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Tech innovation hubs are open government actors. Sometimes. Potentially.

J. Preston Whitt |

This blog was adapted from the original post on the Results for Development blog and the original report published by Making All Voices Count.

Let me unpack that a bit.  Tech innovation hubs are overwhelmingly focused on developing solutions to pressing social challenges, as covered in the first blog of this series.  These solutions aim to renegotiate the power relationships between duty bearers and the people facing those challenges. The only way those power relationships can be changed is through the sandwich, as Jonathan Fox put it, of opening from above meeting mobilization from below.  So, the silo-busting, community inter-mixing tech innovation hub is a promising model for such a sandwich to occur around specific social issues.

Unfortunately, most hub operational models either ignore or only indirectly include policy-makers as key stakeholders. Our research found the additional, consistent perception that policy and government processes are perceived as murky, restrictive, time-intensive and – in many cases – associated with corruption or partisan politics that could harm these hubs by association. This perception often led to sub-optimal or non-engagement, and to the top ‘ask’ we heard from hubs for their governments: for policy-makers to be more accessible, to consult with their community members, and to interact with the community and engage in a non-partisan way.  

At the same time, what follows are some real examples we found in our research, generously sponsored by Making All Voices Count, that help show how the ‘sometimes’ and ‘potentially’ that opened this blog can and are moving towards ‘often’ and ‘definitely’.

m:lab’s ‘Wireless Wednesdays’ as conduits for informal policy-maker engagement

Wireless Wednesdays were weekly forums that m:lab East Africa held between 2012 and 2014. These events targeted mobile innovators, entrepreneurs, industry stakeholders and thought leaders in different sectors to engage each other in focus group discussions that explored opportunities for growth and uptake of mobile innovations in different sectors. Agriculture, Health, Education and Entertainment were the anchor themes for these forums.

The event organisers actively sought and invited government officials, and over time were able to bring in officials from the meteorological department, climate change experts, health sector officials, and agricultural extension officers, among many others. These government representatives served as important conduits and linkages to government resources and knowledge. Furthermore, because they were invited to interact with stakeholders in informal settings without media coverage, there was less potential for the trepidation often brought on by formal set piece-style engagement and fewer incentives to give sound-bite speeches.

From this initiative, m:Lab registered success in bridging government-citizen engagement gaps. Engagement with health sector officials helped pave the way for health start-ups incubated at the m:lab who needed government access. Similarly, agricultural extension officers helped link agri-tech start-ups to farmers on the ground. Many of these linkages remain strong to this day.

Participants at a 2014 Wireless Wednesday focused on mobile for agriculture. Photo courtesy of PivotEast.

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s impromptu visit to Kenyan tech hubs

Many of Nairobi’s tech innovation hubs are clustered in a single large building, the Bishop Magua Centre. On a Friday in March 2015, the President of Kenya made an unannounced stop at the Centre. As iHub explained, “In a visit devoid of most formalities, the President took his time to listen, learn and inquire about all the technology labs and hubs”. Indeed, multiple interviews during our research commented that physically seeing, touching and understanding what the people in these spaces were trying to accomplish and the challenges they face had a noticeable impact on the President. There has been speculation that the President’s unofficial visit directly led to a greater understanding of the sector and, subsequently, some limited improvements to importation rules for the sector in the 2015 Kenya Finance Bill presented a few months later.

President Kenyatta with Dr Kamau Gachigi, Head of Gearbox. Photo courtesy of iHub.

How ccHub scored a policy win for their community

Observing the organic emergence of a tech cluster around their neighbourhood in Yaba, Lagos, in 2012, ccHub started a project to assess these groupings and to explore what drew them to the same location. They aimed to contribute to a public pool of information and help inform the refashioning of government policies towards innovation support.

At the time, ccHub’s internet service provider, MainOne, did not have the necessary permission to lay fibre-optic cables and could only provide a slower, microwave connection insufficient for the hub’s connectivity needs. Understanding that the other tech-oriented business in their vicinity would also require fast, dedicated Internet connections, ccHub enlisted MainOne as an ally in their engagement with the Lagos State Infrastructure Maintenance and Regulatory Agency (LASIMRA). Through their research and engagement, they were able to convince LASIMRA to waive the costs and grant the licenses to lay fibre-optic cables in the neighbourhood. ccHub and companies in Yaba now enjoy high-speed Internet connection from MainOne.

The Innovation Hub, Tshwane, as a provincial government agency reaching the grassroots

The Innovation Hub, described as Africa’s first science and technology park, was established in 2001 by the Gauteng Provincial Government. So far, it has taken on the role of an association, representing (through evidence-based case studies) the industry leaders in the park in national processes of ICT policy and procurement. Currently, the Innovation Hub is repositioning as a Provincial Innovation Agency for the city of Tshwane, to implement the Gauteng Innovation and Knowledge Economy Strategy. Through that Strategy, the Innovation Hub is piloting physical innovation spaces in township areas, to deploy services and facilities currently accessed solely at the Innovation Hub itself. These ‘eKasi labs’ are walk-in spaces offering Internet access, incubation, mentoring, temporary desk rental, builder spaces and training for non-tertiary graduates in computer programming. Based on the uptake and community response, the Innovation Hub aims to support a larger roll-out in its jurisdiction.

Participants at a July 2016 event at eKasi Soweto. Photo courtesy of eKasi Labs.

Ministerial champions and civic tech at government-supported Buni Hub

 

Buni Hub was set up in 2011 as part of the TanzICT project, and thus draws support from the Tanzanian Government. In particular, it is physically housed in the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH), a government parastatal. Buni thus enjoys a certain proximity to policy-makers, and speaks of having constant interaction with the policy space.

Through many of its supported projects, Buni frequently acts as a convener of key stakeholders for collaborative co-creation sessions aimed at surfacing improvements to policy. One interesting example is the Hatua project for civic tech for improved governance that seeks to engage citizens in ‘civic hacking’ of Tanzania’s health and education challenges. The project’s results so far are promising at the local level, with communities and local governments collaborating to identify technological solutions to governance issues. Initial Hatua events hosted by Buni to crowdsource national-level concrete problems and solutions have seen enthusiastic and productive participation from citizens and civil society stakeholders.

However, the involvement of the key public sector agencies whose involvement would support actual co-creation appears lacking, except the Director General of COSTECH, where Buni is housed. In our interviews and publicly, the Director General has expressed informed praise and a keen understanding of Buni’s work, but in spite of his leadership and work to establish inroads with other key policy-makers, and Buni’s proximity to and constant interaction with policy-making, Buni still struggles with limited understanding and appreciation of their work and value beyond this one key public sector champion. As one interviewee put it, “the public sector is inherently not innovative, and is very slow to change.”

COSTECH Director General, Dr Hassan Mshinda, at a Chukua Hatua event. Photo courtesy of the Hatua project.

Box 8: iBizAfrica and the role of a tech innovation hub as an ecosystem advisor

iBizAfrica’s engagement with policy and policy-makers is, in part, informed by the strong brand reputation of the university in which it is housed. iBizAfrica has tried to leverage their academic reputation to initiate policy engagements to serve their interests. Many of these have fallen through, such as an engagement to try and secure government support for incubatees innovating in agriculture. But while co-creation with the national government has been difficult to establish, iBizAfrica has found success engaging at the county level. For example, a solution they helped develop for one county’s revenue collection tracking and management has started to pique the interest of other county governments. In addition, iBizAfrica has built its reputation as an advisor on ICT issues. The Ministry of Trade and Cooperatives in Kenya sought iBiz out for recommendations on how to work with innovators and entrepreneurs. Similarly, iBizAfrica was one of the hubs that worked with the ICT Authority in setting up the government’s open data portal, the Kenya Open Data Initiative, and also worked with the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics on their data visualisation portal.

Thus, even though this advisory engagement is ad hoc and based on the needs arising within these various government agencies, over time the relationship has spiralled towards greater policy engagement and, perhaps, co-creation.

Ingrained, proactive policy-maker engagement for opening data and building collaboration

As Open Data Lab Jakarta explains on their website, they focus on “building evidence around how open data can solve complex challenges that benefit citizens. Then, we use this evidence to advocate for greater openness. Our regular workshops and events provide safe environments to facilitate dialogue among different stakeholder groups, encouraging partners to learn from each other.”

As such, in one ‘action research intervention’, they set out to understand and improve the context of open data in the education sector of Banda Aceh state in Indonesia. As a fundamental part of the project, they proactively worked with local civil society and officials in the education department. In both one-on-one sessions and town hall-type meetings with these actors, the Open Data Lab team was able to:

  • understand the existing data management and disclosure processes, as well as challenges to reform, uptake and data use on both sides;
  • unearth government officials’ apprehension around the concepts of open data
  • build both sides’ capacity and understanding of the utility and importance of open data
  • achieve improved data releases of civil society’s prioritised data
  • engage in a participatory, open dialogue that catalysed these previous successes into co-created, priority next steps to improve accountability of resources in the sector.

As the Open Data Lab shared in their project’s lessons learned paper, “the keys to success were a participatory, bottom-up process in which interested groups (including the media, researchers, and civil society organisations) identified which data sets would be most valuable to them, coupled with close collaboration with the government to build the trust needed to release that data.”

The Lab is currently exploring how to sustain such engagement over a longer term, based on this success. In May of last year, they launched an Open Cities project with MAVC to “provide a space and a platform for activists, social entrepreneurs and civic hackers to come together” and “open opportunities for learning and influencing policy-making” on open data and city-level challenges. ODLJ.png

Civil society and education agency representatives discuss newly opened data at a project event in Banda Aceh. Photo courtesy of Open Data Lab Jakarta.

Cover photo credit: Reproduced with permission from iSpace Ghana.

Nanjira Sambuli co-authored this report and contributed heavily to the research.