Insight Circle

Placing ethics at the heart of future tech design

Founded in 2009, Silicon Cape is a not-for-profit organization and an ecosystem enabler for tech startups in the broader Cape Region of South Africa. It works to connect stakeholders, curate ecosystem data, amplify the stories coming out of the ecosystem, and advocate on behalf of individuals through its membership program.

Speaking about her journey and how she became the chair of Silicon Cape, Dr. Sumarie Roodt says she is driven by her passion for technology, especially those that address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) and in particular financial inclusion. This is unsurprising since her career began in banking. What’s more, her experience working in not only African countries but many other continents too over the years has also highlighted the challenges around financial literacy and financial exclusion and spurred her on to support entrepreneurs who are trying to address these challenges on the continent.

“The gap is most obviously demonstrated when you see just how many people remain outside the formal banking sector and the fact that almost 92 percent of all financial transactions in Africa are still cash-based. We have decades of work that still needs to happen to bring all Africans into the formal financial services fold.”

Sumarie completed her core MBA at the University of Cape Town and then pursued a specialization in entrepreneurial finance and private equity at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Sumarie then returned to South Africa and took a teaching position at the University of Pretoria in the Engineering Faculty.

“I always thought I would be part of a Fortune 500 company. But the first day that I stepped into the lecture hall it was as if something ‘clicked’ for me and I knew at that moment that I had found one of my purposes. Realizing that you are reaching someone on more than a cognitive level, but also on an emotional level, encouraging their passion for learning was a real thrill for me. Now I am teaching at the University of Cape Town and I am still loving it.”

Her drive to continue learning resulted in completing the Mind, Brain and Education (MBE) program at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and also completing a doctorate in Informatics from the University of Pretoria. Sumarie is currently completing a PhD in Psychology focusing on the intersection of psychology and technology at the University of Cape Town. Sumarie is also the co-founder (she founded it with fellow academic, Dr. Walter Uys) and lead researcher at the Tech4Good Lab at the University of Cape Town.

However, Sumarie always kept one foot in industry and her appointment as Chair of Silicon Cape was a hat tip to her deep understanding of both academia as well as business ecosystems. For a civil society organization that stands at the intersection of social partnerships between various ecosystem stakeholders, Dr. Roodt was not just the logical choice, but also one whose understanding, networks, and influence across many sectors would benefit the community members of the group.

To jump into her views on the digital economy, we asked Sumarie what she saw as her top trends that are making an impact on the world right now.

“In times of crises, like we are facing right now, ecommerce must be the gamechanger for Africa. There has been a rush to digitize brick-and-mortar offerings and SMEs are forced to consider alternate markets if they hope to grow. This can only be done through ecommerce. For a very similar reason, the African Free Trade Zone is very high on the agenda for Silicon Cape. This has the potential to create a massive continental consumer market that could rival that of China or India.”

Looking at what technologies are most likely to make an impact in Africa in particular, Sumarie says blockchain, drones, AI and 3D printing are the ones to watch.

The complexity of ethics

Sumarie sees the neglect of ethics when we conceptualize and design technology as a real challenge.

“The rapid deployment of technology without any thought to the ethics surrounding its use is a growing challenge. When we deploy tech, are we sure that we have given enough thought to privacy? Have we considered ethically what the social and legal ramifications are of what we do with this new technology?  Ethics by design and privacy by design are philosophies that should be part of our software design methodologies.”

Sumarie goes on to give some real-world examples about what concerns her: “We find ourselves living in a time where we are happy to sacrifice some of our privacy if we think our security will be better. Drones are being used to monitor people’s movement in high-density areas in order to try to implement remote social distancing rules during COVID-19. This is a potential infringement on our privacy rights and yet civil society doesn’t seem to be tackling it. The use of facial recognition software by the big platform corporations should also be drawing a more robust discussion.

“It’s our desire for economic advancement at all costs that has resulted in this passive acceptance. We need to find a better balance between profit motives, ethical considerations, and the needs of society and the environment. These issues are not mutually exclusive. When we look at the triple bottom line movement which speaks about profit, planet, and people we can see that there is a recognition that there should be a balance.

“It’s this balance that highlights the importance of social partners working together. Government, private sector, academia, and civil society each have a real role to play in ensuring that the desire for profit isn’t winning out over people and planet.”

Tracking back to her educational background, Dr. Roodt says that embedding ethics into our curricula at educational institutions will help ensure that when technology is conceptualized it is done within an ethical framework. More importantly, it will better equip us to deal with the very real ethical issues facing us as AI becomes part of the bedrock of our technical evolution.

 Socio-economic upliftment through financial and digital inclusion 

Sumarie explained that Silicon Cape is looking at three issues that are having a big impact on society.

“The first is gender-based violence and looking at how tech enablement can possibly address this societal horror. The second is diversity disparities. We are particularly focused on female representation in our industry – not just in technology development, but also in the broader ecosystem. If you look at the female representation in venture capital in South Africa, for instance, you’ll find it’s less than ten percent. This is clearly not sustainable.

“The third is our ongoing efforts to unify all the disparate Pan African innovation hotspots across the continent – of which there are hundreds. Our efforts are to try to formally connect all of these hotspots. So, for instance, if your start-up is based in Cape Town, but you want to expand into Rwanda, we want to make sure you will have a mapped network at your disposal to assist you in your growth efforts.”

Sumarie points out that one of the challenges faced by South African innovators is the legal requirements around transferring intellectual property across borders.

She also highlights that if someone doesn’t have access to the right equipment and affordable data then they are automatically excluded from the digital economy.

“If we are creating ecosystems that exclude people from participating, either because they can’t afford the tech or simply because they can’t access appropriate technology, then we urgently need to fix this, because these people are being left behind.

“If we can use technology, and mobile tech in particular, as a means to boost financial and digital literacy, that is when you will see the transformational power of technology in creating an inclusive digital economy.”

To wrap up we asked Sumarie what she hoped her legacy would be.

“To have contributed positively to society as a whole, in other words leaving the world a better place than when I came into it. That I remained passionately curious throughout my lifetime. That I never made myself small and always shone as brightly as possible, and in doing so was a role-model for other South African and African female leaders, and also other marginalized groups. To show people that dreams are real! Lastly, that I gave my very best to those that I loved.”

As she herself points out, Sumarie straddles both industry and academia. Whether it’s opening minds to new opportunities through her teaching, or enabling and enriching business leaders through the many interventions at Silicon Cape, Sumarie stands in the enviable, if daunting, position to truly shape innovation in South Africa.

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