Op-Ed: A case for open source African innovation

PUBLISHED: Fri, 12 May 2017 14:41:58 GMT

It’s time for African innovators to not just think about solutions to problems, but to consider their philosophy around innovation. We can’t just be thinking of the ‘what’ without also thinking of the ‘how’ – how do we want to innovate?

Let me show you from history what it is I mean. Technological innovation is something rather new to the African continent. Silicon Valley has had almost 80 years of it, while China’s first foray into the field began in the 80’s, thanks to the efforts of a researcher in the Chinese Physics Institute of the Academy of Sciences, Chen Chunxian. Chunxian was inspired, actually, by Silicon Valley when visiting there in 1980 and sought to create something similar back home.

The U.S. story starts at the tail end of the Great Depression, with international affairs going awry and war looming. Frederick Terman, a Stanford professor, has his eye on two bright kids at the university who he is mentoring, David Packard and William Hewlett. He has encouraged them to start an electronics company in their garage — the garage that would later inspire millions of entrepreneurs and geeks even today and be dubbed “the Birthplace of Silicon Valley.” Their company is called Hewlett-Packard. No doubt you’ve heard of them. During World War II they built radar, nautical, aviation, radio and sonar devices. It eventually grew into the world’s biggest producer of measurement and electronic devices and became a major producer of calculators, personal computers, laptops, printers, and other items.

Terman fostered close relationships with his students and wanted to transform the culture at Stanford where it would become a technological hub, where smart young geeks could be close together and dream together and exchange ideas, and where they could be tied to industry with the university identifying ways in which their ideas could find their way into industry. Years later, Stanford is the place that has produced Larry Page and Sergey Brian (founders of Google) and many other innovators which I don’t have the space to cover here. Silicon Valley has firmly entrenched itself into the U.S. culture and the world’s culture, and today its presence is felt when you wake up, go to sleep, and in your pocket all day with your phone.

Later in China, Chunxian believed that there was just as much talent in the town of Zhongguancun as there was at Stanford. Zhongguancun also benefits from having academies and universities close by and has a similar kind of buzz of community and the exchange of ideas. So he set out to start building a community there, and today it’s a fantastic city full of innovation and innovators. Meanwhile, Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader in 1979, had plans for the small fishing village of Shenzen, and decided it would be named a “special economic zone” – meaning that it would be developed extensively. As it was developed the city grew exponentially (from 300,000 people to 10 million in one generation, apparently). Shenzen is today China’s ‘Silicon Valley of hardware’ – where Apple has had its factories and where so many things are made today. What really gave it the reputation it has today was the rate and speed at which it could manufacture anything, which is just what companies like Apple were looking for.

Giants like Huawei and Tencent are found here. The thing about Chinese innovation is that it is very open-source. In fact, its approach to open-source is precisely what gives it a reputation for ‘cloning’ and ‘copying’ other products. The approach is to build on what is working (even to the detriment of patents), to innovate quickly, to experiment and release these experimental products to the market, and get feedback quickly, and produce quickly. And this is what has set China apart. It’s why companies like Huawei have moved from being just copyists to now mega leaders in their field. It’s kind of an opposite approach to the U.S. approach, but it’s really working.

Both of these superpowers have had a tremendous amount of time to get things going for them, and they – up until this day – have had certain individuals who have really stirred things on. What I find interesting is how differently the stories have progressed. What we can’t do is copy what they’ve done and get things to work instantly. Instead, we have to learn from them and adjust for our own context. Which leads me back to Africa. Because while the China approach has very little regard for patent, and the U.S. arguably has too much of a regard for it, we can learn from the central idea that has formed their ‘silicon valleys’: to put people together, to experiment, to connect innovators with industry, to create buzz around it, create community, to exchange ideas and work on each others’ innovations. We have to start talking with each other and seeing how innovations can fit together, and we have to start connecting these to industry.

In short, we have to go open-source, our way.

What kind of philosophical approach to innovation will distinguish us going into the future? We have to also form the how we’re going to innovate – a how framed by who we are. And we have to trust our instinct in this and just go for it.

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