Rethinking Innovation Systems in Africa -CODIST Presentation

In late April I participated in the UN Economic Commission for Africa conference on Science, Technology and the Knowledge Economy in Africa conference. I gave a short talk for one of the plenary sessions that was ostensibly focused on innovation systems for African Science and Technology. An overview of the conference and some of the background papers as well as policy recommendations from the event are here. My talk was structured around the failure of some current models that were adopted from Western systems as Lydia Brito from Mozambique pointed out here. These are legacy systems largely based on linear Schumpeterian models that leave many gaps between each successive stage and result in few innovations making it into the market.

The presentation is below but here is the general flow. I began with the insight from Helga Nowotny’s work “Insatiable Curiosity” that begins with an insight taken from sign language. In American sign language the sign for the future points forward, in African (South) Sign Language the sign is the opposite. There is an important conceptual insight here for how to think about the future and innovation. The African sign tells us that what lies in front of us is the past, because only IT is already known. The future lies where we cannot see it. Therefore the future is not just about the new because we recognize the new in terms of the past (the known). This points out a tension that we often see when thinking about science, technology, innovation and the future. There are those who only see dark futures abundant with risk, and those who see techno-utopian futures. Fear of the future can suppress curiosity. Innovation is often a way of talking about a future that promises something new, it tries to tame the tensions. “Culture” is the issue that is often raised by those whose fear of loss of control of the future is jeopardized by innovation. This does not mean that every reference to culture is necessarily conservative, but rather we need to be aware of the politics of culture and who speaks for whom. Africans are not a monolith. We saw this during the week when I was doing a workshop on Science 2.0 and some of the francophone African scientists objected to web 2.0 tools. “These are tools created by Americans to exchange photos and are of little relevance to African science”, was the claim. This was echoed by one French observer, “We must be aware of the downside” of web 2.0 technologies (these went unstated, it was more a performative intervention). Of course, but what is really going on here? First, something was lost in translation but more than that. The thought of democratizing science does not sit well with every scientist, African or otherwise. This is a movement that has been going on for half a century and anytime you try to level the playing field through technologies or otherwise some people will lose. Science used to be the thing politicians called on to settle political disputes. Now, science is often part of the political debate and there are many who want to see science as above society. Those who think science is, as our Frenchman wanted to believe, a “rigid, rigorous discipline”–read, outside of politics–understand little about the way actually existing science works. There is an entire discipline of the history of science and science and technology studies that has demonstrated very convincingly that this worldview is, how should I say this, quaint.

Nevertheless, Dr. Brito was quite correct in thinking that Africans need to rethink their innovation strategies and systems and find something that works in Africa and make it their own. The work from Peter Singer and Abdullah Daar (here) offers one alternative to the linear systems that Brito finds lacking. But we first need to rethink the “knowledge economy” meme to make these types of platforms actually work and to optimize outcomes. Often we face the legacy of broken knowledge architectures that treat knowledge as static. The colonial archive is rather typical of this. The tendency for institutions to ascribe to the “death by white paper” thing is another example. How can we make these documents become social knowledge (that is, contextualized and translated into constructive practices) and reflective of the realities that African scientists, technologists, policy-makers and end-users face? We can begin by recognizing that knowledge has a social life and this is illustrated quite well in the work of Steven Jackson and Geoffrey Bowker (here). Their work points to how we can move from legacy knowledge systems to ones that are more dynamic, collaborative and mapped to local contexts. While we need to take into account the barriers for African scientists we should not just build systems around the lowest common denominator of African technological connectivity. There are robust networks of people, artifacts and institutions as well as embodied indigenous knowledges linked to practices, they argue, that are not really about the knowledge storage or database paradigm. It will be important to develop creative strategies to move knowledge across sectors in these new innovation systems that we might want to create.

As the search for new innovation systems for Africa proceeds it would be useful to not fall in the trap of just saying anything non-Western is appropriate. Just take a look at the many examples of hybrid innovation all around us. From some of the creative uses of mobiles to the Liberian analog blogger to African musicians who wire up found objects to create brilliant compositions such as can be found with the Kinshasan band Konono No. 1., we see these hybrid practices all over the informal sector that constitutes the majority of African economic transactions. We might want to learn from these practices in how we rethink the ethos of innovation in science and technology development. While not science and technology examples per se, they do offer insights into a different mindset.

Another point is that we tend to look at Africa in terms of what it lacks or, to use the Paolo Freire approach, in terms of the deficit model. What this does is open up opportunities to impose models on what is seen as a vacuum rather than a resource rich environment. It reminds me of a meeting at Grameen Bank when I was a Fulbright Scholar there nearly 20 years ago when Muhammad Yunus mentioned that Grameen Bank was built upon the genius of the poor women who were his clients. He recognized that it took incredible ingenuity to survive in the contexts in which the bottom 10% of Bangladeshi society lived. How could Grameen build on this embodied knowledge? Grameen is built around what people already know and have and works to strengthen their assets as an aggregator. This reminded me of the Sudanese social theorist AbdouMaliq Simone’s notion of “people as infrastructure”. As Prahalad says, this is the innovation sandbox (albeit slightly different point but I’m hybridizing concepts myself here). Let’s find the pieces of things going on around the world that might be recombined with the assets and approaches already found in some African science and technology networks and experiment.

My presentation built upon these observations and brought these into a conversation with current thinking around open science, science 2.0 and open innovation. Some of the most important work that can bridge these issues come from Ikka Tuomi’s work on “Networks of Innovation” who focuses on ‘social innovation’, or how knowledge changes the way people do things. I like to use the term social innovation over the way that ‘innovation’ is thrown around to include pharmaceutical “me-too” products, for example, that may earn profits but do not actually produce noticeable health outcomes beyond pre-existing drug entities. In fact, I find these counter-innovations in that the impact on the health financing (non)system may be negative. So what I’m trying to do is bring together social networking, open science, social innovation, anti-deficit models and convergence platforms to conceptualize new innovation practices.

There is quite a bit of work being done on open protocols and open lab notebooks, science social networks, open innovation platforms and science commons so how can “we” appropriate these tools and practices to fix some of the innovation systems that are problematic at the moment and build on these tools given the assets Africans currently have? I honestly believe that a form of recombinant innovation that takes new and old or things that haven’t worked in the past but mobilized within new institutional structures and eco-systems of entrepreneurs, NGOs, distribution systems, etc. can go a long way in remedying the problem. Build the African wikipedia of failures as an innovation commons–we can learn as much from why things didn’t work as why they did work and change the attitude towards failure in a constructive way. Science blogs and IP trusts can be used to share knowledge faster and create new connections across the continent provided we create the networking tools to connect African scientists, technologists, business expertise and policy-makers to build enabling environments.

UN ECA has the ASKIA platform to enhance access to open access journals. This is an important first step but not an end in itself. There is a tremendous opportunity to develop creative business models downstream from an African science commons (think IBM’s strategy when they supported Apache when they realized hardware was not the future). There were other insights in our session from other speakers about developing new indices and measures of innovation for the African context. As the presentations become available I’ll try to post a few and comment in the near future. Below is my presentation:

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