Tomorrow I’ll hit up my fifth innovation hub in Africa. I’ve been lucky to have had the opportunity to visit several different co-working labs and tinker spaces during my two months in Kenya. It’s exciting to experience hubs at different levels of maturity with varying approaches to change. I am thankful for my association with Kenya’s own iHub, which maintains a certain cache and reputation in the tech hub community. I’ve noticed that dropping the iHub name works a bit like a skeleton key, allowing known associates access to a number of Africa’s tech labs—and perhaps more importantly, their managers. These thought leaders and visionaries have been particularly helpful as I begin to weave together a cohesive story for my forthcoming thesis (focused on the trickle-down effects of Africa’s tech hubs). Besides interviewing Erik Hersman at the iHub, I’ve met with managers at Kampala’s Hive Colab and this Thursday I will venture to South Africa’s Jozihub in Johannesburg. Smart people with smart ideas working to inspire smart change in Africa. Smart.
While labs like the iHub and the Hive Colab appear seemingly independent, many are connected through a larger umbrella network called AfriLabs. According to their website, “AfriLabs exists to support the growth of communities around African technology hubs and to encourage expansion of the network by providing tools and resources for new and emerging labs.” It is great to see AfriLabs link best practices and best people across countries and disciplines, connecting disparate dots throughout the continent. This type of coordinating body can help set a course for Africa’s tech hubs—allowing them to calibrate their short-term and long-term goals. I certainly need to do more research on the AfriLabs model.
But beyond talking to people at places like the iHub and governing bodies like AfriLabs, I am quickly realizing that I need some context from labs located outside of the African continent. After wrapping up my summer in Kenya, I aim to glean more insights by exploring hubs in my own backyard. Cambridge, Massachusetts is a hotbed of innovation thanks to MIT, Harvard, and the city’s incredible density of graduate degrees. Only a few blocks from my house lies the Cambridge Innovation Center (or CIC). CIC claims to have “more startups than anywhere on the planet”. While this fact seems suspect, the CIC is definitely working on the edge of change. I better get myself back to Massachusetts to understand what makes the CIC tick and see if there are any exportable lessons for Africa’s own tech ecosystem. A trip to MIT’s Media Lab is also in order. Ethan Zuckerman of the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media sits on Ushahidi’s Board of Directors—and I have a feeling that Ethan would have some salient advice for my thesis, and frankly, my career. But for now, onward to South Africa.