Is the world ready for digital?

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I spoke in my last post about the need for 5G and, more importantly, the need for Nigeria to prepare for a digital future, today; the infrastructure, the groundwork, in fact, just the will of the powers that be, to actually want to nurture Nigeria into a digital entity. Understanding the longer term importance of this and how we need to think many more steps ahead, if we ever stand a chance of coming anywhere near to achieving our digital potential. It is, for me, an absolutely critical component of our future. It allows for multi-device usage, better all round access to the internet, faster and more efficient services where we can increase our online capabilities. We are living in an interconnected world, but through lack of network and accessibility, we are once again forcibly excluding people from being connected outside of their immediate physical circles, causing an imbalance down the digital value chain. Digital is supposed to be a leveller; without reliable access to digital networks, we’re seeing yet another division in Nigerian society.

5G will make Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Drone capabilities and Virtual Realities more real. The ability for your hologram to present a paper in Japan without travelling, feels very sci-fi and futuristic, but with what’s playing out at the moment in terms of global restrictions on travel and face-to-face interaction due to a flu pandemic, all of a sudden, the future seems to be knocking on [bashing down] our door, today.

That’s the promise of 5G. But what is the practical use of what we have on ground globally, before we even look at Nigeria? We are a global village now, so digital capability in just one aspect of the world, minimises the global potential of what digital can do, especially lower down the pyramid and at scale. Even in the so-called established world, how much of these technologies are being used by the masses? The short answer? Very few. But — we wait.

Is there enough installed capacity to cater for people as they join the digital fray and become active members of the global digital economy? It seems not. In a multi-device era; Laptop, TV, tablet, potentially 2 or 3 smartphones — per person, in a multi-person household, across work and entertainment [music, online gaming, content streaming] need to be accounted for in terms of adequate capacity, at the very least.

In just the last few weeks with the Coronavirus pandemic and the need for self-isolation, we’ve seen that as people move from working in the office to working from their homes, even the likes of Microsoft Teams have had challenges handling the huge uptake in usage. If a trillion-dollar company like Microsoft is struggling during this time, what other challenges are there that are inhibiting digital take up?

Now, some might say that shouting [screaming] out for 5G, even 4G, is too wildly optimistic for Nigeria as it stands today, where on a good day, the best we can hope for is a decent 3G signal. But — investing in digital is critical. Bringing millions more people onto the internet, and opening up a global village — it’s essentially part of a longer-term social currency. We know that better digital access will continue to change many tens of millions more lives in the coming years, through access to education, health, work opportunities and more, which is why we absolutely have to plan for a digital future; we know it will be embraced, but we of course have to exercise some element of patience for it to be widely adopted. But this doesn’t mean we can’t work towards it now.

This requires investment in infrastructure; a challenge in many parts of the world. Even in the UK, where you might assume access to 4G internet was universal, only this month the Government has had to pledge an additional £5billion to enhance coverage in rural areas. That’s the UK. What are we saying about cities outside, Lagos, Abuja?

This period, more than ever, has taught us all many valuable lessons regarding the need for entire societies to fully understand the importance of embracing digital. With the rapid and rising spread of Covid-19, companies around the world sent their workers away from the office, in a bid to keep the spread of the virus to a minimum. Hundreds of thousands of workers around the world packed up their laptops and headed home, to continue their work remotely [for as long as they have jobs — although that’s another discussion]. But the point is, they were able to maintain a semblance of normality and continuity with work because they had access to laptops, access to broadband at home. They had a choice. They are replacing board room meetings and team huddles with Zoom, Microsoft Hangouts, Slack… and more.

In contrast, in Nigeria, it seems that only really a handful of more progressive thinking technology companies have both instigated a work-from-home policy, and have the wherewithal to actually make it work in reality. Their staff work from laptops, and many of them already work remotely or aren’t tied to their desk 9–5, five days a week. They have already considered ways to ensure their staff have access to the internet at home, so their workforce can have flexibility. Sparkle was built in such a way, from the outset. Our entire ethos is based on freedom; so we built freedom and flexibility into our organisational structure and work culture. We practice exactly what we preach, and this is why I believe we are already able to protect ourselves against “Acts of God” such as pandemics and self isolation; we are nimble and we can move under pressure, from any corner of the world.

During this turbulent time, I have even seen Nigerian company leaders purchasing power banks in bulk [and in collaboration with other companies to keep unit costs down], in order to prepare for this new period of isolation. I really admired the ingenuity and swift action to mobilise a home-based work force. But this is really the very few; less than 1% of Nigerian businesses I would guess, who are embedding digital infrastructure into their work practices.

In stark contrast, I came across another company last week who now has to order 800 laptops, as well as figure out the logistics of staff working from home [internet / power] because they still rely on desktop working in the office. Work outside of the office, using digital means to power their workforce outside of the four walls of their office, had never penetrated their planning consciousness. Now they are on the backfoot.

And to be frank, even if all these companies were prepared in terms of laptop+access to internet+powerbank, I know for an absolute fact that there simply isn’t the capacity to deal with such an influx of new internet users working remotely. Even in the abroad, where broadband internet is bountiful, and unlimited data bundles are practically the norm, the networks are being squeezed like never before, the end result being that the likes of Netflix are to cut streaming quality in Europe, in order to maintain a relatively good service, whilst I saw that Disney+, due to launch in the UK next week, have put themselves on a self-imposed bandwidth diet of 25%, ahead of its launch. The same will, I’m sure, affect online gaming and other platforms where a robust network is required. And this is just for entertainment; not even for work.

But I digress; from just a 3–4 week period of global crisis and people retracting from day-to-day working society as we know it, it’s painfully evident that most organisations here aren’t ready to adapt to this new world. I’m hoping that through necessity, there will be a culture change at the top when it comes to planning and decision making, that then filters down through entire organisations, because everyone needs to understand culture and policy changes. Let me stress though, it’s not simply a case of purchasing a laptop and sending your staff home with a dongle and a powerbank. Again, when embracing the opportunities that digital allows us, we have to incorporate into traditional planning; security, BYD policies and more must be developed and instilled across all team members, so that you don’t inadvertently open your company up to security or data breaches. A lot of it will be education; what we can do to learn remote best practice, in terms of security and culture. A lot of this insight and learning will be found… that’s right…. on the internet. Networking permitting.

The saying necessity is the mother of invention has been playing on my mind this week, as I’ve seen how companies are scrambling to keep their businesses going whilst trying to implement appropriate self isolation policies to protect the health of their teams. The reality is, the invention is already here; really, if we’re being serious, we know that wider adoption of digital is critical in situations such as these, if we stand any chance of keeping our economy together amidst this terrible health crisis. There’s nothing that needs inventing here. It’s more a case of necessity is the mother of adoption. Let’s adopt now.

The world is changing, so quickly, because of digital. The past few years have been extraordinary in terms of change across work, personal health, education, innovation, entertainment and more. The past few weeks are going to take extraordinary into light speed. Institutions, big and small businesses, educators, individuals… each and every one of us is moving to a different way of carrying out our daily tasks. The primary driving force for adoption, when it comes to Nigeria and digital infrastructure is need; and we need it now.

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