The African Diaspora as a source of Innovation

By Francis Stevens George

Innovation is an imperative for Africa. It is no longer the preserve of the developed countries.  Globalization and technology- are having an unimaginable impact on Africa. We have seen what mobile phones have done to the banking and health sectors for example.

Globalization breeds diversity in the market place. This means more choices for consumer and thus more opportunities. Technology introduces speed as the basis for competition. In order to respond to the needs of the new global market place, countries as well as companies must innovate. To innovate, knowledge must be shared and acted upon the internet time.

Innovation is more than inventing new things. For an invention to have value, innovation must take place. The process by which innovation takes place can be various. One of the common was the linear process.

Innovation is about thinking differently and doing things differently.  Back in 1911, Joseph Schumpeter published for the first time “The theory of Economic Development”, he described the motor of the development as the innovation itself.

According to Peter F. Drucker innovation can be generally defined as: the process of equipping in new, improved capabilities or increased utility.

The World Bank institute stated the following, “Climate change, environmental destruction, and armed conflict are adding to the already high levels of poverty and global inequality. At the same time, new technologies and inventions offer unprecedented opportunities to poor communities. Our challenge is to encourage the adoption of innovative practices in developing countries, and to do it better and faster than ever before. “

Innovation is becoming increasingly Open; so called Open Innovation.  The central idea behind open innovation is that in a world of widely distributed knowledge, companies cannot afford to rely entirely on their own research. Open Innovation is a term promoted by Henry Chesbrough, a professor and executive director at the Center for Open Innovation at UC Berkeley, in his book Open Innovation: The new imperative for creating and profiting from technology.

Open Innovation is in contrast to Closed Innovation. The period between the end of World War II and the mid 1980s was the area of closed innovation and internal R&D. Many R&D departments of private companies were at the leading edge of scientific research. The setup of internal R&D was perceived as a strong barrier for potential new competitors, as large investments had to be done to be able to compete. In the era of closed innovation, a company relied on its own internal R&D and protects its Intellectual Property (IP) in order to win.

With Open innovation, companies now reply on external sources of knowledge. More important is the principle that a company should profit from others’ use of their IP, and should buy others’ IP whenever it advances our business model. This is quite a dramatic development and one that opens up interesting opportunities.

Governments are also finding that partnership with the private sector is creating innovative social services to tackle various manifestations of poverty. These so called Private Public partners are in essence knowledge and open innovation networks.

Open innovation has created knowledge brokers and open innovation facilitators. These are businesses that bring together those with problems and those with solution.

The private and the public sector in African countries can developed such networks with their Diasporas. I recall in 2002, I was part of the Digital Diaspora Network for Africa initiative. At that time, the idea was for us the Diaspora to leverage our knowledge for the development in the ICT related field for the continent. Such a network would be invaluable source of knowledge. For it to succeed you will incentives for both problem provider and solution providers.

There are several examples of Open Innovation where the Diaspora can play a valuable role.

Intermediary Platforms

These are brokers that facilitate research, marketing, design, open source software development and not least open innovation services. We have a project called Open Innovation Africa. This is an intermediary that seeks to bring problem solvers with those with problems.

Creative Co-creation

These are open innovation services where products are created. For example, community development projects such as a hygienic latrine etc. Innovative musicians can also create music through such networks. You can imagine an aspiring designer working from say, Accra, with a member of the Diaspora in Europe or US. For this to happen, you need a platform and incentives for both parties.

Corporate Imitative

One example is the Vodafone mobile application network.  One could also envisage an international company using its foreign staff to create such networks to their countries of origin. The bottom at the pyramid concept suits this kind open innovation.

Peer Production (P2P)

An example is Yahoo Answers. One easily envisage a portal where the Daispora could become a knowledge source. I am not suggesting that this necessarily has to be one way.

Public Crowd Sourcing

One of the best examples that springs to mind is Eureka Medical; a medical open innovation platform. With the large number of doctors and nurses that are outside the continent, one could easily see how they can contribute to the advances back home. Again one would need a platform and incentives for all parties.

We do see a number of promising open innovation networks, particularily in health. For example mapping the global distribution of clinical episodes of plasmodium falciparum malaria.

IBM has its well known open innovation network connecting centers around the world including a centre in South Africa.

In the final analysis, it is very clear that the African Disaporra can use the internet as a platform for knowledge exchanges and innovation networks. Management, design and software development are areas that African countries can benefit from with more knowledge and collaboration.

Francis Stevens George

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