POLITICAL WILL - THE TAKE HOME FOR AFRICA FROM OBAMA’S ENDORSEMENT OF 3D PRINTING
Dr Cosmas Ochieng, Executive Director, ACTS and Dr. Hailemichael Teshome Demissie, Senior Research Fellow, ACTS
It is common tradition that every nation wants to make and preserve their leaders’ portraitures in the best way possible commissioning the best artists, sculptors and photographers. 3D Printing technology is now providing the most precise portraiture ever. Obama’s 3D printed bust will be unique not only for the way it was made but also for being the closest likeness of the President himself. Unlike the other
President’s busts, Obama’s bust includes nearly all details on his face including creases and moles, folds and shades captured with millions and millions of measurements taken during the scanning session of the President himself.
Mr Obama is a big fan of 3D Printing and has publicly praised it as the saviour of manufacturing in America. In his 2013 State of the Union address to Congress he spoke of the technology with emphatic enthusiasm. His enthusiasm was shared and echoed by Congress. CNN reported that ‘the shout-out in Obama’s State of the Union address was perhaps the biggest public endorsement so far of a technology that has its roots in the 1970s’. In his address he said: ‘A once-shuttered warehouse [in Youngstown, Ohio] is now a stateof- the art lab where new workers are mastering the 3-D printing that has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything’.
Obama’s enthusiasm is accompanied with a solid show of leadership championing the technology. Besides the repeated praise of 3D printing in his several speeches, he also had first-hand experience visiting facilities with 3D printers dotted across the country. Perhaps the most personal encounter of the President with the technology took place when he himself sat still for 90 seconds to be scanned so that the inputs for a digital file of his bust can be captured. His embrace of the technology and leadership galvanized activities towards an advanced manufacturing initiative to establish a new National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) with a budget of $1 billion.
Although he was speaking of his own national constituency, Obama’s message does strike a chord with the African audience. The general terms he uses make his statements broad enough to include applications of the technology in Africa.
From the following quote, it can be gathered that his words do not seem to discriminate between American and non-American, rich or poor countries:
… because of advances in technology, part of the opportunity is now—to make the tools that are needed for production and prototypes are now democratised. They’re in the hands of anybody who’s got a good idea.
The President’s observation about 3D printing is even more relevant to Africa in a very straightforward fashion. Speaking of the rundown town of Youngstown, Ohio, and the region that came to be known as the ‘rust belt’ of America, Obama added that ‘[t]here is no reason this can’t happen in other towns’ and laid out his initiative ‘to turn regions left behind by globalization into global centers of high-tech jobs.’ His general reference to ‘regions left behind by globalisation’ is perhaps what makes his statement relevant to Africa. Isn’t Africa among the regions left behind by globalization? The questions to ask are the same questions Obama raised: if this can be done in Youngstown, is there a reason that this can’t be done in other towns in America and in towns and countries of Africa?
WHAT’S TRUE OF AMERICA IS ALSO TRUE FOR KENYA
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA
Obviously questions about the specific contexts of Africa will come up. The numerous challenges in Africa ranging from the lack of skilled workforce to the poor infrastructure may be cited to question the relevance of what Obama is saying to America for the African context. Certainly, much remains to be done by way of tackling the lack of supporting infrastructure like the supply of electricity and lack of access to web services and electronic hardware. However, it should be stressed that the challenge is not that of the inadaptability of these technologies to Africa’s condition. Electricity supply is an issue that is being tackled on its own and Obama’s Power Africa initiative to double the number of people having access to electricity within 5 to 10 years is spot on in identifying it as the critical roadblock for Africa’s development.
Mr Obama himself is unlikely to doubt the relevance of his statements about 3D printing to African manufacturing. In a different but relevant context during his last visit to Africa, he has reiterated that ‘what is true for America is true for Kenya’. African leaders and policy makers need to pay closer attention to what Obama is saying and doing as a matter of great importance to Africa. A major lesson to be drawn from Obama’s promotion of 3D printing relates to the role of concept champions. Africa needs to address the challenge of securing political buy-in and getting concept champions who will promote and popularise emerging technologies and their benefits.
Obama’s role in championing 3D printing has spurred the growth of the technology in the US and around the world. Political leadership from the highest echelons of power is critical for the timely adoption of the technology. A top-down approach seems to be indispensable for the accelerated uptake of emerging technologies especially in countries with weak private sector players. Concept champions are wanted to spearhead adoption efforts and lobby governments to procure these technologies and to negotiate access to these technologies from suppliers on favourable terms. Policy incentives and supportive policy orientation is required if Africa is to benefit from these technologies. For this to be realized, the role of concept champions is critical and a robust precedent is set by President Obama’s proactive promotion of advanced manufacturing in general and 3D printing in particular.
Obama’s specific mention of 3D printing says a lot about policy approaches. Currently, the emphasis on building capacity in developing countries is articulated in general terms with broad reference to science, technology and innovation (STI). The specific mention of a particular technology is rather uncommon.
References to emerging technologies like 3D printing are rare. The AU Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 (STISA 24), for example, simply seeks to capture technologies like 3D printing in terms of general STI policy and strategy. Indications about such technologies have to be dug out of such expressions as material science, ICT or manufacturing. This blanket and one-size-fits all approach is not the way to go with emerging technologies of immense strategic importance.
Given the enormity of the potential of 3D printing technology converging with other technologies and serving as general purpose platform technology with applications across a whole spectrum of STI activities, designing a specific policy on the technology is of critical importance. Leaving it to be assumed in the generality of STI policies will deny the technology the attention it deserves. Such an approach is being challenged as specific policies for specific technologies are becoming increasingly imperative. In a recent report for the UK government aptly entitled No Stone Unturned In Pursuit of Growth, it was recommended that the government should have a ‘clear policy for each sector of the economy’. Li Yong, Director General of UNIDO, argues in the same line citing a UNIDO/UNCTAD report that advocates ‘tailor made’, ‘context-specific’ industrial policies for Africa. The Obama administration’s approach towards 3D Printing is consistent with these recommendations and it is time that Africa should heed these recommendations. The implied policy support that 3D printing may get from the general regional and national STI policies in Africa leaves much to be desired.
In addition to the lack of focused attention to specific yet general purpose emerging technologies, there are even suggestions implying that developing countries need not engage new technologies like 3D Printing. The justification for this is the intellectual property barriers precluding developing countries from engaging in such technologies and the wide availability of patent-free mature technologies not yet used by developing countries. This is a view that was forwarded by the UN Millennium Project Taskforce. In the specific context of 3D printing, intellectual property barriers have collapsed with the expiry of major patents. What is more the technology is increasingly developed within the burgeoning culture of sharing and open source. These developments have opened unprecedented opportunities for developing countries.
The skepticism about the suitability of cutting-edge technologies to the needs in Africa has to be cleared taking into account the incredible malleability of emerging technology applications irrespective of sheer variations in context. The attitude that Africa needs in this respect is that if it can be done in the developed world, it can be done here. It will be a cliché worth emulating if Africa can also say ‘Yes we can’ with respect to the adoption of 3D printing for manufacturing.
In an earlier issue of the African Technopolitan, it was argued that ‘No American President ever came to office with more political capital in Africa than Barack Obama. No American President ever ruled at a more hopeful time for Africa.’ This was a reflection on the various initiatives of the Obama administration like the Power Africa, New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, and Young African Leadership (YALI) initiatives. It was also noted that compared to Chinese engagement in Africa which is relatively less knowledge and tech intensive, the Obama administration tends to focus its intervention in knowledge intensive sustainable long term initiatives in the sectors of energy and human capital development. Just like the Power Africa Initiative, a ‘Manufacturing Africa Initiative’ that mirrors the Administrations’ initiative of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (NNMI) would not only leave a lasting eternal legacy of Mr Obama’s Presidency but it would also accelerate the total success of the existing initiatives. This is after all a vision that is hardly foreign to the letter and spirit of President Obama’s public statements on 3D printing and its potential to lift ‘regions left behind by globalisation’.
Unlike the other President’s busts, Obama’s bust includes nearly all details on his face including creases and moles, folds and shades captured with millions and millions of measurements taken during the scanning session of the President himself.