June 21, 2022

Brenda Ramokopelwa on using external and internal lenses, developing young futurists, connecting rural Africa to global thinking, and validating ideas (Ep26)

“There’s a lot of information right now, sometimes you feel it’s just too much. But I try to find the right sources of information to understand how the world is changing, especially now that it is rapidly changing, and what are the impacts of those changes.

– Brenda Ramokopelwa

Tim O'Reilly

About Brenda Ramokopelwa

Brenda is a Futurist, Author, Keynote Speaker, and Award-Winning Risk and Governance professional. She is the CEO of the Transdisciplinary Agora for Future Discussion and Managing Director at D@leo Consulting Services in Johannesburg.

What you will learn

  • How to get a sense of what trends are important with internal and external lenses (03:25)
  • How to sense the relationship between local and global trends (05:15)
  • How to assist and encourage the young and upcoming futurists (11:02)
  • What is the importance of teaching young children to use social media well (17:35)
  • How to introduce possibility thinking and open the world to young futurists (20:32)
  • Why validation from people outside your circle is crucial (22:56)
  • Why it is important to listen without biases (26:43)
  • Why you should start at your audience’s level to engage with them more effectively (28:42)

Episode resources


Ross Dawson: Brenda, it’s a true delight to have you on the show.

Brenda Ramokopelwa: Thank you, Ross. I’m quite excited to be here.

Ross: I’d love to hear more about your work, what is it that you do? What are you looking to achieve in your work at the moment?

Brenda: I do a variety of things. By profession, I’m a risk manager. I’m a Director of Risk and Governance company. We are based in South Africa. I also work as the CEO of Transdisciplinary Agora for Future Discussions, which is a Science and Technology Institute. It’s more voluntary. What we’re trying to do there is to try and create a platform for young futurists in Africa and open that gateway for them in and out of Africa. I also sit in different boards, for example, at the MICT SETA, which is a media information technology and education authority in South Africa, I sit in the Advisory Committee for 4IR. Those are the type of things that I am currently involved in.

Ross: It sounds like you have plenty on your plate. I’d love to hear how you thrive on all of that. One of the most interesting things here is in the Transdisciplinary Agora for Future Discussions. There are two parts of this. One is, of course, you need to understand some of the trends in the future, but you’re also helping, as you say, the young futurists in the youngest most dynamic continent on the world.

Brenda: Yes

Ross: Perhaps we can start with you in order to be able to your sensing things and then I’d love to dig into how it is that you help these young, aspiring futurists or citizens be able to think well about the future. Perhaps, we can start with how do you get the sense of what are the important trends? What is shaping your world?

Brenda: How I do it in my world is engaging with people that are around me and also reading. There’s a lot of information right now, sometimes you just feel it’s just too much. But trying to find the right sources of information to understand how the world is changing, and especially now that it is rapidly changing, what are the impacts of those changes. Not just looking internally, but also looking at your external environment. TAFFD’s is a global organization with representation across many continents.
It’s always important for us to understand what is happening here, at home in the African continent, and what’s happening out there in the globe; What is the impact of that on us? And what is it that we are doing or what’s happening here, that might have an impact out there? Having that external and internal lens does help me to sift through the information in the sense that one, looking at different lenses because the biases tend to sometimes cloud how we look at things, and also getting views from other people that are going through all of these changes to see how they are experiencing that, and just keeping myself abreast of things as they happen.

Ross: One of the things you pointed to there is there are global trends and seeing what is happening with various technological, scientific, geopolitical developments and so on, but there’s also the African or Southern African perspective, something you’re able to experience more directly and have the people around that to do that. I think that it is a very distinctive environment globally. I’d love to just hear a little bit more about how do you sense how these factors are playing out more locally in Southern Africa, how you are sensing what it is more locally, that is happening?

Brenda: If I look at the South African context, South Africa is one of the fastest developing countries in the African continent. Just like most the African countries, we’ve got a lot of youth in our country. These are young people that are technologically savvy, the type of people that are interested in what’s happening outside and have got opinions or views in terms of how these things should be approached and how they want to impact them. They respond to these things in different ways.

I’m not saying the other African countries aren’t, but in South Africa, we’ve got a lot more of young people that are, in a way forcing us to think differently. By us, I’m talking about the public sector, the government, how they change their policy. If you look at the type of debates that happens in Parliament, it’s totally different to how it used to happen. There are more voices that are coming through from the young people, more voices that are forward-thinking. When you look at it from a corporate environment point of view, you’ve got a lot of these young and ambitious people, that are trying to change the status quo, in terms of labor laws, in terms of innovation, in terms of just socioeconomic factors affecting their lives.

I think we’ve got more people getting engaged, and more of those people are young people, and that is why the insist in ensuring that there’s more training, there’s more imparting of knowledge, there’s more engagement with them to be able to say, how do you see the future? How do you think you can change the future? Because when you think about it, these young people are the future, but at the same time, also, not forgetting the wisdom that comes from people that have been there before, that have got more experience as well.

For example, I mentioned the fact that I’m a risk manager by profession so I’ve spent a lot of time in the corporate world, doing this risk analysis, scenario planning, and such things. Before, there was a reluctance to think about what might happen, those knowns and unknowns when starting to plan for the future; there’s a change that I’m seeing in terms of how government prepares for possible disasters, how they put those action plans in place, how they start to think about if this technological change comes, what are the type of policies that we need to have, the type of processes that need to be in place to ensure that we can execute on those policies, the type of infrastructure we need to have in place? It might be very slow at that but there’s a change in thinking, and there’s a change in how things are being done.

I think there might be a gap, from my view, in the sense that there’s a lot more adoption of what has been done outside to fit what needs to happen here at home, which doesn’t necessarily work sometimes. We need to look at our environment and look at the things that are required for our environment specifically, and then be able to implement solutions that are fit for purpose, not do it because somebody else has done it. There’s a tendency when you think about technology, to let technology drive process, not the other way around, nothing to think about this is what we need, this is where we are at in terms of maturity, this is why we need what we need, and therefore, what is the best solution to be to enable us to get to that point. We seem to just start with this new technology, this innovation, and we run for that, without doing a proper assessment of if it’s really fit for people.

Ross: I’d love to dig a little bit more into that later, but first let’s about this idea of nurturing, or educating, or engaging the young futurists or young people of the nation. Part of this, of course, has been able to sense, give them the tools to look, to find, and to make sense of things themselves. Can you tell me how you are assisting these young futures to thrive and to make sense of the world of so much information?

Brenda: At this point in time, the biggest drive is around education and awareness; realize that it is happening, realize that it is happening around you, it is happening to you, and you need to do something about it, you can influence it, you are not necessarily at the mercy of this technology change, it is something that if you know what it is, you are better prepared to deal with it, and you are not surprised, and even if you are surprised, you can recover quickly and start to respond to these things. This is by visiting various schools, especially that are in rural areas, and engaging with the teachers. When there is no technology subject in curriculums, we start at the very basic, by introducing them to the basics of technology, first of all, what it is, how do you get in? What are the different things you get face to face with?

If I give an example, when I get to school and ask what do you know about technology, they will tell me about social media. That’s the first thing, that they’ve got phones so it’s looking at how can you best use them to your advantage in a schooling environment, how do you use the information that you’ve got in abundance through the internet to benefit you in the journey that you are in. The biggest challenge that we have is access to technology. Access is a big thing in South Africa, especially in rural areas and in Africa as a whole. For example, I am based in Johannesburg, I can drive to a village that is maybe 70 kilometers from where I am to find that just Wi-Fi access is an issue. Therefore, you can have a phone, you can have a laptop, but you will not be able to get the information that you want to get. Sometimes you do have the two, a phone and laptop but they’ve just been dumped, you don’t know how to do it, because nobody ever bothered to teach them to do it.

If I give an example of myself, I was saying to somebody that when I did my first-year at university, the first thing that I had to figure out was where do you start this computer. I knew there was this box, but I didn’t even know what to press, and they say press ALT+DELETE, I still had to get my fingers to do it at the same time. We’ve got kids that are in the cities, have gone to school with better quality of education, they are like 20 steps ahead. While you’re still struggling with the basics, people are already running ahead. That is where we are at, to try and at least ensure that we get them to a step better than where they’re at and teach them the basics.

When they’ve got the basics in place, we start introducing them. Now that you’ve got the basics in place, what can you do with this thing? What is the importance of having this tool? How can you leverage the strength that you have? Because in a way it is a strength. It is outreach programs to rural areas and farm schools. It is having the master classes, competitions with them. It is having conferences where we invite them and give them a platform to showcase their innovation.

It is also running programs where there’s a bit of technology and bringing in experts; for example, in one school that we are working with, we are introducing vertical farming, where we’ve got expertise in vertical farming coming in and showing them, you don’t need a huge piece of land, because the land is an issue in South Africa, to be able to produce food because food scarcity is a real issue. How can you do this when you are limited in terms of resources and be successful? It is looking at different areas where young people can be able to participate, and also stimulating their thinking in their brains. Once you’ve given them the tools, they are now able to run with it, they are able to transfer their skills, they’re able to come up with their own solutions, so education in everything for us at this point in time. Me in particular, it is the key, then the tools will come, then the building blocks will start to come together as we move forward.

Ross: Of course, part of it is learning how to learn. Once you’ve learned how to learn, and you have access to the information, then you can teach yourself more and more. We do need the technology foundations, part of that then is giving them the skills to when they do have access to be able to use that well. I was very interested when you were saying how many students first pointed to social media as their idea of technology. You were saying, the next step is to teach them to use that well. How is it that you teach young children where their only use of technology is social media, to use social media well?

Brenda: The first thing will be as the risk manager, I always tend to go into security phase. Can I make them aware of the pitfalls of using social media? Going through how do you prevent this? You can’t exactly prevent it, because criminals are always a step ahead. But how do you manage that going forward?

Two, if you are using social media, for example, for business, or you are using it to drive opinions or share knowledge, who are the people that you should be engaging with? How do you create your profile in such a way that you are able to send the right message or the message that you intend to serve? And how do you deal with feedback that you get? Because I think from what I hear them say, is that the biggest thing for them, as they put it, one to be popular on social media is negative feedback, how do you deal with it? Security is also an issue for them, how do you deal with it? And also what are the other benefits of social media?

They talk about wanting to use it for their education, wanting career guidance, what are the careers that are out there, wanting to know the career types that they have. When you speak to a child that comes from most rural areas, their careers are limited to wanting to be a doctor, wanting to be a lawyer, and like your traditional careers. They don’t know that there’s more that is out there. Being able to point them to the right institutions, or the right people that they can then start following for example, or start engaging with and getting more information, then it opens up their world in terms of knowing that you can be in a rural area, but from an information point of view, you can be a global citizen and engage with people while you are still sitting where you are.

Ross: That’s fantastic and particularly important. In an information world, we are connected, we can be anywhere and be anyone. But first, you need to learn that that’s true. This is around possibility thinking. There are two parts. One is, how do we get them into thinking in terms of possibilities, and even just tell them what some of those possibilities are? Is that part of your mission and what you’re doing?

Brenda: Exactly that. Our objective at TAFFD’s, as I mentioned, is to open the gateway in and out of Africa for young futurists. Part of that is creating that platform for them. You’ve got kids with massive talent across the African continent, and most of the time it is not seen, because one, they are not known, two, they do not have access, they do not have the right exposure so nobody can see what they’ve got, and probably be able to invest in it, or be able to help guide them to make it bigger than what it is. Sometimes, it’s validation, for somebody to say to you, what you are doing is actually great. Because all you have is people around you that only know most of the time what you know so you do not get external voices that validate.

When you start a business, for example, you will find that in your family or where you stay, people will be like, yeah, Brenda; but when you go outside, people start recognizing you, people start seeing. When you come back, then they see the shiny diamond that you are. I find that seems to be the case with a lot of these kids where they need to just get out there and just show what they’ve got. The platform that we are creating is to do that through our town hall meetings where we’ve got different representatives from different parts of Africa, we’ve got 54 countries in the African continent. If we’ve got from East, West Africa, and South Africa, and we’ve got this young child who is very talented, talking about their innovation, some of those people might think, maybe this is something that is worth exploring, that is worth supporting and they might encourage them, then you get mentors, you get mentees across the continent.

Because of the interconnectedness of the world right now, you are able to get somebody sitting in Australia, somebody sitting in Europe, who can say maybe there’s something that I’ve done, share their experience with them; oh, this is something new, actually is an idea that can be used here, so creating that platform for them to get the exposure, for them to get the confidence that comes with validation, that what they are doing is right, or the support to guide them in terms of the steps that need to be taken to get to that successive level, or in other instances, just to be heard, and to be seen, that can boost a lot of confidence, and that’s the platform that we are creating for them. I’m hoping that with this outreach program that we’re doing at the schools, in my visit, I will involve different stakeholders that will teach them about different subjects.

We’ve got experts around so many areas. If it means to bring some stakeholder from governance like I said, I sit at the media and information technology, sector education, what they call SETA in South Africa, is that if I can bring them to come and bring their expertise and share with these kids, people that can come teach them about financial management as young entrepreneurs, it helps, all of that together seems to build this confident young person who becomes one of the people that can successfully contribute to the economy of the country, and the continent, and a global citizen that participates in the global economy as well.

Ross: That’s fantastic, and very inspiring. That idea of validation is actually very powerful. If you’re sitting in Silicon Valley or Beijing or something, you’re living in the world of information, you have the validation around you but if you’re not in that context, you may have the idea just as good or even better, but you can’t know that unless you have some kind of reference point. To be able to live in a world of ideas, you do need to have the connectedness in the context which you are creating, that’s quite a powerful insight.

Brenda: Just to add to that, sometimes it’s not validation but more a sounding board. Sometimes you’ve got it wrong, somebody is to say have you thought, have you considered, just to check your thinking as well and give you the confidence to go back to the drawing board not with the, Oh my God, I can’t do this anymore but going back to the drawing board with the confidence that when I come back, I’m going to come back bigger, I’m going to come back greater, and I’m going to do something better. That’s what I also have found because sometimes the idea will be based on just what they know but as soon as they get more information and see what other people are doing, they go, Wow, so they have that aha moment, and then when they come back, you can hardly recognize this person that’s talking to you, and you’re like, just blown away. It is quite amazing.

Ross: That’s fantastic. To round out, given your experience and being able to give a spark to these young people and young futurists, what are a few lessons that you would offer to others who are also looking to inspire that ability to make their ideas matter in a connected world?

Brenda: My advice would be to keep your biases in check because it has a tendency of clouding the way things are; because we see the things the way we are. Keep that in check. Also, when dealing with young people, what I have found very useful, is just listening to them, they’ve got so much to say, so much to share, so much creativity, listen to them and from what they are saying, if you say back to them, I promise you the type of solutions that they have for their own challenges, it is quite amazing. Because the first question they would say is that I’ve got a problem, how do I solve it? They’re looking for answers. But then what they do not realize is that they actually do have those answers.

How it helps me is that I’m able to learn as well. It changes how I see things. Our biases will always be there, you will always come back. You will always have the thinking that you know but when you engage with different stakeholders, when you look at a situation, not the way you understand it, but by listening to the external views, it has a way of just making something good to be better. That will be my advice.

Then the second thing is that when you are dealing with people, especially in the type of setting that I’m in, in the African continent, understand that it is not a one size fit all. We need to do an assessment, how is this change that we’re talking about going to impact these people? How is this knowledge going to be received? And based on that tailor-make whatever it is that you’re taking to them or want to propose to them; take all of that into consideration because our maturity level as far as access to information, as far as being able to analyze information, assessing that information is quite different.

You need to understand where they are at and start at that level. Also, as they mature in some cases they will need hand-holding, in some cases, they can just run from the word go, in some cases, they will be flying when it starts and get stuck, and understand that this is where your guidance comes in, and that’s where the support, it might come in different ways, might be needed. It is not always easy, but it is the most fulfilling. Moving around these areas has helped me in particular, to understand my environment better, when I do the forecasting, when I do my scenario planning, to be able to do it better because I’m considering the different scenarios that exist. That will be the bit of advice that I can give.

Ross: That’s fantastic. Of course, in terms of your own information, or input, or insight you gather, a lot of it is from the people you are helping and teaching.

Brenda: Yes, and also the people that I’m learning from. I’ve got the privilege of sitting with people like yourself. I’m able to read some of the books that are out there. Also through TAFFD’s and the experts that are available to us across the world, be able to engage; they help challenge my thinking as well. When we bring all of these people together, for me, it’s a learning platform. Also, I’m hoping that I can impart something that can help them.

Also, the fact that together through collaboration, be it private sector, academia, and the public sector, we can create a platform where these young people can thrive, we can create a platform where these people can see a better future for themselves, and at some point, be leaders that are better than the leaders that we have today, or the leaders that we are. That is why in August, we are hosting the first global conference in South Africa, for technology and science. It is all centered around the development of young futurists. We hope to see a lot of expertise from across the world coming to visit South Africa, and hopefully, helping us to support these young ones going forward in terms of future studies, in terms of supporting the different programs that they have in schools or as young entrepreneurs.

Ross: That’s fantastic. It’s very inspiring. Thank you so much for your time, and it’s great to hear about all the wonderful work you’re doing, Brenda.

Brenda: Thank you so much, Ross. Thank you for the opportunity to sit on this platform and share what we’re doing here.

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