Spark

Move over, Silicon Valley — the new centres of innovation are in Africa, says author

The innovators creating the technologies of the future aren’t coming out of the wealthy campuses of Silicon Valley, but instead from the developing nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia, says author Ramesh Srinivasan.

Projects in Africa offer new, more inclusive models of designing tech

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg visits BRCK, a Nairobi-based organization that builds cheap, robust, solar-powered Wi-Fi routers. (BRCK)
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When you think about technological innovators and disrupters, people like Silicon Valley's Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Jack Dorsey naturally come to mind.

According to author Ramesh Srinivasan, the innovators creating the technologies of the future aren't coming out of the wealthy campuses of Silicon Valley, but instead from the developing nations of Africa, Latin America and Asia.

"The dominant majority of technology users, even Facebook and Google users, aren't in Canada. They're not in the United States. They're not even in Europe," Srinivasan told Spark host Nora Young.

"They're in the continents of the global south."

In his book Beyond the Valley: How Innovators Around the World are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow, Srinivasan highlights forward-thinking projects around the world that he says wealthier tech nations can learn from.

Ramesh Srinivasan, author of Beyond the Valley, says the innovators creating the technologies of the future aren't coming out of the wealthy campuses of Silicon Valley but from the developing nations. (Submitted by Ramesh Srinivasan)

"I'm not trying to exoticize this, but the constraints people face actually force a type of innovation, a type of creativity that would not be possible if you simply thought you had infinite access to resources," he said.

Recycling electronic waste into new products

About 50 million tonnes of electronic waste are produced every year, according to a World Economic Forum report, and much of that is exported to developing nations.

Innovators in places like Kenya are taking these discarded tech products and repairing them, rewiring them or reconstructing them into entirely new items.

Africa Born 3D, or AB3D, transforms electronic waste into 3D printers. (Ramesh Srinivasan)

"They're giving [discarded technologies] new forms of life, and that's what innovation actually is," Srinivasan said.

An organization based in Nairobi called Africa Born 3D, or AB3D, produces high-quality 3D printers using salvaged electronic waste, and then sells them domestically for a fraction of the price of comparable models from the West. 

In fact, Srinivasan says, the AB3D-built technology often outperforms Western and Chinese 3D printers because they're built by locals who have an understanding of the challenges and needs of their own communities.

Designing better products through 'broken worlds thinking' 

Srinivisan explains that this contextual knowledge is important when it comes to innovation. He refers to "broken worlds thinking," an idea that you have to design something for a world in which some things don't necessarily work the way you expect. 

"This kind of model of working with the constraints of a place to build innovations that work for that place that can travel from Africa to other parts of the world is kind of incredible," he said.

The Nairobi-based project BRCK, which designs Wi-Fi routers with the aim of providing free and accessible internet across Kenya, is an example of this ingenuity.  

BRCK’s call to arms. (Ramesh Srinivasan)

Constrained by an unreliable power grid but recognizing the opportunities of a sunny climate, the team designed cheap, robust, solar-powered Wi-Fi routers that have been spreading across Kenya. One has even been set up in a refugee camp. 

"[They're] designed for the environment, designed for the Nairobi environment, designed for the African environment, the physical environment, to last there," Srinivisan said. 

He says that there is a "whole ecosystem of entrepreneurialism" popping up in Kenya, and many of these innovators start out on the streets, rather than in R&D labs.

"It's literally a table, a soldering gun and a person's creativity. They're not formally trained in engineering. They just hack it. They figure it out."

Making AI more inclusive, less racist

Artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms have often been criticized for their gender and racial biases. In 2015, Google had to apologize after its photos app misidentified people with dark skin as "gorillas."

"We see examples of AI and algorithmic systems built in Silicon Valley, even in China, that turn out to be racist," Srinivasan said, noting that relying on systems built by Western white males thousands of kilometres away is problematic.

At Uganda's Makerere University, the AI & Data Science research lab shows how digital technology can be imagined and created by Africans.

Crops being monitored using technology from Makerere University's AI & Data Science research lab. (Makerere University)

Part of their work involved building AI systems that can be used for more localized applications, like diagnosing diseases, identifying plants and predicting traffic. 

Srinivasan says that the problem with AI technology is that it not only reflects the biases of its developers, but it's also biased by the data sets that the systems learn from, in effect normalizing and amplifying those biases.

"[The research lab's] idea is to feed those systems with the data set so that those systems can better accomplish activities that they need or want."

Srinivasan says that as the reach of technology spreads around the globe, the voices that inform the ways these technologies are developed must also become more globalized. 

Part of that means offering "greater collaboration, greater control, greater visibility."

"We need to move toward collaboration," he said. "That's a human issue, not an issue that's merely encoded into an engineering process."

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