Maker Faire and the R & D Rise in the South
The majority of the world’s research and development (R & D) in science and technology is now shifting to the global South. Powerhouses like China boast vast numbers of published papers in peer-reviewed journals and hefty cash inputs into research and development.
China increased its R & D spending in 2009 to US $25.7 billion, a 25.6 percent increase over 2008, according to Du Zhanyuan, vice minister of the Ministry of Science and Technology. China is rapidly closing the science funding gap with Japan: in 2009 it allotted US $37.1 billion for R & D.
The times have never been better for those with new ideas in the global South.
And it’s not just big companies that are involved. There is R & D going on at ground level as well. African inventors, innovators and creatives met in Nairobi, Kenya in August as part of the Maker Faire Africa 2010 (http://makerfaireafrica.com). This is research and development on a shoestring, and done in a very practical, problem-solving way. While Africa’s inventors and innovators lack the big budgets of other economies, they are not short on ideas and drive.
The Maker Faire Africa is a family-friendly gathering where the inventors can showcase their work and connect with others. It is a mix of workshops, tips on business skills, awards and a party.
The global economy thrives on innovation and so-called ‘creative destruction’ – as economist Joseph Schumpeter called it (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Creative_destruction) – that takes place as out-of-date technologies and ways of doing are surpassed by better ideas and more efficient methods. The power to innovate is the deciding factor for sustained economic growth.
The philosophy behind Maker Faire Africa 2010 – the brainchild of ‘venture catalyst’ and entrepreneur Emeka Okafor (http://timbuktuchronicles.blogspot.com) – is to prove that innovation doesn’t just happen with computers.
As its website says, “The aim of a Maker Faire-like event is to create a space on the continent where Afrigadget-type innovations (http://www.afrigadget.com), inventions and initiatives can be sought, identified, brought to life, supported, amplified, propagated, etc.”
Maker Faire Africa is working with research organizations like Ghana’s Ashesi University (http://www.ashesi.edu.gh/index.html) and Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (http://www.knust.edu.gh/pages) “to sharpen focus on locally-generated, bottom-up prototypes of technologies that solve immediate challenges to development.”
In the end, the goal of engaging all this creative and inventive energy is to spur Africans towards building “a manufacturing base that supplies innovative products in response to market needs.”
This initiative stands out in several ways: it is truly inspiring, it gets to the core of how wealth is created, and helps build communities of innovators and inventors to tackle the problems facing Africa – and humanity.
“We have a broader variety of makers this time around,” says Emeka Okafor of the 2010 Maker Faire. He notes makers are bringing more complex systems to the Faire, rather than just single devices. And that they “have more makers who are actually from the region.”
“Maker Faire Africa is essentially a platform whereby innovators, inventers, creative types, across all disciplines, share ideas, showcase their products, interact with attendees and other makers,” he continues. They “begin the process of building what we think is an essential community of what I like to term the productive class. That is essentially where we see ourselves playing a key role. A productive class whose foundation is laid upon building problem-solving systems.”
Okafor believes Africa just doesn’t “have enough wealth creation as we should.”
“We have things backwards. … One of the essential steps is that you had productive systems that allowed those countries (Asia and Europe) to create wealth. And they had to draw those resources from within.
“We see Maker Fair Africa celebrating resources that we already have, with knowledge from within and outside.
“In many ways the Makers as we see them, epitomise the very sense of problem-solving that as a society acquires more of it, it begins to deal with its challenges very differently. And not look elsewhere in terms of dealing with its challenges. We want to make our Makers sexy, we want to make inventors sexy, innovators celebrities.”
Some of the inspiring inventors from this year’s Faire include Norbert Okec from Uganda. His prototype for a solar powered street lighting system comes straight from his frustration with the traffic lights of Kampala, Uganda. Many don’t work and so he has developed a prototype solar-powered traffic light using a mix of recycled local parts and some LEDs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light-emitting_diode) brought by a friend from China.
He hopes to produce an e-book on his invention to share with other inventors. He was joined by fellow inventors working on a dashboard for managing wireless networks, how to recycle plastic parts, solar-power torches, water and sanitation products, junk art, community cookers, sculptures, eye glasses, bicycles, and an automatic lighting system for homes.
Okafor is a passionate advocate of the Maker philosophy and how it changes the game: “…building is equivalent to making and making is a joyful thing, it is an interesting thing. It is a very satisfactory thing. It is not work. Most of the individuals around here have the biggest smiles on their faces. They don’t see what they are doing as work.
“The fact they are sitting next to other people like them if anything is one of the biggest take-aways for them. Because for some of them they were toiling away on their own. Now they see others like them. And they realise they aren’t crazy.
“When you build a community and the community begins to get stronger and sustain itself, all the other things come naturally: businesses get formed, partnerships happen: and then everything else people look for first…actually begins to happen.”
And Africa’s future prosperity is what is at stake at the Faire: “There is a market for the products. And we believe as more individuals – Africans and otherwise – come into contact with what is on display, they will come to see their own societies differently. “
- Flickr photo gallery: A clickable archive of the Maker Faire inventors and their inventions. Website: http://www.flickr.com/groups/makerfaireafrica/pool/
- Afrigadget: ‘Solving everyday problems with African ingenuity’: This blog never ceases to amaze and fascinate. Website: http://www.afrigadget.com/
- Afrobotics: A competition for African engineering students to develop robots. Website: http://www.afrobotics.com/
- International Development Design Summit: The Summit is an intense, hands-on design experience that brings together people from all over the world and all walks of life to create technologies and enterprises that improve the lives of people living in poverty. Website: http://iddsummit.org/
- Butterflyworks: A social design studio using design to make social change. They use media, social branding and experiential learning to share knowledge, trigger creativity and build sustainable businesses. Website: http://www.butterflyworks.org
- AshokaTECH: AshokaTECH is a blog about technology and invention within the realm of social entrepreneurship. It aims to find, support, and celebrate social innovators whose technologies offer fresh, effective approaches to advancing social change. Website: http://tech.ashoka.org/