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Tomorrow’s scientists play at Insite 2008

On a miniature soccer field projected on to the floor, Bapana Tshabe (11) is using his shadow to dash the ball past his classmates.

The ”Interactive Floor”, as the display is called, is one of the exhibitions at Insite 2008, a showcase of scientific and technological innovation running until Wednesday at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg.

A total of 167 organisations from South Africa and around the world are here to promote advanced technologies across various sectors.

The event includes exhibitions of multimedia, commercial health products (like a laser instrument used to bring down high blood pressure), alternative forms of energy, Chinese medicines, and education projects to stimulate maths and science at school.

Fun game
Explaining his soccer invention, German designer Michael Wolf says: ”The interactive floor is exposed to invisible infrared light, which is emitted through the overhead infrared spotlight. When a person steps on to the floor the infrared light creates a shadow. The shadow is captured with infrared camera and sent to a computer.”

His invention is attracting many young schoolchildren who clearly love the game.

”It’s a fun game and you could question the educational function,” says Wolf. ”But it brings people into contact with technology. We want to inspire them and explain how it works.”

He believes more innovation should emerge from South Africa. ”The potential for innovation is here. We have the knowledge and the academic structures. However, education still has to catch up. Education is desperately needed in this country.”

Building blocks
Another interactive exhibition is attracting attention in the middle of the exhibition hall.

Two Lego-brick playing fields form the heart of Lego League, a competition for South African scholars who must build their own Lego robot and have it complete various missions, such as pushing a submarine into the ocean or bringing a shipping container to land.

Lego League is held in 48 countries around the world with 120 000 kids participating globally.

One of the competition’s goals is to develop future engineers, says technician Johannes de Vries, coordinator of Lego League South Africa. ”You need to get a fun way to introduce technology so that learners will choose maths,” he says.

According to Nhlanhla Nyide, spokesperson for the Department of Science and Technology, which initiated Insite 2008, a lack of skills is an important concern for South Africa when it comes to technology and innovation.

”Apartheid denied black people [the opportunity to] learn maths and science. We now have an ancient scientific community of people with an average age of 50. We need to revitalise the system and bring in youth,” he says.

According to Nyide, it’s also important for scientists to know the needs of the industry. ”With this exhibition we enable [those working in] research to meet companies. Scientists work in their own compartments and often don’t know what companies need. We try to build bridges.”

Copper theft
As Insite 2008 coincides with the 10th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and South Africa, the Asian giant is represented at the exhibition by 37 stands located in a separate ”China area”.

At one of these stands, Ruban Naidoo, eThekwini municipal manager, is speaking to the Chinese owner of a company specialising in solar energy.

Says Naidoo: ”In Durban city centre we have 230 cameras, but electricity cables get stolen because of the copper. Big intersections don’t work for quite some time. It’s dangerous.”

He adds: ”We are now looking if we can use solar energy as back-up power. I am here to see what the costs are and if it’s worth it.”

According to Nyide, China is an important ally when it comes to science and innovation. ”China wants to work with us on projects on the origins of humankind. China is also a country that has ground to provide medicines and a lot of technologies.”

However, according to German designer Wolf, it is also essential to invest in knowledge within South Africa because the country needs a different approach than other countries. ”Technology is taking a different route here,” he says.

For example, most South Africans don’t have access to the internet and computers. The country’s citizens rely much more on their cellphones. ”So if I am asked to design an education application targeted for a [large] group, I will use cellphones instead of computers,” he says.

Improving life
This year’s overarching exhibition theme is ”the role of science, innovation and technology as key drivers of economic growth and development and the enhancement of the quality of life for South Africans”.

”At the end of the day science is not there for science’s sake,” says Nyide of the theme. ”You want to improve quality of life and provide solutions for the problems we face as South Africans.”

Currently, the budget for research and development as a percentage of South Africa’s GDP is 0,92%. According to Nyide, the department’s goal is to increase this to 1% in 2008/09 — about R14-billion.

Wolf believes there are many opportunities for South Africa, calling it a ”country in the making”.

”It is confronted with a lot of problems. If you look at energy, water, poverty — these are essential challenges that need to be resolved quickly. The innovation need is definitely here.”

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Imke Van Hoorn
Guest Author

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