By Dr Augustine Tirivangana
WHEN I was growing up, I thought the word ‘cinema’ referred to the actual film; then known as bioscope.
Later, I was educated to understand that ‘cinema’ is not the film but the building in which the film is beamed.
Going to the cinema was, therefore, literally going to the building to watch the bioscope.
Similarly, Zimbabweans need to be disabused of the wrong conceptualisation of ‘innovation hub’.
Presently, the atmosphere is abuzz with institutions of higher learning competing full throttle in building structures called ‘innovation hubs’.
But is the idea of ‘innovation hub’ sufficiently understood?
Do universities think that they will bring about industrialisation and modernisation through buildings or through what goes on in these buildings?
Moreover, remember that what goes on in the building does not come through hocus-pocus it has to meet loftier goals through systematic planning and formation of relevant philosophical habits.
In other words, the concept of innovation hubs requires some detailed explication so that we do not create the false impression that we are there when in fact we are miles away.
What is an innovation hub?
Innovation and entrepreneurship ‘hubs’ and ‘labs’ are all the rage these days.
A wide range of actors is convinced that hubs represent a genuinely new and exciting model for supporting (tech) entrepreneurs, in particular in sub-Saharan Africa which requires serious economic facelift.
Nevertheless, while innovation hubs are popular, little analysis has been done on why that is.
What is obvious is that most of the discussions around hubs use the term quite loosely.
For one, ‘hub’ has several connotations such as ‘open and egalitarian interaction’, ‘collaboration’ or ‘grassroots’, and it appears to me that the word is often used as a brand more than as a meaningful descriptor.
Put simply, the term ‘hub’ is just a trend term replacing ‘incubators’, ‘research and development labs’, ‘science parks’, ‘technopoles’ or ‘training facilities’, which terms seem to have recently fallen from grace.
However, the point this article makes, which the reader should never lose sight of, is that a hub should go beyond physical space.
Hubs should not be reduced just to the hub space or to a particular mission.
Yes, buildings house efforts at creativity and innovation but these efforts go beyond the buildings.
Buildings house instruments for processing thoughts, which thoughts are processed in the human brain; thus making the ‘human brain’ the actual hub, the ‘real innovation hub’.
Innovation hubs have been widely celebrated by practitioners and policymakers for their ability to boost creativity and collaboration.
However, the precise features that define hub organisations have proven hard to pin down.
This presents a problem: If we cannot concisely define what a hub is, thereby easily grasping its primary functions, then we cannot gauge performance. Put simply, we cannot manage what we cannot measure.
By implication, without clarity, proponents cannot defend hubs that (they feel) are adding real value within an entrepreneurial scene, while funders might inadvertently focus investment on hubs that do not live up to their potential.
A quick look at examples of successful intellectual hubs will be instructive. And we will start with the famous Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley (SV)
Silicon Valley is a region in the southern San Francisco Bay Area of Northern California, referring to the Santa Clara Valley, which serves as the global centre for high technology, innovation and social media.
San Jose is the Valley’s largest city, the third-largest in California, and the 10th largest in the US. Other major SV cities include Palo Alto, Santa Clara, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale.
According to the Brookings Institution, the San Jose Metropolitan Area has the third highest GDP per capita in the world (after Zurich in Switzerland and Oslo in Norway).
The word ‘silicon’ originally referred to the large number of silicon chip innovators and manufacturers in the region, but the area is now the home to many of the world’s largest high-tech corporations, including the headquarters of 39 businesses in the Fortune 1000, and thousands of start-up companies.
Silicon Valley also accounts for one-third of all of the venture capital investment in the US, which has helped it to become a leading hub and start-up ecosystem for high-tech innovation and scientific development. It was in the Valley that the silicon-based integrated circuit, the microprocessor and the microcomputer, among other key technologies, were developed.
As of 2013, the region employed about a quarter of a million information technology workers. Because of its widespread achievements in high-tech, ‘Silicon Valley’ has come to have two definitions — a geographic one, referring to Santa Clara County, and a metonymical one, referring to all high-tech businesses in the Bay Area.
The term is now generally used as a synecdoche for the American high-technology economic sector.
The name also became a global synonym for leading high-tech research and enterprises and thus inspired similar named locations, as well as research parks and technology centres with a comparable structure all around the world.
The Silicon Valley reference makes the thesis of this article clearer; that it is not the physical infrastructure that matters, but what goes on in the human mind.
Silicon Valley is the thinking valley; not just a trail of buildings.
It is about thinking (ideation), innovation, incubation, production and entrepreneurship; imagination, transforming imagination into reality and transforming that reality into goods and services that can be commercialised eventually on a larger scale and service the economy for the common good.