We live in the digital age. Information technology has reshaped our lives, the way we communicate, and our production systems. Now robotics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence may allow us to leapfrog old infrastructure and technological choices - and fulfil the promise made by digital technology to future generations at the start of the millennium, that they could live in a world based on peace, justice and human dignity.
The current reality is that our world faces an ecological emergency. We use the resources of 1.5 planets every year, but if we all had to live like Americans, we would need four planets a year. This growth paradigm holds the greatest risk for humanity.
Already, 80 per cent of forests have been eradicated, a third of our arable land is poisoned with chemicals used in industrial agriculture, and many of the large coral reefs have been destroyed by pollution. The pursuit of infinite growth has also generated the greatest inequality, with one per cent of the global population owning more wealth than the remaining 99 per cent - and the richest 62 individuals owning more than the bottom half.
The story of technology in sub-Saharan Africa offers some grounds for hope. In the mid-Nineties, sub-Saharan Africa had fewer phones than the city of New York. Working together, African Ministers developed a policy framework that gave investors certainty and predictability and harmonised the use of the radio spectrum.
This led Africa to become one of the fastest growing telecommunication markets in the world. Today millions of previously unbanked people, especially in East Africa, have access to mobile banking. With political will, we can do the same in every sector. On a continent with an average of 300 days of sunlight per year, harnessing solar energy could result in millions of jobs and many successful entrepreneurial ventures.
A crucial part of this transformation will be to empower citizens through better access to information. In Kenya, the NGO Twaweza has developed an application, 'Find My School', which uses exam and school location data to allow citizens to check the relative performance of primary schools.
A similar model allows Ethiopian coffee farmers to improve their bargaining power through the Ethiopian Coffee Exchange, an initiative set up by the Ethiopian Government. In North Africa, particularly in Tunisia and Egypt, youth used social media to take to the streets to show their power and to connect with constituencies of support worldwide.
The Ibrahim Index of African Governance measures the public goods our governments have an obligation to deliver to their citizens. It tracks a hundred indicators, from health and education to economic opportunities and the rule of law.
The 2016 Index reveals that over the past 10 years, overall governance improvement in Africa has been held back by a widespread deterioration in safety and the rule of law – affecting almost two-thirds of African citizens.
Amidst so much progress in technology, why are we witnessing the repression of citizens, rising inequality and the destruction of the natural ecosystems that bring us life? Could it be that ownership, control and access of technology still sits with political and economic elites?
When one gigabyte of data costs as much as three quarters of the monthly poverty line income in many African countries, it is clear that an elite is controlling the digital revolution and that, yet again, many are being left behind. Internet penetration in Africa today is only 31 per cent, as opposed to 53 per cent in the rest of the world. Only 9 per cent of citizens are using social media, limiting the capacity for coordinated collective action.
In order to bring forward a genuine change, digital tools must be accessible to everyone – through proper design, appropriate costing, and education. When information transparency is standard, and when digital literacy is widespread, citizens are in a position to hold those in power accountable, whether in government, business, civil society or multi-lateral systems.
Maybe the real challenge of the digital revolution is to recalibrate the software in order to bring back the human values of service, compassion and solidarity, and to restore the balance between Mother Earth and ourselves.
Technology must not drive the economy, but assist in redefining it. We must take the idea of the commons to the digital revolution. We must ensure new technologies are open source, and that they offer a space for all to participate, without centralised control.
For this, we need a revolution of values, no matter what tools are being used. We need the technological revolution to drive a solidarity economy, based on the principles of sharing, peer learning and open source. Technology is the birth-right of every human being. We cannot allow it to be appropriated in order to satisfy our generation's selfishness.
This article forms part of the Global Challenges Foundation's report, "Global governance in the age of disruptive technology."
Jay Naidoo was the founding General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and served as a Minister in Nelson Mandela's Cabinet. He is currently a trustee for Earthrise Trust, looking at new models of rural development and livelihoods. He sits on the board of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation that aims to support leadership and governance in Africa, and remains committed to social justice.