TEDx Stellenbosch presentation: People, Connectedness and Mobiles

People, Connectedness and Mobiles: How the streets of the mega city will innovate is a presentation given at TEDx Stellenbosch by Steve Vosloo, Mobile Impact Evangelist at mLab SA. The theme of the day was imagining Africa as a vast mega city.

The presentation is on Slideshare with the transcript below.

I’d like to string together three ideas in the context of Africa as a mega-city. These aren’t my ideas, and they’re not all new. But collectively they make for an exciting, and I think, interesting proposition.

But before I start, there’s something that we need to recognise and to begin to let it sink in. We all know that access to the internet and to mobile phones is good … good for communication, for business, for education, healthcare … the list goes on. And yet most people in Africa can’t afford it. There’s a reason that Africa has the lowest internet and mobile penetration of any region in the world. The average European, like many people in this room, spends 1% of their monthly salary on mobile. The average African, 18%. You will see over the next few minutes that while we thought access was good, it’s really far more crucial than that for the success of the continent. There is a case to be made for access as a basic human right.

OK, so first idea: Chance favours the connected mind.

Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, dispels the notion of the lone inventor. The idea of someone locking themselves up for a number of years in their study or lab, brilliantly and singularly coming up with a groundbreaking invention, is romantic and untrue.

Johnson has studied the question of where good ideas come from an environmental perspective – what are the spaces that have historically led to unusual rates of creativity and innovation? He found a recurring pattern.

Breakthrough ideas almost never come in an isolated moment of inspiration, in a sudden insight. Smaller ideas, or hunches, begin to collect, percolate, collide, and over a number of years turn into the one big idea. These hunches can, and usually do, come from different people. He speaks about how the coffee houses of the Age of Enlightenment, and the Parisian salons of Modernism, were great engines of creativity because they created spaces where ideas could mingle, and swap and take new forms.

Johnson points out that over the last 600 years the great driver for scientific and technological innovation has been the increase in connectivity between people and our ability to reach out and exchange ideas

What’s happened in the last 15 years is that the internet has enabled this on a grand scale. And not just connecting professors and scientists, but every day people around the world.

The real lesson of where good ideas come from, is that chance favours the connected mind. In the mega-city of Africa we have networks of people that are physically and virtually connected through mobile phones and the internet. For the first time in the history of Africa, its minds are being connected to each other across the continent. This is radical and unprecedented.

Second idea: The street is already a hotbed of innovation.

Jan Chipchase used to work for Nokia, traveling around the world and observing how everyday people use technology. You might have found him on a rickshaw in Mumbai, or a bullet train in Japan, or on a busy street in Accra.

His aim was to try to understand the user on the street, how he or she used their mobile phones, and to feed that back to Nokia headquarters in Finland so that they could design phones with appropriate features that served real user needs. In his TED talk, Chipchase explains one of his great insights: that the street constantly innovates in ways that you can never plan for. People will adapt technology to their own needs in ways that you and I can’t predict. Examples of street innovation from Africa include missed calls to communicate with others, airtime as a currency, and swapping SIM cards into your phone to save on the cost of calls to different networks.

Well in the mega-city of Africa we will have the world’s biggest street scene. This is our London coffee house, our Parisian salon. Our spaces are on the streets, in shebeens, in corner cafes.

So, if breakthrough ideas come from connected minds, and a mega-city offers a vast network of street innovation, do we just stand back and wait for the magic to happen in the future Africa? No. Of course there needs to be a more enabling environment: there needs to be competition, good policies, support for budding entrepreneurs and inventors, training, seed capital. There needs to be an environment where people can take risks.

This is the third idea: Lowering the cost of failure is a necessary enabler of innovation.

In his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky speaks about how the cost of failure impedes innovation. There is a cost attached to forming a company or organisation and doing product development. Companies don’t spend money on developing products, or initiating trade partnerships or investing in new markets, that don’t have a good chance of success. The cost of failure means that risks aren’t taken. This is a gross simplification of Shirky’s very eloquent idea in the book, but essentially what he proposes is that the internet lowers the traditionally high cost of failure because it lowers the cost of forming organisations, because of virtual organisations, and of communicating and collaborating and researching online, with anyone else in the world.

My ex-colleague, Steve Song, built on this argument and proposed that the high cost of telecoms access in Africa is a cost of failure that is stifling innovation, and that needs to be reduced. Think about the street entrepreneur who needs to pick up the phone and talk to other entrepreneurs, to suppliers, to potential customers, to get online to access market prices, to advertise her products, and to collaborate. Think of the small time inventor who needs to connect with others to bounce ideas around. That cost needs to be radically reduced to enable the street’s innovation.


So if we take these three ideas together in the mega-city of Africa then we have the potential for a vast network of bottom-up innovation systems.  Not one Silicon Valley, or Silicon Cape, but a multitude of Ghetto Labs.

Africa is already the world’s hottest lab – I know because in my day job I work at the mLab Southern Africa, where we’ll incubate mobile start-ups.

But the key is access. I believe that if access to mobile and internet were free, or at least genuinely affordable, that it would make the single biggest contribution to social and economic development on the continent. South Africa should follow the lead of Finland and the Netherlands, and be the first African country to declare access a basic human right.


Image credits: Kiwanja.net. http://www.kiwanja.net/mobilegallery.htm. All Rights Reserved; Joe Lee. http://www.flickr.com/photos/josephlee/314492774/sizes/l/in/photostream/. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0; Steve Vosloo. CC-BY-SA-2.0; Joi Ito. http://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/1397946225/sizes/l/in/photostream/. CC-BY-2.0.