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Thoughts From America 1: Necessity and Invention

Apart from a broken rib and an iPod touch, I brought a few other things back from my visit to California. This is the first post in a series of thoughts and ideas I had during my trip to San Francisco.

Update: (The second one is here, the third is here.)

Old Ma Necessity

We've all heard the old chestnut about necessity being the mother of invention. It really hit home when I got to San Francisco, and one of the first emails I received from the office manager included Google Maps directions to the office. I know, we've all seen these before, and academically, I knew they worked, but it was still a surprise to see Google give real life directions that were actually useful to me. In South Africa, we become accustomed to things not even being meant to work for us - they're for the posh people in the first world, you know? (Although, now I think about it, most of the times I've ever encountered these maps it was because people were going "LOL GOOGLE SAYS DRIVE INTO THE SEA" and so on, so even then I didn't have much of a good impression of them.) The Google Maps for Cape Town barely have the highways fully drawn in.

Having underlined our necessity, where's our invention? Look again at the above-linked Google map of Cape Town, and then compare it with the OpenStreetMap equivalent.

Now, I know a lot of the drive behind OpenStreetMap is a desire to have open/free maps, rather than the necessity to fill the gap left by the inadequate Google Maps, but the two do go hand in hand. When you're in America, and everything works, you don't even realise that there's a niche in which to innovate. If you'd like another example, consider bandwidth. I won't lie to you, American bandwidth is FAST. I watched the presidential debates streaming live off the internet, in fairly high definition. When you've got that bandwidth, you don't even try to save it. But here in South Africa, the need to save bandwidth has led to some very clever solutions.

I attended BarCamp Africa at Google HQ in Mountain View, and one of the overriding themes was that Things Are Different In Africa, and that there is some amazing innovation happening here, simply because there's no other way the problems we encounter in our unique situation will ever be solved. One of the discussions underlined this for me: we were discussing Android and the iPhone, and I realised that there will be an enormous market for phone applications that are so specific that they're useful for only like thirty people in a tiny village in Kenya. Like I've said, things are different in Africa. There are places in Africa that desperately need a solution for a problem that no other place can even understand. There is a lot of necessity. And as a result, there is a lot of potential for a lot of invention. Of course, to return to phones (although phone apps obviously, aren't exactly the solution to many of Africa's problems, they suffice as an example), Apple just doesn't have the resources to create (or approve) apps to touch a fraction of this necessity, and that's where Android can swoop in and fill the void. An African entrepreneur can take advantage of the Long Tail to produce a large number of apps that are only used by a few people, but whose total uptake is enormous.

A final example before I leave the subject, just to illustrate how different Africa is. In Ghana, apparently, you just don't get street addresses. If you want to know where somebody lives, you'll get told "Akua lives two compounds behind Kwabena". Addresses are relative, and that's the way it's always worked. If you read this article, you'll see somebody trying to pull Ghana into a western ("modern" !?) way of thinking, but what they should really be doing is coming up with a Ghanaian solution to this Ghanaian problem.

The western world's maps (and things) already work, and so they don't even realise that we face these problems in Africa. This is where we can step in and start providing African solutions to our uniquely African problems.