INNOVATE, ADAPT OR DIE

15

OUTSIDE THE BOX BY ALEX OTTI,  Email: alex.otti@thisdaylive.com

“Every once in a while, a new technology, an old problem, and a big idea turn into an innovation” Dean Kamen

“Innovation is hard. It really is, because most people don’t get it. Remember, the automobile, the airplane, the telephone, these were all considered toys at their introduction because they had no constituency. They were too new.” Nolan Bushnell

In the 1980s and early 90s, one of the hottest and long running debates in social science circles centred on ‘technology transfer’. There were two distinct schools of thought in which one insisted that technology can be transferred and by relating with those who have improved their technological base, one could learn how to copy and apply technology developed or invented elsewhere to solve local challenges. On the other side of the divide was another set of scholars who argued that it was impossible to transfer technology. The kernel of their argument was that technology was part of the culture of a people and therefore was impossible to transfer.

Nevertheless, a third school of thought ultimately emerged which departed from the technology transfer argument but contended that the best way to acquire technology was to steal it. They cited India which they contented became a technology giant through reverse engineering and technological espionage. Since the turn of this millennium, however, the technology transfer debate seems to have abated. What I am not sure is how the matter was resolved, if it ever was. While not trying to revive that debate, our discourse today will focus on technology and innovation with particular reference to education, research, and development. However, let us first examine the role and importance of technology in our world today.

Technology today encompasses everything we do, make or provide to meet our needs and the process and systems used for their development and delivery. We presently live in a world where nearly everything is technology-based. We are glued to our TV sets and mobile phones all day seeking knowledge and getting entertained through social media and Google sites. We are able to effect banking transactions, make purchases and flight reservations as well as communicate with our family and friends in diverse distant places with just the click of a mouse and the touch of a button. As the world continues in its present trajectory of innovation, motion and change, everything we know today regarding technology keeps changing at an unbelievably rapid pace.

In no distant future, robots, through Artificial Intelligence, AI, are poised to alter virtually everything about our lives, from the way we spend our typical day to the nature and extent of our connectivity with each other. Right at this moment, AI, which is an effort to build machines that think and function like the human brain, is at a high level of technological ascendancy. Its transformative potential is seemingly so limitless despite concerns about a future in which AI-driven technology becomes an existential threat to even the humans that are creating it. While some people are understandably concerned with this prospect, others choose to focus on a more consequential question: How will AI and its inevitable outcomes affect the way we live, work and function?

Unfortunately, with all the advances in science and technology, here in Nigeria and indeed most third world countries, we are not preparing our young people for the culture shock and the challenges that lie ahead. Every year, our Universities and other institutions of higher learning churn out science and engineering graduates in their thousands who can barely come up with one original innovative idea to solve a local societal problem. We find primary and high school students who through their formal education never saw a computer nor know how to use one. Worse still, we have thousands of teachers in a similar predicament. The tragedy is that these young adults are expected to be able to cope and compete with their counterparts in other parts of the world or have the skills to excel in the emerging modern technological environment.

As proof of how far behind we are and the injustice our various levels of government are perpetrating on our young people, the following facts are too pertinent not to mention. In 2009, 97 percent of teachers in the United States had at least one computer in their classrooms, and internet access was available for 93 percent of computers. The average ratio of students to computers was 5.3 to 1. There is no denying the fact that this is now a digital world we are living in and computer literacy skills and internet know-how have become a requirement for many facets of daily life and that learning these skills starting at primary school level, arms students with the critical toolset that can only improve their chances for success in the future. The question that remains is this; how do we prepare our students for the technologies of the future, some of which are already here?

It is my contention that whatever anyone does must have been learned one way or the other. Even when one makes an invention, it is still a study or research that gives rise to it. It, therefore, becomes expedient that attention must be paid to understanding how to push the frontiers of invention, through learning and teaching. There is a direct correlation between the quality of learning and innovation. An innovative mind can only be sharpened by requisite education. The second point to make is that for any innovation to make sense, it must be geared towards solving relevant problems. Granted that there may be innovations that address problems that are foreign to the environment, most innovations are targeted at local needs and challenges. It therefore follows that education which should also target local needs must be indigenous. Indigenous education will speak to the educational curricula, the faculty, and infrastructure for effective learning. If we draw up curricular that are alien to our environment for our educational institutions, we will end up graduating students who though may be highly certificated, would also be practically cut off from the realities of their local environment.

In changing our curriculum as it relates to Science and technology, it is my contention that we must, first and foremost, change how our teachers teach while giving them the tools to help them do so. We must not only equip our teachers with computers and every other available digital tool to enhance their effectiveness, we must also retrain them. The reality is that with the introduction of technology in our mode of learning, each new innovation, coupled with the redesign of our curriculum, gets reflected in the expanding possibilities for both the teachers and their students. Now how can we achieve this? According to Australian Professor, Paul Gadner, the four possible approaches to teaching students about technology and science include the following; A technology-as- illustration approach, A Cognitive-motivational-approach, An Artifact approach and finally a Technology-as-process approach. As much as I will not go into a detailed explanation of Gadner’s different instructional approaches the fact remains that a technology education curriculum should be one that stresses its evolution, utilization, personnel, systems, techniques, resources, products and their combined social and cultural impacts.

No matter what instructional model we come up with to suit our circumstances, our school curriculum must be tailored towards developing technological and innovative understanding and capability geared towards the acquisition of problem- solving skills and capabilities with which to find technological solutions to local problems. In other words, we must impart in our students, the ability to conceive of a product or service and to design, make, use, disseminate and improve it, in ways that meet local needs and realities. To put it simply, a technology-Innovation curriculum should be part of an enabling process that involves the process of invention, reinforcement, diffusion, and transfer.

We can all admit that technology is not merely applied science hence things are often done without precise knowledge of how or why they are except that they are effective hence here in this country, we’ve had people with rudimentary inventions devoid of any technical or engineering knowledge or expertise but which have surprisingly turned out to be effective. The point here is that our technology curriculum must be designed in such a way that instructional strategy will result in some aspect of educational content being delivered beyond and outside the classroom. That way, it will help make the students adaptable to acquiring knowledge that helps them balance building technical skills with more general critical thinking and communication skills, which in turn will help them as they adapt to a changing workforce and the globalising environment.

In addition to modernising and re-orientating our technological educational system through the re-evaluation of our school curriculum and placing more emphasis on science and technology, we must also begin to link it to our educational institutions with industries already involved with emerging technologies of the future. To do so, we must identify students with special skills and abilities and connect them with industries and professionals already involved in the professions of interest to them. We must not only promote internship programs but also invite experts in certain fields to volunteer their time, teaching and mentoring in our high schools and tertiary institutions. This is what is known as the ‘Town and Gown’ strategy.

We must endeavor to set up special skills trade schools in such vocational areas as electrical works, Carpentry, Construction, Computer repairs and the like. In most developed economies, skills training and retraining have been the key to their economic development and industrialization. Not everyone is made for University education and it is a fact that some students don’t have the aptitude and interest to do so. For such young people, we must provide them with alternatives to hone their skills and learn new ones in their areas of interest and talent.

This reminds me of a young man, Goodluck Chibunna, that I met recently, in my campaign trail in Aba, who without the benefit of a post-high school education produced a generator from cartons with the capacity to supply enough electrical current to light up 6 bulbs. People like him need our assistance, technological exposure and sponsorship. There must be a process that ensures that such people are identified in the first place and that their potential is fully realized to the benefit of the society.

We can establish regional Technological Centers; these are Engineering and Science centres that will train a new generation of tech whizzes. I am happy to recognize that such centres have finally started to pop up in the country even though they are still at relatively rudimentary stages. These centres are opening up mainly in Lagos, although I hear one has also started in Enugu. There is need to encourage and grow these centres.

To do so, we must attempt to partner with trailblazers both at home and abroad to help us in this effort. Right now, one such major center exists in New York City, called Cornel Tech which was started in 2013 with just seven students but by 2018 had graduated over 600 students, 360 of whom have been hired by several tech companies. Some of its graduates have also parlayed their ideas and technological inventions, skills and ambition into more than 50 startup companies that have raised over $60 million from investors. The Silicon Valley in the USA, the Silicon Wadi in Israel, Bangalore (Silicon Valley) in India, Shenzhen in China, are all places where regional technological centres are springing up.

In today’s world and developed economies tech- focused schools have become an integral part of a country’s tech industry. The schools attract faculty members and support research from both government and industry. In equipping our schools we must take cognizance of the fact that the world of technology is changing and advancing at unprecedented rates and it is all based on Computer technology.

When you travel out of this country and see children in primary schools as young as 5 doing amazing things with computers you will be ashamed of how far behind we are and what disservice we are doing to our children, who have little or no exposure to computers. It is therefore imperative that whatever technology curriculum model we adopt, we, first of all, equip our schools with computers as well as make them accessible hence the knowledge of computers and how to use them is the beginning of our technological emancipation and growth. We must also ensure that such computers have access to the internet.

In many developed economies of the world, technological trends are upping the game and allowing government research laboratories, technology-based institutions and companies, to tap into the powerful potential of intelligent enterprise and helping to advance their economies and the world as we know it. Leading companies are improving the way we live with new products and services that will become indispensable in the future. Meanwhile, instead of shifting our mindset from being rabid consumers of finished technological products and services to focus on forging strong trusted relationships that will enable us develop and reshape and reimagine what’s possible we continue to persist in our failure or reluctance to appreciate and understand the global impact of technology and identify priority technology investments.

Nigeria has a lot of technological potential if only we have the vision and the resolve to harness that potential, both human and material, to drive innovation through creative problem solving and smart investment coming together to improve lives. The time has come for our political leaders and captains of industry to not only invest in technological development and focus on academic excellence but also foster a new partnership that will dramatically improve Nigeria’s ability to make a difference from commercializing research to engaging with our academic institutions whereby both academia and industry can collaborate to leverage technology for the greater good of the country. We can no longer continue to reject technology.