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When the buzz leaves the hub

In the past months there have been many initiatives trying to map out all innovation hubs and labs in SSA. Some crowdsource maps powered by BongohiveInfoDev and others have identified over 100 tech hubs and labs in the region. These initiatives provide with a categorization including incubators, accelerators, tech hubs, co-working spaces, and so on. The ‘mapping’ of hubs has been very helpful in times where we are still trying to understand these phenomena. Yet it seems the duplication of maps has become a ‘thing’, and quantifying hubs seem to be in fashion.

This sort of quantitative approach is always inviting, as being able to prove the vast spread of something can correlate with its success. Therefore mapping hubs in Africa may, for some, prove their ‘effectiveness’, as it demonstrates how they are replicating, to the point where now almost every African city has a hub or lab of some sort.

For some, hubs provide with the  infrastructure needed to catalyze African technology, entrepreneurship and innovation. Other less optimistic voices consider the training and development focus and mentoring services provided by hubs to be their fatal weakness, and are 100% convinced that the incubation model in Africa is fatally flawed as a method of creating big software companies.

If one thing is true is that one day, the buzz around hubs will fade away and all we will have left are hubs. One day, the fuzzy words and vague terms will become boring and we will find ourselves asking other questions, perhaps the right questions. One day, a more mature approach will come, and we will perhaps wish we had started sooner.

Stepping out of the hype and the buzz will, for example, allow us to understand that as Kerstin explains, collaboration cannot be pinned down in space. Following her argument, then perhaps nor can innovation and/or creativity? If so, then why are hubs being designed to encourage collaboration, either between like-minded people or either between theunlikely allies?

Bottom line is, if we do not focus our energy specifically in the qualitative matter of hubs and as Tayo Akinyemi says, understand that there’s “no one size fits all” of hubs and their sustainability models, we will be missing out on the particular things that make hubs special and different from any other existing organizational forms.

Impact of hubs

Are we then measuring their success based on how many start-ups are being created? On how many mobile applications are being designed? Or scaled? Or sold in the market? Can we measure the success of these by their numbers?

What if the impact of hubs remains on the small-scale benefits it provides within the region? What if at this point in time hubs are great because they allow for young people to develop entrepreneurial skills, filling up the gap between the local market and the local capacity?

What if hubs are allowing for women to pursue careers they wouldn’t be able to pursue otherwise in their societies? Are these things relevant? Should they be criteria considered in the ‘success’ (or failure) of these organizational forms?

But perhaps we are not there yet. Perhaps we still need the fuzz around hubs to persist, so that we can let them develop into a certain kind of organizational form that goes beyond our current understanding.

Note: this post was originally published in the ict4d center website

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