South Africa, the future and big data

September 13th, 2012 | By Glen Hiemstra | Posted in Business & Economy, Innovation, Science & Tech | Comments Off

It was a whirlwind tour in Johannesburg, South Africa this week, one that I hope is repeated sooner than later. Two impressions of this trip stand out.

First, the client that invited me to Johannesburg, SAS South Africa. SAS is a company focused on high performance analytics of what is called, these days, big data. They are quite an amazing company, started some 35 years ago a University consortium led by UNC, still headquartered in North Carolina, but now with offices around the world. Historically they have done business analytics, such as watching for credit card fraud, or assisting large retailers in assessing and predicting sales patterns. The story they told at this Executive Forum quite literally changed my own image of the future. Vice President for Platform Research and Development Paul Kent described the new architecture to which they have migrated their analytics, from essentially single computers to parallel processing, meaning racks of so-called “blades” of computers. Parallel processing is nothing new, of course. But, when Paul illustrated how processing times for various analytics have come down in the last 18 months from two days to a few minutes or from 4.5 hours to 60 seconds, I knew the world has indeed changed. Imagine, he said, a room of company decision makers wishing to run various sales forecast simulations. Formerly they could re-set assumptions and hit run, and come back the next day to see how it looked. Now they can re-set parameters, hit run, and see the results in a minute, thus enabling them to run many simulations in a single meeting. Pretty mind-blowing stuff.

Second impressions, the city, the country, the people. I was fascinated and not completely surprised that what people, from the many press events we did to the executive audience to every taxi driver, wanted to talk about the future of the country. On the one hand South Africa has joined the MBRIICS countries considered to be the global leaders in growth in coming years. Hope has run extremely high since the revolution of 1994, and South Africa is indeed still the leading economy in Africa. They have been hit quite hard by the global downturn, however, with a growth rate that has fallen by more than half, though they are still growing. But the number one issue on everyone’s mind is what to do about the very extreme wealth gap in the nation – they are ranked among the most severe in the world in terms of the gap between the top and the bottom. Readers of mine know that I have been speaking on the growing wealth gap in the United States, something I first noted in my book in 2006 as a major issue for the future if not addressed.

A fundamental challenge in South Africa, as in the United States these days, is how to build an economy that ignites, or re-ignites the growth of a middle class – with more people joining the middle class and middle class wages increasing again, something that has happened only sporadically in the U.S. over the past 30 years and has barely happened in South Africa. This is neither a simple, nor a trivial matter. The success of democratic capitalist societies depends on growth in opportunity, not its opposite. We had many discussions of these issues, as compared to the standard future trends listing that is typical of many of my engagements. I found it refreshing and challenging.

A final impression. I was struck by the beauty of Johannesburg – varied neighborhood districts spread over a hilly countryside. And I was more struck by the determined optimism of the people I met, an eagerness to take a significant role on the global economic stage. As I pointed out to the audience, in the states people mostly ask me, “are our best days behind us?” In Johannesburg, from the press to the client to others I spoke with the dominant question was, “How can we build the future?” Despite deep frustrations in the country with the slowness of change (highlighted by the mine strikes going on while I was there this week), still the dominant mood that I felt was a palpable energy for tomorrow.