09 October 2009

Rebooting Africa

Calestous Juma delivered the Marie Jahoda Lecture at the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) last week. Calestous is a prominent Professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School and a Graduate of the University of Sussex. His talk was about the role that innovation in science and technology must play in Africa's development.

His talk was brimming with optimism, about "rebooting Africa". With new undersea fibre optic cables connecting Africa's coastlines with the rest of the world, African countries could become the new destinations of outsourcing, the drivers of digitization and the conveners of cloud computing (the use of Internet storage via rugged laptops). What can the state do to support this? Build infrastructure. Distribute the capacity to innovate. Train leadership on the importance of investing in rather than taxing technology development.

His techno-optimist vision was rightly challenged by Melissa Leach from IDS. She noted the ways in which science and technology, left to the market, could not guarantee the delivery of poverty reduction and social justice. See the STEPS research centre she directs for more work on the governance of science and technology. Juma countered that he did not mean to imply that the freedom to innovate was the same as the unchecked free market. He also said that it was important to begin innovating rather than analysing the perfect time to innovate.

There is a lot to both views. Too often those outside the African continent are unable to imagine and vision the new opportunities. On the other hand, the accurate assessment of risk requires good information and a capacity to do something in response to it.

My favourite quote from Juma's presentation? "Vision is a product of trial and error. When something works, the vision is how to project it forward, not how to make it work".

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