Fresh look

Tech hubs and coffee shops: a return to the 17th century?

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.

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Advice, Experiences

Course Review: Development Studies and African Studies at SOAS

Written by Tomas Zak

When choosing what course I wanted to do at undergraduate level, I wanted to strike a balance between the practical part of my degree, which I thought would get me a job (Development Studies) and my own personal interests (African Studies), but I eventually realised this was a false distinction.

It was not a job-orientated degree. Both sides were intensely theoretical. In African Studies, the focus was predominately on learning a language and different aspects of African cultures such as film, music, literature, religion, etc…

Similarly, in what should really be called Critical Development Studies, there is a concerted effort to dismantle the problematic notion that “we” develop “them”. Instead, the course examines what it is in Western societies that inhibits development elsewhere. It looks into broader attempts at systemic reform, rather than piecemeal palliative measures perpetuated by the development orthodoxy.

Taken as a whole, the degree sought to marry this critical analysis of the development business with an understanding of a particular context – primarily by learning a language.

Pros

Language
As funding is getting cut across the board, fewer and fewer places have the language specialisation on offer at SOAS. The one thing I would have done differently when it comes to languages is to have gone on the year abroad, even if it meant taking a year longer to complete my degree, paying more fees and dealing with the pitfalls of SOAS organisation in a foreign country.

Through immersion you learn the most, but you have to be driven and above all, interested. SOAS has some great connections abroad, but it’s all about how you use them. I’d think carefully before picking a language as it is probably one of the decisions which will take the longest to bear fruit, but for me it was definitely worthwhile.

Interdisciplinary
In the core courses in development, there is no one lecturer. Lecturers will vary and come to teach their area of specialisation. So you will meet a lot of lecturers from different faculties and get to hear about how their current research ties into the topic at hand. It also gives you the opportunity to scope out potential dissertation supervisors.

Diversity
Not only in terms of nationality – but also in terms of a diversity of experiences, influences and norms. This applies to teaching staff and students alike and leads to interesting, albeit heated, debates both in tutorials, but also in the bar. It can begin to sound like a bad joke. A Tibetan monk, an anarchist and an Old Etonian sit down for a tutorial…

Cons

Ideological straitjacket
It is no secret that SOAS is one of the foremost centres for the study of Marxism and this seeps through into almost all aspects of teaching. There is very much a SOAS-line and after sitting in yet another tutorial full of nodding heads bashing the IMF, it can begin to sound like a broken record so try and break out.

London is perfect for this. There are talks, conferences, debates and book launches at places like the Royal African Society, the Africa Centre, the Overseas Development Institute, the London International Development Centre, Birbeck, LSE, Kings, UCL, etc… Chances are you’ll hear more than enough and come running back to the bubble that is SOAS, but it’s still worth hearing the other side.

Admin and organisation
Navigating the corridors of the Byzantine system that is SOAS bureaucracy will probably take up a substantial amount of your time. Menial tasks like changing courses or submitting a hard copy of an essay will have you running around chasing signatures and knocking on doors.

Tips on getting the most out of the degree:

Follow good lecturers not interesting sounding courses (H/T Chris Blattman).
At SOAS, the course I was most excited about on paper turned out to be taught by one of the worst lecturers. Some academics might have a wealth of knowledge, extensive work experience, huge research grants or have written ground-breaking books, but are very bad at public speaking and transmitting that information.

By contrast, a lecturer that has been running the same module year-on-year, benefits from a number of students shaping, improving and even challenging their thinking. If they are a good lecturer, they will have incorporated new ideas, have tried and tested different ways of teaching and altered the content of the course in response to current events and contemporary research. If you do end up taking the risk with a new course, don’t be afraid to change even if you are a couple of lectures in – I wish I had.

Don’t get fixated on the job at the end of your degree
Like I said, it’s not a job-orientated degree. For that reason, I got more out of courses I was genuinely interested in, irrespective of whether a module in “African Philosophy” has any practical application beyond university. In all probability, you won’t have as good a chance to explore your academic interests again after university so you might as well go for it.

SOAS isn’t for everyone, but to my mind one of the biggest drawbacks is probably its main selling point. Coming from a fairly right-wing environment, SOAS was an oasis where radical thinking was not dismissed outright, but considered as a plausible alternative. There are very few places in the UK where this is the case.

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Experiences

Reflections & Ramblings Of A Development Undergrad

I have to admit that I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with being an undergraduate development student. First of all, you ask a lot of questions and get very few answers. Second, you are trained to be so critical of the development ‘industry’ that you end up not really knowing why you’re there in the first place (Karen Attiah wrote a great blog on ‘International Development Disillusionment’ here). And third, you probably have to defend your choice of doing a Development Studies degree more than with any other subject, which quite frankly, can start to grate a bit after a year or two.

A lot of people probably see undergraduate development students as young people whose lives were changed on a gap year trip to meet kids in ‘Africa’. Certainly, the automatic assumption that my degree is about “charities and Africa and stuff, right?” is not an uncommon one. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are perhaps a few of those students around, but most of us are actually just young people who want to understand the world better. A development studies degree doesn’t teach you how to “do” development, it teaches you to think about why there is such a thing as development (or the lack of it), and because of that, I believe quite strongly that Development Studies is a valuable undergraduate degree regardless of whether or not you actually then go into ‘development’.

It took me two “gap years” after school (working at a national newspaper, not on a beach in Thailand) before I actually decided what I wanted to study at undergraduate level.

A social scientist at heart, I considered various options of studying Economics, Geography and Law before deciding wholeheartedly on a Development Economics degree at the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) in London. Even then, by second year I re-titled my degree to Development Studies and Economics (which might sound like a negligible difference, but it meant I was exempt from quantitative methods and econometrics, happy days). With the new title, my degree structure became more flexible and allowed me to take modules from other disciplines such as Politics and Film Studies. To any student out there in the midst of a development degree, or thinking about doing one, I can’t recommend this highly enough: the more diverse and multi-disciplinary you can make your development degree, the better.

One of the things I love most about the BA Development Studies degree structure at SOAS is that you can’t do ‘straight’ development studies – you can only combine it with a second subject such as politics, anthropology, Swahili, religious studies, law, or, as in my case, economics. It’s a structure that I would recommend keeping an eye out for at other universities, and if not, at least look closely at the extent to which you will be able to tailor your degree and/or take elective modules from other disciplines. At the same time, you will need to also demonstrate in some way how your interests are focused: whether that be by concentrating your electives in a particular field (in my case it was film and media), becoming an active member of particular societies or groups at university (for example, I interned at the university radio station), or narrowing your academic interests at postgraduate level.

A friend of mine who is also graduating this year, said to me the other day “I have no skills! I’m a jack-of-all-trades but master of none!”

Although I can easily relate to her sentiment, I think that the multidisciplinary nature of a development studies degree can easily be turned into an advantage if you design it to your strengths and interests.

Development as a concept is enormously challenged and contested, but in my view that is by no means a reason to avoid studying it at either undergraduate or postgraduate level (I’ll be talking about postgrads in my next blog). If anything, I would argue that development studies is more relevant than ever given its ever-expanding mandate in the current global environment.

Just the other day I was at a talk with a UNHCR representative on the Syrian refugee crisis response, who said that the international community needed to start to “think more developmentally” in how it deals with forced migration and refugees. If you start to think of Development Studies less as a way to learn how to ‘do’ development, and more as a way of learning to ‘think’ differently about development, then I hope you’ll find it as valuable and rewarding a degree as I have.

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