By Steve Hamm
IBM Chief Storyteller
The Braamfontein district was once the corporate heart of Johannesburg. Then, in late 1980’s, businesses started moving out of the neighborhood, initiating two decades of decay.
But today, Braamfontein is undergoing an amazing rebirth. Entrepreneurs are transforming abandoned buildings into trendy restaurants and shops as well as arts, culture and business centers. Young hipsters and entrepreneurs mix with students and tourists.
The neighborhood is emerging as a powerful symbol of the potential for renewal in cities in Africa and around the world and a signal that innovation and optimism can triumph over poverty and crime.
The regeneration was kicked off in 2002 by the local government which realized the potential of Braamfontein. It embarked on a revitalizaion program for the area. Soon to follow were entrepreneurs and young urban pioneers who seek to turn the gritty neighborhood into a stimulating place to live and work that’s also safe and affordable.
But something even bigger is brewing. Barry Dwolatzky, a softspoken computer science professor at the nearby University of Witwatersrand, has long envisioned placing a technology hub in Braamfontein–with the goal of unleashing a flood of innovation and entrepreneurship, and of providing thousands of young South Africans with a powerful platform for self-actualization. Now, with support from the university, government and corporations, his dream is coming true.
It’s there, in Barry’s tech hub, called the Tshimologong Precinct, that IBM Research – Africa is establishing its second location. (The first lab was launched two years ago in Nairobi, Kenya.) IBM Research will be the hub’s anchor tenant. The idea is to have IBM scientists interact with students, entrepreneurs, professors, civic leaders and investors in an innovation ecosystem to take on some of Africa’s greatest challenges.
For Solomon Assefa, the 35-year-old IBM Research scientist who is the new lab’s director, this project is intensely personal. He grew up in Ethiopia, moved to the United States to complete his university education (BS, MS and PhD, all from MIT) and launch his career, and now looks forward to helping Africa fulfill its great potential. He thinks of the Braamfontein neighborhood as a “living lab” where IBMers and local people share experiences, ideas and dreams for the future.
One of their main focuses will be on urban revitalization itself. Digital technologies are transforming one industry after another, and they’re radically changing how we live our personal lives. So why not use technology to attack one of the seemingly intractable challenges of our era–urban blight? Mobile technologies, global positioning systems, cameras and sensors are becoming ubiquitous in cities. That makes it possible for residents and their leaders to re-imagine the delivery of services such as transportation, water, energy, Internet connectivity, social assistance, and security. Solomon envisions bringing some of the most advanced digital technologies to bear on the problems of inner cities, including big data analytics and cognitive computing.
Urban renewal is critical issue–not just for Africa but for the entire world. Already, more than half the world’s population lives in cities, and it’s expected to exceed 70% by the year 2050. If we don’t handle this expertly, as many as 3 billion people could be living in urban slums by then, according to the United Nations. Clearly, now is the time to find ways to accommodate the large numbers of people who are migrating to cities in developing nations–not only providing them with safe and healthy living conditions but offering them opportunities to get good jobs, earn good incomes and make a personal mark on society.
The innovation that IBM’s researchers and their South African counterparts generate in Braamfontein could have an impact not just there, and not just in Africa, but all around the world. During our visit to Johannesburg, Nadeli Pandor, South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology, called for an explosion of what she calls “Afro-global” innovation–advances that Africa can export everywhere.
IBM has a long history of seeking to help reverse urban decay. In the 1960s, when corporations and middle-class people were fleeing American cities in droves, IBM established a manufacturing plant in the mostly-African-American neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. More recently, the company helped design a new approach to technical education–working with New York City, Chicago and other cities to establish public schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods that combine high school with the first two years of college. So the lab in Braamfontein is part of a continuum of activities that express IBM’s commitment to cities and to some of the less-fortunate people within them.
I visited Braamfontein recently in connection with the IBM Research lab announcement. First, Barry gave me a tour of the neighborhood, showing me crumbling buildings–including a former nightclub–where the Tshimologong Precinct (meaning “new beginnings”) will emerge over the coming months and years. Then, a few days later, I visited again–this time to stroll the streets and visit The Neighbourgoods Market, located in a former parking garage, where hundreds of people flock on Saturdays to hang out and sample trendy food and drink. It’s a happy, high-energy scene.
From a deck where people cluster at picnic tables, you can see a giant mural on a nearby building depicting Nelson Mandela, the father of the new South Africa, and words below his image that read: “The Purple Shall Govern.” It’s a reference to the fact that during anti-apartheid protests in the 1980s, government security forces sprayed protesters with purple paint to mark them as enemies.
The old world order is turning upside down in South Africa, and, in many cities around the globe, something equally shocking is happening: once-blighted neighborhoods are turning around. I witness this near my home, in New York City. Harlem is becoming a thriving cultural mecca. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is home to hipsters and tech entrepreneurs. And the classic brownstones of Bed-Stuy are getting top-to-bottom makeovers.
This urban renaissance is one of the major social phenomena of our era, and, for many urban experts and social observers, it came as a total surprise. In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, many people in the United States gave up on cities. I was one of them. I arrived in New York City in the 1970s when it was bankrupt, crime-ridden, filthy, piled high with garbage bags, and beset by a malaise that seemed impenetrable. I left after a few years, first for Connecticut and then for Silicon Valley.
But the doomsters were wrong. There’s hope for cities. In fact, it’s clear that cities must succeed if our species is to live sustainably on the planet in the decades to come. In the meantime, must become, as Solomon says, the “living labs for social innovation.”
There’s a lot of work to do. Vast slums still exist all over the place–in rich countries and poor ones. In our enthusiasm for renewal, we’ve got to make sure that the people who live in turnaround neighborhoods get to share in the rewards of their renewal. They can’t just be pushed out and forgotten.
Be sure to check out for yourself – whether in person or over the web – what’s going on in Johannesburg at places like the Tshimologong Precinct and the Neighbourgoods Market. You’ll experience a taste of what’s possible, for South Africa and the world.