Can creativity fix South Africa?

“Why make money in America when you can make a difference in Africa?” Tech entrepreneur and angel investor Stafford Masie challenges the audience at Culture Shift, an ideation and mentorship programme sponsored by the British Council and held in Johannesburg last weekend.

Masie — who, given his success, should be a lot more famous than he is — is evangelising his core principles of innovation: make it hackable, make it extensible, have fun.

He’s also just offered to match the prize money of R50 000 for the winning concept that will emerge from three exhausting days of development in a warehouse space in downtown Johannesburg.

The excitement is palpable.

There’s a lot at stake. Beyond this space in downtown Johannesburg, beyond the beanbags and bookshelves and mind maps, the world and its problems loom large. Politicians argue about the meaning of the word “refugee” while the unemployed grow increasingly impatient for jobs to materialise out of the ether. Now, more than ever we need fresh thinking and new ideas.

Which is where creativity and innovation of the kind promoted by Culture Shift come in. It is not possible to compete with the Far East on price or productivity; it’s in the quality of the ideas we conceive and execute that economic freedom lies.

South Africa ranks 45th in the Global Creativity Index, a measurement tool developed by the highly influential urbanist Richard Florida (the leading countries are the usual suspects: Sweden and the US; China ranks 58th).

Florida’s argument has long been that economic success is closely linked to the presence of what he calls the “creative class”, knowledge workers who focus on developing new innovations. Creativity, he argues, reduces inequality, improves quality of life and increases overall happiness.

The criteria used to produce the GCI rankings are Florida’s three critical Ts of economic development: technology (R&D, innovation), talent (human capital, education) and tolerance (attitudes to diversity), and the importance of all three is clearly evident in this diverse crowd, who range from environmentalists to artists and web developers.

The thinking behind Culture Shift is this: put together someone who’s creative with someone who can code and someone with business nous, and see what they come up with. “Practical solutions with sustainable impact”, as the organisers put it.

The 35 participants, selected for the passion for what they do, excellence in their field and commitment to making a positive impact on society, are given three days to come up with a concept, code it, prototype it and pitch it to a panel of investors.

How well does forcing ideas into fruition under such pressured circumstances work? Namibian entrepreneur Vivid Tjipura is unconvinced. Ideas often happen through pure chance, he points out.

But consultant Sipho Ngwenya has a different view. He’s used to hackathons where this kind of rapid iteration of concepts is standard. “It’s good to be forced to execute on your ideas,” he says. We talk about e-government, and how technical solutions like his might enhance efficiencies and improve delivery.

Culture club
The presentations kick off. First up is Culture Club, a mobile app matching audiences to cultural events.

Next is qriosity, another mobile app which allows visitors to Johannesburg to scan QR codes on buildings to learn more about their history.

Then there’s Indabo, Ngwenya’s group, which aims to match underutilised community facilities with groups looking to hire them.

Pre-ScholaR is a preschool in a box, intended to address one aspect of South Africa’s education crisis, while Arts-In is a mentorship programme for artists.

The final concept, Family Match, is an intriguing idea: A platform where South African families from different backgrounds meet one another in order to learn more about how they live.

“This is your chance to create a cohesive culture socially,” explains one of the presenters. The questions are tough: Are your projections correct? How will you generate revenue? Monetisation and business models are clearly a challenge.

The presentations done, the participants are free to enjoy a beer while the panel deliberates. I canvass assessments of the weekend and the responses are overwhelmingly positive.

Students, filmmakers, social entrepreneurs: all of them speak in glowing terms about the opportunity to meet brilliant, energetic people and form connections that will lead to future collaboration. “Nobody here is from the corporate world,” says environmental consultant Raoul de Villiers.

“We’re all self-starters.” His excitement is palpable. The power of this sector, he points out, is that you don’t need much start up capital or a degree to get into it, so it’s relatively accessible. “You can start something with a R2 000 netbook.”

The judging panel returns with the verdict. The runner-up is Indabo; the winner, announced to loud cheers, is qriosity.

How sustainable or practical are the solutions that have resulted from the exercise? It’s hard to imagine that any of the ideas that were pitched could be real money-spinners. Perhaps that isn’t the point though. As Tjipura explains, what matters are the contacts he’s made: “The real value lies in the spin-off.”

I ask entrepreneur Nhlanhla Sibiya, whose passion for Johannesburg inspired the winning idea, for his view on the potential for creativity to contribute to economic upliftment.

“We’re already a creative economy,” he says with quiet conviction.

There is certainly an energy here, a conviction that it is possible for South Africans to tackle our problems using creative solutions, to take risks, perhaps be another Stafford Masie.

As the last of the afternoon sun slips behind buildings that have seen better days, the space feels alive with possibility, to use the old Brand South Africa slogan. It is in events like Culture Shift, in the meeting of minds and the confluence of passions, that the seeds of our future economy are being planted.

The greatest resource we have is not locked in rock underground, it’s in the creativity and energy of human beings. Inspiring new ideas, the new Brand South Africa slogan, might not be the punchiest payoff line a copywriter ever wrote.

But if we’re going to make a difference, that’s exactly what we need.

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