What’s the Point of Progress?

It’s jarring living in South Africa sometimes – One minute you’re talking to people in the neighbouring building working on NextGen therapeutics, and the next you’re notified that 6-hour daily power outages will start…again.

Naturally, the question I think most about these days is : “What’s the point of all this progress if we can’t even keep the lights on?”

And as if on cue, even against my occasional relentless optimism, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian quote comes to mind:


For some, the point of progress is to break barriers and bring humanity into a new age of enlightenment (think Thomas Edison, Marie Curie, the Wright brothers and Rosalind Franklin).

For others, the point of progress is to reduce suffering and increase environmental sustainability and stability of the human species (think Mother Theresa, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela).

So while sitting in the dark during a power outage, with my candle burning bright (well not as bright as light from actual electricity), I’ve been thinking about what progress means to me, and what innovations I want to invest in and support. And more importantly, who benefits from the progress I enable.

What is Progress Even?

Bronwyn Williams (South African futurist and economist) makes an interesting (and fair) assertion in her podcast with popular science author Matt Ridley that “The only real progress we’ve made is in distribution”. She posits that in the last 100 or so years, what we’ve defined as progress has actually just been distribution of existing technologies, not necessarily the invention of new breakthrough tech. This kind of ‘progress’ might result in a dearth of innovation that propels humanity into the ‘next level’, like the invention of functional aircrafts or discovery of the structure of DNA did for the previous generations.

I don’t know how true this is for other countries, but I would argue that it’s certainly true for South Africa. For a country with numerous problems, we don’t seem to be focusing on inventing anything than can holistically solve for many of the challenges we face.

However, Matt Ridley does argue back that this distribution of resources IS progress and the value of it cannot be reduced simply because we don’t have drastically new inventions. He argues that more people having access to clean running water is progress worth noting. I don’t disagree with this point. However, the distribution has not been fast enough in a world where I can get groceries delivered in an hour from purchase, but still don’t have up-to-date equipment in many hospitals or universities.

Because of these frustrations I have, feeling like I live in 2 different worlds at the same time, I’ve started defining progress in a way that I think is more appropriate to my context . It’s :

“Are we still suffering from problems that we know how to solve from 50 years ago, or using current tech advancements?

And if the answer to that questions is ‘Yes’, then I would argue that we have not progressed at all, despite distribution or invention.

What Enables Progress?

Jason Crawford, in his blog The Roots of Progress, writes about the history and philosophy of progress, especially in technology and industry. In one of his pieces, he talks about the ‘Flywheels of Progress‘ where he observes that: “Progress compounds. It builds on itself. Progress begets progress.

He adds further that:

This is why progress is super-linear: exponential, or indeed, over long periods, even super-exponential.The form this takes is a number of feedback loops, or self-reinforcing cycles. By the nature of such loops, they act as if they had inertia: they are hard to get started, but hard to stop once going. Hence, a flywheel: the perfect metaphor for a loop or cycle with a lot of inertia.

In his piece, he also presents observations on what he thinks enables progress. These include:

  • Technology – Invention of technologies that are fundamental, upon which other tech is built
  • Wealth – Surplus wealth that enables free and radical experimentation
  • Science – Discovery of scientific phenomena that result in better innovations
  • Markets – A globalised world resulting in a bigger market to sell and/or work with
  • Government – Policies that encourage innovation and reward it
  • Population – More people driving progress, resulting in more progress
  • Philosophy – Being optimistic enough about the world to pursue new ideas/adventures

The two stand out insights for me were Crawford’s comments on:

  • Science“Science enables advanced technology…And technological and economic progress then in turn enable scientific progress, both by creating surplus wealth to fund it”
  • Wealth“Some level of surplus wealth is needed to fund research and development. In the Renaissance, science was funded by wealthy patrons. As surplus builds up, we have more to invest in experimentation, invention, and new businesses; and progress in these areas raises our productivity, which gives us more surplus.”

Understanding the interplay between wealth and innovation has made me more empathetic towards our government and other ecosystem enablers (like the private sector and incubators).

South Africa has often been criticised for not investing enough in science and innovation (especially by people like me). If we discount for bureaucracy and corruption, the fact is that our coffers are not full enough to freely spend on radical experimentation when we have many social ills to address, like poverty and inequality.

Is it a fair ask of a community with limited resources to invest in NextGen tech, when what we really need is to lay down some fundamentals like building houses and more functional power stations to keep the lights on?

I had not considered that the ability to experiment freely and radically was almost a privilege, by communities who have extra resources to capitalise on new opportunities (e.g. Angel investors).

How do we progress in South Africa?

Please note, I said almost a privilege…

…Because in the African context, investing in NextGen technologies isn’t a privilege, it’s key to our survival.

  • Exhibit 1: Corona – Even though we have expert scientific skills (that were able to alert the world of a new variant or launch large scale genomic surveillance programmes), we did not have a vaccine made from Africa early on in the pandemic. This also made it so that we were one of the last people to receive vaccines once they were released.
  • Exhibit 2: The flooding in Durban – “This event does highlight how high levels of poverty in our country undermine the ability to withstand climate shocks” writes the author from the article below. The effects of climate change will only be worse in developing countries, making ClimateTech not a luxury, but a necessity.

Tech and science have the ability to address social ills in a scalable, cost-effective and efficient manner. My argument is that the more dire the state of a country, the bigger the rationale to look at innovation to solve these problems.

It does not make sense to build more coal-based power stations to increase energy supply, while it would also increase the negative effects of climate change (which in-turn affects developing nations more).

It does not make sense to send more children to school, when the curriculum is so out-of-date and students leave institutions not being exposed to skills of the future, only to remain unemployed.

How will You and I Enable Progress?

Personally, I’m learning to work on things that I can control in my sphere of influence. And ‘Philosophy, Wealth and Science’ are levers that I feel like I can leverage to enable progress that I believe is relevant to my community.

The progress I want to enable is centred around sustainability, prosperity and access to opportunity, not entertainment or convenience. Not because I think it’s the moral thing to do, but because if we care about our survival, it’s the rational thing to do.

The case for progress does not need to be made. It’s obvious. The question is, are we all committing to it?