being viewed as a major planning failure in the developed world. As costs of transport skyrocket due to peak oil and online shopping expands, cars may cease to be the primary mode of transport in cities, and retail shops may downsize, or at least reinvent themselves.

Australian retailers recorded their worst retail sales in 50 years in 2010 as 15 per cent of sales shifted online. Vast department stores are becoming a major liability as the internet has put into question the value of physical buildings as a point of sale.

Sustainable, mixed-use precincts are being developed in Tatu City near Nairobi, which include residential, recreational and commercial buildings all within walking distance. Innovative urban planning has the potential to reduce resource inputs and yield more resilient communities in the face of growing financial pressures on transport. And if we can reduce resource dependence, perhaps fewer communities will feel forced into the cycle of poverty by selling off their natural resources.

Can technological innovation make traditional and costly forms of infrastructure obsolete?

World Bank estimates on the need for huge investments in infrastructure are based on traditional thinking about the nature of infrastructure. Where the lack of telecommunications infrastructure was for decades an impediment to trade and networking, it has left Africa in a beneficial position. Unlike developed nations which are heirs to legacy systems such as landline telecommunications, Africa can not only avoid costly investments in  telecommunications infrastructure, but they can begin to reposition their businesses using mobile technologies and business processes that require neither formal office spaces nor storage. While Australia is spending $40 billion dollars to upgrade its broadband cable network, Africa is set to leapfrog this process and embark on operationalising the LTE mobile network[EB2] , which is capable of rivalling fixed line connections.

If leapfrogging is possible, is this the right time to take bold steps towards a radically improved future?

The pessimistic view of Africa
Africa holds a subaltern position for many in the local and global community. Foreign powers have created the perception that the vast human, social and natural resources of this continent are little more than a commodity.

More recently, many experts are viewing the current spike in foreign investment as phase II of the Scramble for Africa. For example, in 2010, prime agricultural land the size of Spain and Portugal combined was  either leased or purchased by countries from Asia, the Middle East and Europe, due to their own food security issues. While Ethiopia was unable to feed the millions of its malnourished citizens within its border, it exported $100 million dollars of food to Saudi Arabia.

Even the huge investments in aid and infrastructure by China are viewed with scepticism about the benefits it will have for African population. This all combines to create the assumption that change can only be slow and result, at best, in merely another set of problems to be overcome later.

The optimistic view
A new perception of Africa is emerging. The convergence of new technologies and the rise of a young creative class in Africa has led to globally significant innovations. Individuals and organisations have overcome persistent problems by thinking differently about the possibilities that new technologies offer. Mobile internet banking using mobile phones and scanners are a world first that have allowed access to microcredit for thousands of rural Africans.

South Africa was the first nation to develop and implement 3G technology, which they have gone on to sell to the rest of the world. Collaboration between farmers have allowed for more precise farming methods that are saving water and fertiliser use.

These are but a few examples, and this is only just the beginning. The number of mobile phone subscriptions in Africa is set to pass the one billion mark by 2020, and 100 per cent coverage across the continent.

New industries are emerging within Africa that are taking advantage of the growth of this new communications medium and in turn changing the nature of business. Companies such as Econet, the Zimbabwean telecommunications firm, have seen incredible growth by providing online and mobile products and services, connecting 100,000 customers to broadband internet within the first week of opening business. Africans are starting to show what is possible when they take their opportunities.

What will the changes underway today make possible? What problems, intrinsic to our lives now – worldwide – will simply cease to exist when these changes occur?

And how do we learn from examples around the world to participate in envisioning and creating a future that is radically more prosperous than what we have experienced in the past?

The GBCSA Convention 2011 will explore these questions in detail.

Whilst there are many ways to slice a cake, one can observe over 100 distinct trends shaping our operating environment and affecting business, for better or for worse. The ones above are but a fraction of what is driving change around the world. Projects, organisations and communities have an unprecedented opportunity to leverage these to position themselves for prosperity in the short and long term, to avoid obsolescence, and to have a great time being the most successful and competitive that they can be.

We cannot predict the future, but we can use trends to enable the process of identifying and pursuing previously untapped possibilities.  This future proofing.

Envisage what your organisation could look like in 2020 and leverage trends to  innovate your way there.

Elena Bondareva is the founder and principal of Thinc Beyond, part of the Thinc Group, which provides strategic consulting services to enable future-proofing of organisations in light of emerging trends. She will facilitate an interactive session at the GBCSA Convention 2011 on 28 October 2011.