By Chris Orwa
Inspired by Afrinnovator’s blog post exploring the idea of the creative class in an African city (update: the blog seems to be offline presently),I set to answer the question, 'what makes a great city?'
Some argue it’s the food or the music, others, the architecture. Either way, it is the innovation applied to daily life’s chores that thrusts cities to the echelons of greatness. Nairobi, now the centre of commerce and innovation in East and Central Africa, is a case worth looking into.
Why is it attracting more investment than any other city south of the Sahara and north of the Limpopo?
We can draw parallels with the Italian city of Florence, as stated by Alex Tabarrock in his TED book ‘Launching the Innovation Renaissance: A New Path to Bring Ideas to Market Fast’: Florentines were obsessed with innovation because they lived with their wits as a result of few natural resources.
A Land of Ideas
Colloquially referred to as ‘Shamba ya Mawe’ (land of stones) by residents, Nairobi has little or no natural resources, as it was established at the heart of the African savannah. The quest to build something out of nothing kicks off the need to innovate; great cities innovate to overcome challenges! It is the concept of constraints driving creativity: less is more and more is less.
But that’s not the main reason why Nairobi boasts skyscrapers and a Silicon Strip along Ngong Road - cities are innovative because they contain more ideas to steal. In the strip, we are seeing more blog posts being dedicated to episodes of ‘poached ideas’ and ‘breach of NDAs’. Just like traffic jams are signs of a growing city, idea poaching is linked to the development of creativity in a city.
The Sharing Economy
The sharing economy is also fast taking root in the city; more people are solving life’s daily challenges by relying on collaborative efforts such as car-pooling, awareness raising campaigns via social media, online co-ordinated relief efforts and sharing news, generally. In this environment, creativity flourishes and if Twitter can be used as a barometer of creativity, Kenyans On Twitter (#KOT) definitely score a straight A. Additionally, it is a fact that collaborative efforts build trust among people who in turn form partnerships, corporations and business entities - no large company has ever been built by ideas from a single person.
It goes without saying that Nairobi is also home to the largest crowdsourcing software Ushahidi a non-profit tech company that builds tools for democratising information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories.
A Renaissance City
Back to 15th century Florence: the city issued the world’s first patent to Filippo Brunelleschi for inventing a paddleboat custom made to carry marble down narrow rivers. This was in the form of a three-year monopoly license to create and use “the monster” as it was christened. It was also the first time someone was granted exclusive right to manufacture a product on the premise that it was a unique design. The city of Venice, Italy followed suit and passed the world’s first general patent law in 1474. It is during this period that the Italian renaissance was born and great artists and scientist such as Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael and Galileo dazzled the world with their ideas.
The emergence of institutions that nurture and support the creative economy provide an environment rife for tinkers to prosper. Over the past three years, there has been an upsurge in the number of technology hubs and incubation spaces in the city that has led to a start-up boom. More code rock stars are emerging from the tech hubs than any other period, institution-sponsored competitions are raising the creative bar for participants as well as offering prize rewards to motivate individuals to further develop the products.
Alex Tabarrock states that there are five factors that propel a city to innovation: patents, prizes, education, global markets and cosmopolitanism. No other city in the region combines these five factors seamlessly as Nairobi, so there is nothing else left to do but to innovate.