Technology Innovation hubs are spaces where computer scientists, technologists, software developers and entrepreneurs congregate to network, collaborate and exchange to bring their ideas to fruition. In the past four years, these organizations have been emerging in Africa, and they are situated in a context where technologists, web developers and programmers find significant barriers in applying their skills, a major one being lack of affordable broadband for instance. Tech hubs then offer a shared space where they can access this vital infrastructure. This research explores whether and how innovation takes place in technological hubs in resource-constrained environments and their impacts on social development.
Technology and innovation hubs are a growing phenomenon: physical and virtual spaces where people can collaborate, exchange knowledge, and start businesses and community projects. The biggest problem for software developers in developing countries is often a lack of affordable broadband. Hubs offer a shared space where they can access this vital infrastructure. Do the physical space and human interactions really support innovation, and what are the factors that are important?
Andrea Jiménez visited BongoHive in Zambia, one of more than 80 ‘tech hubs’ in Sub-Saharan Africa, to trace the story of the Zambia Draft Constitution phone app. The app is designed to support the process of developing a new constitution for the country by allowing users to submit comments. It went on to become the most successful project in the hub, just as Africa experiences a boom in mobile telecommunications.
Whilst it was clear that the creation of a social network centred around BongoHive was critical to the success of its projects, the success and sustainability of tech hubs is yet to be proven, according to Andrea. “At the moment there is a lot of hype around the hubs, everyone is talking about them, but it isn't yet clear how many of these hubs are successful in launching businesses,” she says. “There are also issues around power and ownership: who are the hubs for? The Zambian government has offered to pay for the expansion of BongoHive, but the offer comes with the expectation that it will contribute towards ensuring that the government is seen to be an open, technologically aware, democratic government. The members of the hub are worried that they will be working for the government rather than concentrating on developing software for the community.”
The Zambian hub was not run in the same way as the UK hubs Andrea has visited. The participants learn how to code, how to develop their ideas, but they don't have the same focus on business planning and sales skills. “If research like mine can show how innovations can happen in the Sub-Saharan context, and there are local computer scientists and technologists that not only have the capacities to innovate but also intimately know local problems and how to reach local people, this will help the development of African innovation systems in general,” she argues. “The question is how the hubs can scale up and achieve sustainability. We still need to know what works, what doesn't, what can and cannot be achieved.”