By Solomon Assefa
When I first visited South Africa more than a year ago from IBM’s research center in New York, I was impressed with the advanced level of science and technology in the country. The country boasts four Nobel laureates in science and medicine and some of the world’s best research organizations.
Among them is the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH). IBM Research is working with them to address one of Africa’s most pressing problems: Tuberculosis. TB is the leading cause of death in South Africa. Roughly half a million people contract the disease each year, and, according to the World Health Organization, 80 percent of the country’s young adults are infected, which exacerbates the spread of HIV.
We forged a relationship with K-RITH to bolster their advanced skills in genomics with our expertise in bioinformatics and Big Data analytics.
This collaboration is headed by scientists in our Haifa lab in Israel and is bringing great scientific results. But it was clear that we needed a way to engage much more deeply – not only with South Africa’s research community – but with business, government and all society.
That’s why I’m pleased that today we are opening what will be IBM’s second Africa research facility – here in Johannesburg, South Africa. We announced the move today during a visit to Johannesburg by IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, SVP John Kelly and other members of her senior leadership team.
The Johannesburg lab will be dedicated to bringing to bear advanced technologies, including big data, cloud, analytics and mobile technologies, to support South Africa’s national priorities and to address continental grand challenges. We have four broad goals:
–To develop new technology-based solutions for transforming the country’s most important industries and infrastructures.
–To help South Africa expand on its position as a global leader in science and technology.
–To partner with universities, research institutes and government to foster innovation among startups and entrepreneurs.
–To help equip young people with the skills they need to be successful in the digital age.
This announcement comes seven decades after IBM opened its first research lab in collaboration with a university, Columbia University, in New York City. This first IBM lab gave birth to a new research model: marrying academics with corporate research and development.
For the new South Africa lab we wanted to continue this tradition–but also switch things up a bit. So, rather than locating the lab in a hilltop tower or on a remote university campus, we’re partnering with the University of Witwatersrand (Wits, for short) on their Tshimologong Precinct project which is transforming the previously rundown inner city neighborhood of Braamfontein into the future technological heart of South Africa. When completed by early 2016, this new IT hub will include meeting rooms, collaboration spaces, a data center and a startup incubator. There, we will be able to mix with professors, students, entrepreneurs, and investors.
I believe that these interactions will help us evolve as a research organization–so we engage ever more deeply with the problems that businesses, government agencies and individuals face. This contact will help us produce solutions that are affordable, simple to implement and use, and can be brought to market quickly.
The lab’s inner-city location will allow our researchers to form part of a ‘living lab’ that will explore the role of advanced digital technologies and Big Data analytics in urban renewal. IBM’s researchers and collaborators will develop solutions using computational modeling, Internet of Things and cognitive systems to engage more effectively with citizens and help revitalize inner-city areas in South Africa and around the world. We are determined to be part of a thriving community where diverse groups of people live, work, invent and build companies. Think of it as a mini Silicon Valley. We believe we can play a valuable role there by helping entrepreneurs develop cutting-edge technologies they can bring to market.
This is all part of a long-term commitment to innovation in Africa. Our most important pan-African initiative, Project Lucy, is a 10-year, $100 million effort to take on many of Africa’s grand challenges and foster economic development by harnessing IBM Watson and other sophisticated technologies.
In another, IBM scientists from our Zurich and New York labs are collaborating with SKA Africa, and the Netherlands’ space agency, ASTRON, to develop an information technology system for managing the huge amount of data that will be captured by the Square Kilometre Array. The SKA is a massive radio telescope whose antennas are being scattered across southern Africa and Australia. The goal is to use the data to solve the mysteries of the universe.
This collaboration demonstrates one of IBM Research’s great strengths. We can draw on the expertise of 3,000 scientists at 12 labs on six continents to solve problems and create new opportunities all around the world.
Doing business long-term in countries like South Africa requires a combination of patience and impatience; hard-nosed practicality and soaring optimism.
And, when challenges emerge, you don’t just wait around for things to get better. You act as a catalyst for progress. That’s what I expect from our research team in Johannesburg.