New Structures for the New Economy: Creating Space for Technology Innovation
There are dozens of innovation hubs in Africa today as the continent has in recent years adopted a concept that first emerged in Germany in the 1990s. Back then, space was not a problem in Berlin. The city’s Cold War-era division between East and West had left vast swaths of land unused. The idea of creating an urban, accessible meeting area for the growing IT-community to explore the digital universe was easy to implement. Thus, pioneer organizations like the Chaos Computer Club started the first hackerspaces – places such as the c-base became a haven for ‘nerds’ and computer programmers to meet and work on the development of free software, open hardware, and alternative media.
A lot has happened since the c-base was founded in 1995. A digital and mobile revolution has reached even the remotest corners of the world. Global digitalization and the increase in internet and mobile connectivity has spurred the growth of local IT-markets, industries and communities in the Western world, but elsewhere as well. Technology start-ups are seen as promising economic drivers in Nairobi just like in Berlin, attracting the attention of investors and media. In this new digital, creative economy the idea of adapting collaborative working structures and creating space for technology communities to come and work together has become increasingly popular for a number of reasons.
- Open source philosophy, the concept of hackerspaces and community building, has had its impact in many areas of the creative new media industries. The idea of networking, sharing knowledge and creating open, transparent structures has been adapted by many IT and social media companies and incorporated into modern business models.
- Further, this new digital economy breeds freelancers and mini-enterprises, who cannot afford their own office spaces. Therefore, there is a growing interest in and need for co-working spaces. Bundling resources not only saves costs, but working together in one space with many co-workers is seen as a source of inspiration and creates collaborative possibilities on a project-based level.
So called technology hubs aim to create this very space, offering learning, networking and collaboration opportunities as well as work spaces for individuals and small start-ups. There is no clear definition of an innovation hub. A hub can be defined as the focus point of certain activities, or a center around which other things revolve or from which they radiate. Many technology innovation hubs build on the concept of hackerspaces. They are designed to provide a physical space, a meeting point, for the local technology community.
A hackerspace is usually based on the idea of open membership and the provision of access to technology. It is a creative space, in which people come together to share resources, knowledge and jointly work on IT-related projects. Collaboration in hackerspaces is mostly informal, as is the atmosphere. Whilst many hubs build on the hackerspace concept by trying to preserve that informal atmosphere and the belief in sharing and openness, they also aim to act as a catalyst for technology innovation and the growth of local IT industries.
About the Author
Geraldine de Bastion is a freelance international consultant with a multicultural background based in Berlin, Germany. She is an expert on information and communication technology and new media for development and advises governmental organisations, NGOs and businesses on digital media and communication strategies. She also works with activists and bloggers around the world.