Building Innovation – one city at a time

Not a month goes by, it seems, without another African city, state or national government announcing its plans to start an ambitious innovation city or park. The vision is simple enough – create a space where similar-minded technologists can meet, discuss, theorize, plan, collaborate and finally seed new ventures that will drive economic transformation of the country. So far so good.

However, a few years after a number of cities and countries embarked upon this strategy, would it make sense to pause and reflect upon the success of the strategy? These are generally huge financial-commitment projects (e.g. Kenya’s Konza Tech city is estimated to cost $14.5B, Ghana’s Hope City will reportedly cost $10B, and Tanzania’s Rhapta City will reportedly cost $1B. Given the huge price tag on these projects, has there been enough thought given to the role that these technology cities will eventually play in creating an innovation ecosystem?

The previous generation of technology parks in Africa – much more modest in their aspirations and outlay, have largely failed to meet the much lower bar of success set for them. Initiatives like Abuja Technology Village, Botswana’s Innovation Hub and a number of other similar initiatives can boast of world-class plans and infrastructure but have very little to show in terms of impact on the local digital economy.

The problem with the ‘technology-city’ model of driving innovation is that even when the technology city succeeds, there is no guarantee that the innovation benefits that we seek will accrue. Take Dubai as one example, whose Dubai Internet City today hosts the Middle East and Africa Headquarter of nearly all the major technology vendors. IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, HP and many other companies have moved their sales and customer support operations to Dubai, but next to none of the R&D, or core product development, which is so critical to the innovation spillover benefits that policy makers seek.

Policymakers in Africa countries are clearly impressed by, and following the model of the likes of International Technology Park Bangalore. The key question to ask, though is whether the success of the technology industry in India is because an IT Park was built there, or whether an IT Park was envisioned to accelerate the growth of the technology business, which had all the key requirements already in place. Remember, Southern India, has a long tradition of a nearly universal literacy. It has historical traditions of interest in, and excellence in, mathematics. It had universities that were producing a critical mass of engineers, computer science graduates and scientists who could come together to fuel the growth of the industry. Karnataka – the state in which Bangalore is based has 42 universities, hundreds of technology institutes, and a greater number of colleges. With investments of the kind being contemplated, merely back-office outsourcing isn’t enough; these investment will only bear fruit if the core technology development and research jobs – with their higher budgets and innovation spillover possibilities – also move as a result of these investments. Do we have the critical mass of technologists, computer scientists and engineers in place to make the model work across the African cities?

This is not to say that technology cluster development doesn’t have a role to play in incubating the growth of new industries; such clustering is a key innovation policy instrument used globally to foster closer partnerships – between business and academia, and also between business themselves (Research Triangle Park and the Silicon Valley being oft-quoted two examples). The core difference is that such cluster developments are meant to take advantage of resources that are already present. In the case of Africa, could it be said many years later that governments would have been better off building the required building-blocks (high quality education, research expertise etc infrastructure) before embarking on these investments. Only time, we guess, will tell.