Innovation, like any good words appropriated too many times for too many purposes, has become something of a cliché, says Adam Oxford of htxt.africa, a company looking to claim back the word by inspiring action.
We might understand innovation better “if we could define it a little more clearly”, says Oxford, htxt.africa’s editor in chief. That’s easier said than done, but one simple definition comes from WeThinkCode’s Camille Agon, who believes “innovation is finding solutions to problems”.
WeThinkCode is a new peer-to- peer tech institution that opened in South Africa in 2016. It aims to identify and train people between the ages of 17 and 35 for free, to become world-class programmers. It is also one of the exciting and innovative companies participating at Leaderex 2016.
WeThinkCode smacks of a new approach to learning and the workplace. Explains Agon: “The course is tuition-free, and sponsored by corporates that are going digital themselves and are looking to source the right skills.” Ultimately, it’s about teaching skills or, as she puts it, “learning the language of innovation, which is coding”.
Business hasn’t always ‘connected’ with the language of innovation, or fully appreciated how to put it into action effectively, but a ground-breaking initiative at Leaderex 2016 aims to change that.
Electronics giant Samsung and data journalism website and technology showcase htxt.africa are putting together a White Paper on how virtual reality (VR) can be used in business. “This is quite revolutionary,” says htxt.africa’s Brett Haggard. “In terms of where VR fits into the business sector there is a huge lack of clarity and we are hoping, with this research paper, to help business understand how to use it as a tool.”
Oxford elaborates that only by finding a way to unleash the power of VR in business can the real impact be felt. “The view of VR will have to change in order for this to take place,” he says.
During Leaderex 2016 delegates will hear from Samsung about “how the ecosystem needs to be viewed (and used) as a platform to build exciting new applications on, instead of simply focusing on cool hardware”.
For anyone who harbours doubts that South Africa is on the cutting edge of technology and innovation, this masterclass should quell the debate.
Flicking the switch to ‘on’
Warren Hero, chief technology officer at Microsoft, certainly believes that innovation is alive and well in South Africa. He cites an example, from 2014, of a 22-year- old App Factory intern, Griffiths Sibeko, who developed an unofficial Rea Vaya app, “because information on Rea Vaya routes and timetables was not easily accessible for the majority of commuters”.
While it is easy to focus on international startups such as AirBnB and Uber, which have disrupted traditional industries by using digital innovation to orchestrate assets rather than owning them, it is important to celebrate South African successes. Hero adds: “South African tech startup VIGO started catering to the online solution needs of small to medium-sized business (SMEs) following Google SA’s closure of the Woza online initiative.”
VIGO created an online web creation platform company that enables SMEs to create interactive, responsive and search-engine optimised websites.
This example highlights an essential driver for digital innovation: finding ways to provide solutions that people need. It could be a public-sector solution such as the Johannesburg Road Agency’s ‘Find and Fix’ app, which makes it easier to report potholes, faulty traffic lights and other infrastructure issues in the city, or a business solution like the award-winning FNB Banking app.
The challenge businesses face, however, is understanding what customers actually need, as opposed to what the business thinks they want. “Utilising technology to serve customers better is no longer a competitive advantage,” says Hero. “It is part and parcel of the current operating environment for all companies.”
Coming full circle, these big-time innovations often start small, and ever-present in big business’s rearview mirror are the up-and- coming digital natives who are learning to code and able to use their skills to create solutions.
But can digital innovation be taught?
“Innovation is linked to disruption; it’s about seeing the world differently,” believes WeThinkCode’s Agon. She feels that you can’t teach innovation; rather, it is about providing tools and an environment where this can be encouraged.
“It’s about turning challenges into opportunity.”
While the likes of WeThinkCode and TechInBraam in Johannesburg (a tech cluster in the Tshimalogong Precinct backed by the University of the Witwatersrand, government, industry and academia) are making strides to improve skills in South Africa’s economy, the educational sector as a whole is not immune to the need to adapt to the digital times and harness the power of innovation.
“Education is one area where big strides are being made in terms of innovative solutions to boost the performance of educators, and make learning more entertaining, captivating and fulfilling for students,” says Hero. He cites the example of a Grade 6 teacher, Keshma Patel, at Micklefield Primary School in Cape Town, who is using innovative teaching practices such as the creative video game Minecraft in her class to promote creativity, collaboration and problem-solving.
“This initiative has boosted the levels of attention and interactivity in the class.”
Yes, harnessing the power of innovation can help to save floundering education systems like that of South Africa, says htxt.africa’s Oxford. Referring to a Leaderex 2016 masterclass on the subject, featuring Hero, Derek Moore from Web Learning and Sunward Park High’s Enoch Thango, Oxford notes that: “South Africa spends almost five times the amount per pupil in the state system as Kenya and achieves far worse outcomes in core skills like reading and mathematics. Innovation in education today is almost a synonym for putting more tablets and tech into classrooms – but is innovation really that easy? Which have been the most successful IT interventions in our public schools, and how can we repeat – and improve upon – their success?
One area that is certainly making great strides in education is VR, as it attempts to shed its image of being just a gaming gimmick. Rick Treweek, founder of African Robot, believes the technology has advanced to the point where it can now be used to support skills development and training.
“You can learn to drive an industrial machine, how to perform a surgery. It’s real world-changing stuff.”
Treweek believes business is looking to VR as a way of doing away with expensive, boring workshops that, for many, have become an organisational nightmare. Nowadays a headset can deliver a more effective educational experience.
Innovations such as VR can, and will, change the world in years to come. And come 24 August, Leaderex will shine a light on this brave new world. Entry is free if you register online at www.leaderex.com before 19 August.