“In practice, it’s a dysfunctional system, like disconnected spaghetti squiggles.” Pieter van Heyningen gestures toward the slide on the large projector screen behind him. On it are three coloured balls of roughly scribbled lines superimposed over an aerial shot of an urban landscape. “What this is about is bringing that spaghetti into an urban space where people want to interact. That’s the ideal,” he says. The slide animation rolls all three coloured balls into one, creating an entangled, multicoloured heap.
Despite what it may sound like, Van Heyningen is not talking about Italian cooking. As a founding partner of SustNet and a former project leader at the Stellenbosch Innovation District (SID), he is addressing the large audience gathered at SID’s “Smart and Inclusive Access” event on the topic of innovation systems. The event, held on 16 August in the banquet hall of the Protea Hotel by Marriot in Techno Park, revolved around urban innovation as a driver of the modern economy, focusing especially on the creation of platforms for innovation through closer collaboration between Techno Park, Stellenbosch University and Stellenbosch Municipality.
Stan du Plessis, the incoming COO of Stellenbosch University, touched on a few important themes for the evening in his keynote address. Recognising location as a crucial driver for innovation, he spoke about some of the challenges that Stellenbosch faces in improving access to the town and its facilities. According to Du Plessis, almost all of the major innovations worldwide over the past 12,000 years have emerged from open societies, but in South Africa, urban centres have historically been designed to be the opposite of open. And while there are clearly incentives for government to help change these legacies of our past, they can only do so much. To truly unlock the power of collaborative innovation in any town, he said, each partner – including Techno Park, Stellenbosch Municipality, and the University – needed to reflect and on its own inadequacies, and address these where they could.
These themes were taken up by the four panelists who were subsequently given an opportunity to share their thoughts on access and innovation. Piet van Zyl, Head of the Western Cape Government’s (WCG) Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning, gave a technical overview of the WCG’s approach to spatial planning since 2014, offering a few useful pointers to those thinking about urban innovation in and around Stellenbosch. In addition to accessibility, he urged, the aim should be to enhance inclusivity, otherwise one might end up creating an isolated environment. This is what happened, he said, in Silicon Valley, when rising property prices began to push out marginalised communities. In addition to striving for “intelligence-driven, planning-led, infrastructure-enabled” economic growth and development, he concluded, one should make space for innovation and experimentation, and also think about how to go about building resilience into the environment.
Gronum Smith from Altair Engineering shared some of their company’s experiences in the long journey that saw them grow from a small business founded in 1985 to a global venture with 67 offices in 23 countries today. Based in Techno Park, Altair’s work on software design for antenna placement is used extensively throughout the world, and Smith urged for a long-term, global perspective in the drive for innovation. He demonstrated a variety of Altair’s powerful design and visualisation tools and software toolkits that could be helpful for entrepreneurs and startups. Prospective innovators in the audience pricked up their ears when they heard that Altair would be providing some of these platforms free-of-charge to winners of the Access & Innovation Challenge, the final round of which was scheduled for later in the evening.
The next panelist was Stephan Lamprecht from Venture Solutions, an innovation management and commercialisation consultancy operating throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Lamprecht impressed on the audience the importance of innovating for people, rather than for the sake of process itself. Even though the Stellenbosch brand is hot property in the local startup and innovation sphere, and a real boon for those driving innovation here, one should not risk forgetting about the people at the heart of it all. “If we don’t innovate for human beings, then our innovation will not make a success,” he concluded.
Abbas Jamie, the Director for Innovation and Transformation (Africa) at Aurecon, also urged for human beings to be put at the centre of innovation in South Africa. Design thinking, he mentioned, allowed for a more systemic way of approaching the so-called “wicked problems” afflicting society precisely by allowing the people living through those problems to give shape to the processes used in tackling them. He urged the audience to put their hearts and their minds toward working for a successful innovation district in Africa – a feat, he mentioned, that needed its own approach, and would not resemble the models working in Europe and elsewhere in the world.
The evening was capped by the final leg of the SID Smart & Inclusive Access Challenge, a competition for entrepreneurs who could come up with a plan to solve issues of access or inclusion in the Stellenbosch area. With a prize of incubation and implementation support worth R80,000, there were no shortage of contestants. From an audio-based learning and communication app (Lalela), a local carpooling and ride-sharing service (Jumpin Rides) and a community venture to improve water and sanitation (Enkanini Water Hustlers), to a platform that develops business tools for empowering small business owners in local communities (Kuba) and a project to support and enhance disability recruitment (Place), the quality and enthusiasm of those bringing innovative solutions to society's collective challenges boded well for the future. The final winner of the prize, by judges’ decision, was Kuba.
“Innovation is happening everywhere – not only in Europe or the US, but also in Africa. And South Africa is falling by the wayside,” Van Heyningen had mentioned in his opening remarks. Thanks to events like the SID’s “Smart and Inclusive Access,” and the platforms for innovation that are slowly taking shape in collaborative efforts between the University, Stellenbosch Municipality and Techno Park, there is every hope that we are fast catching up.