In a coursework essay that I wrote recently (I’m pursuing a Masters at the Oxford Internet Institute) I found myself making a relatively bold, non-cited and dare I say it, out-of-the-box statement.
Fellow students will understand that we don’t get to do that very often. Or if we do, it tends to emerge in a moment of madness and will likely get ditched in those pre-deadline revisions in which levels of adventure and intellectual gung-ho rapidly decline. Anyway, this particular essay was about tech hubs in South Africa and whether or not they are likely to translate into broader developmental outcomes (conclusion: it’s complex, natch).
Naturally, the early part of the essay approached problems in definition (again, fellow development students will surely relate here: if you haven’t spent a significant chunk of your undergraduate essays running through the complexities of defining ‘development’, you’re doing something wrong). Here I approached questions such as: ‘What is a tech hub?’ ‘Is an ‘incubator’ a type of hub, or is it the other way around?’ ‘Do tech labs or IT departments in universities count?’
I pushed the definitional boat out slightly by suggesting that, if tech hubs are partly about sharing good and often expensive internet access, then surely an internet cafe could also be considered a tech hub? And then, I got brave: “Even coffee shops with high-speed internet access could be technically defined as a ‘tech hub’ in the broadest sense”.
My thinking behind this statement derived itself twofold. Firstly, it was derived from a recognition of some of the basic characteristics of a tech hub, whether they refer to Google Campus in London, or iHub in Nairobi: fundamentally, they are physical spaces that foster creativity and innovation; they act as a ‘home’ for collaborative communities; and they share costs such as access to high-speed internet. By adding ‘access to caffeine’ to this list of characteristics, we can surely define coffee shops – in some respects – as tech hubs. And secondly, the statement was derived from my own obsession with coffee. All who know me (or follow me on Twitter) will know that coffee shops are my second home.
I will effectively be able to attribute both my undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications to London and Oxford’s coffee scenes respectively.
It was when I asked myself why I so enjoy working in coffee shops that I thought back to tech hubs. Because yes, coffee shops are very sociable spaces. But they’re also very productive, dynamic, energised, creative and inspiring spaces.
In London I worked in coffee shops alongside people writing TV scripts and planning productions; next to start-up entrepreneurs holding meetings; and among groups of students revising for exams and running on black Americanos (cheapest on the menu).
In Oxford I’m surrounded by people writing PhDs; students organising conferences; and teams of people working on the daily crossword (trust me, it happens).
This coffee shop atmosphere is not a new phenomenon. In the 1600s, coffeehouses were a social networking institution. Apparently the coffee was dire, but the atmosphere at least was not: people went to coffeehouses to discuss the weeks’ news and to spread gossip; one-penny lectures were given by members of the academic community; scientists ran experiments and shared the results of their research.
Great works such as Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations – both among the foundational works of modern science and economics respectively – were inspired by and mostly written in coffeehouses.
Some coffeehouses expanded as areas of specialist activity: the London Stock Exchange and the Lloyds insurance group, for example, both started out as coffeehouses that had attracted a speciality group of merchants, ship captains and traders; in Covent Garden, the Bedford Coffeehouse was a specialist meeting place for playwrights; and over on the other side of town, the Hoxton Square Coffeehouse specialised in inquisitions of insanity, whereby juries of coffee drinkers would vote on the fates of alleged ‘madmen’.
So, with all this talk of tech hubs and coffeehouses, what is my point? Well:
Firstly, let’s think more creatively about how we ‘define’ a tech hub. By which I mean, what about the innovation that takes place in internet cafes and coffee shops? We don’t need to necessarily define those spaces as tech hubs, but we ought to at least recognise that they are characterised by ‘tech-hub-like’ activity.
By broadening our understanding of what a tech hub is we find more ways in which to understand how and where innovation takes place. Take a university: yes, it is in the library that the studying, and the learning takes place; but it is in the JCR, the student bar, the campus cafe and the common room that you will find the innovation.
Secondly, if you read my most recent blog for this site, you will know that I’m currently going through a period of resurrecting a long-lost interest in history. In that blog I called for more attention to be made to historical parallels when discussing and thinking about technology, society and development. Here, the parallel is clear: the expanding tech hub landscape today (across the world, and on the African continent) arguably has striking parallels with the coffeehouse scene of the 1600s.
Despite the globalised, technology-driven, networked and de-territorial world that we now live in, there still seems to be a demand for physical spaces with low barriers to entry which bring people together to collaborate, work across disciplines, innovate and share access to technology, ideas and caffeine. If tech hubs can reproduce the innovative atmosphere of the 1600s coffeehouses, they will be well on their way to contributing to society and to developmental outcomes.
Ultimately, we need to think more creatively about technology, innovation, entrepreneurship and development on the African continent. The coffeehouses of the 1600s – and in my experience, the coffee shops of London and Oxford today – clearly tell us that innovation often springs from unexpected, organic, informal (and caffeine-driven) spaces.
And yes, before you ask, I wrote this blog in a coffee shop. The constant stream of people, the buzz of conversation, and the assistance of a flat white continue to be my biggest sources of inspiration.