Building Makerspaces for the 4th Industrial Revolution

The list of the continent’s woes rattled off in the executive briefing may sound familiar: Africa has the youngest population in the world (60% are under 25); 15–20 million new youth are set to join the workforce every year for the next 30 years; despite being better educated than ever (52% are expected to have a secondary education by 2030), there is a huge mismatch between the skills employers are seeking and those possessed by young graduates.

In addition to these familiar (and daunting) challenges, the report focuses on a striking and relatively new concern — that many African economies are more exposed to disruption by new technologies than many realize.

Richard prepares his job shop’s CNC router in Nairobi for a contract from Gearbox.

Richard prepares his job shop’s CNC router in Nairobi for a contract from Gearbox.

Concern about Africans’ uptake of technology is certainly not new, but the report hits on two aspects that are noteworthy: 1) the sheer scale of the demographic challenge — half a billion new 18 year-olds looking for work by 2050, and 2) the nature of the work they’re likely to find. Last century’s transformations across Southeast Asia had a similar theme as the first industrial revolution in Europe in the 1800s, shifting large numbers of agricultural workers towards wage labor in factories. The future of Africa’s industrialization is unlikely to follow the same path.

Demand for the kind of low-skilled, labor intensive manufacturing that reshaped much of Asia is not set to grow at the same pace as the world’s workforce. New manufacturing technologies created an explosion in global productivity per worker over the last fifty years, with the result that fewer people are needed to make things than ever before.

The promise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is not going to be more manufacturing jobs like the factory lines of decades past. The rapidly decreasing cost, ever increasing ease of use, and widespread availability of fabrication technologies like CNC machines and 3D printers are transforming the way the world designs and makes things. In the most optimistic point of view, using these tools just about anyone, just about anywhere, can learn enough (thanks to the internet) to make just about anything.

How easy that is to do in practice is debatable, and it does not mean that what they make is necessarily going to translate into economic impact. New business models that take advantage of these trends are only just beginning to be developed, and how they will play out is far from certain (see Exploring the Maker-Industrial Revolution: Will the Future of Production be Local? by Anna Waldman-Brown). But at least in Kenya, a dramatic shift in who is able to design and make commercial products is causing a corresponding shift in whom these products are designed for. Young Kenyan entrepreneurs are focused as much on designing novel products tailored to local needs as on selling imports or exporting to larger markets.