Maintaining inclusive innovation under COVID-19

Maintaining inclusive innovation under COVID-19

April 9, 2020    

In our previous article, we reflected on the different ways that stakeholders can ensure the Cape Town tech ecosystem produces valuable innovation that is as inclusive as possible. While writing that article, the world changed.

With many countries now applying varying degrees of social distancing, and with South Africa having entered a complete lockdown on Friday 27 March, the “new normal” for ecosystem facilitators has changed completely. So, how does one ensure inclusive innovation during the COVID-19 pandemic?

In our previous piece, we identified key leverage points for inclusive innovation in Cape Town:

  • Reckoning with spatial divisions through transport and being cognisant of where you base and organise your events
  • Smart convening, both in terms of the topics discussed and format, to ensure rich learning and networking, even for less confident or articulate ecosystem players
  • Greater focus on participatory design processes and skills to ensure that the developed solutions answer real needs and are contextually relevant.
  • Training for scaling and thereby helping startups overcome a persistent hurdle on their way to maturity
  • Accessible and diverse mentors and role models to allow those with experience to “give back” and young innovators from all backgrounds to learn

Keeping this in mind, what can the Cape Town tech innovation ecosystem do to become more, and remain, inclusive under the current lockdown?

  1. Don’t just move online: Be smart about it!

Ineffective public transport poses many challenges in our spatially divided city. At first glance, this might be less of a challenge under lockdown, with most meetings and events moving to a virtual format. This could make ecosystem participation more accessible to people living outside the Cape Town CBD.

Virtual events, however, are not necessarily accessible to all. Firstly, one needs access to sufficiently fast and reliable internet, which many South Africans normally access outside of their homes, at public places providing WiFi. Secondly, not all devices are suitable for productive virtual engagements, particularly via video; and thirdly, not everybody’s living situation is set up for productive remote work or engagement. This requires deliberate thinking on the part of organisers, to ensure their channels and formats of choice are accessible to a wide audience. This unique context provides an opportunity to design events that will, moving forward, widen the net of the people you’ll target with events – beyond those that you would have targeted to simply answer the transport concern.

  1. Smart(er) convening

There is a need in Cape Town to be deliberate about smart convenings, involving less pressure and a deliberately curated network of participants. The new normal under COVID-19 means that we need to be even smarter in this regard. For example, ensuring free-flowing engagement and conversations on virtual convenings is tricky, whether the participants on the call are talkative or not (too many talkative participants can mean chaos, and introverts are hard to call on in the absence of body language cues), and maintaining the right energy levels for meaningful conversations can be hard when people can’t see one another.

Moreover, it isn’t enough to simply move presentations online and assume the same depth of learning. Organisers should think about building in interactive exercises, energy-breaks, online voting tools and virtual break-out rooms for smaller discussions. It might also be necessary to share more preparatory material beforehand, for shorter and more energetic convenings. To organise virtual convenings that are equally valuable as their in-person events, ecosystem facilitators need to spend time upskilling themselves in virtual facilitation. These skills could also allow the tech ecosystem to be more inclusive post-COVID-19.

  1. Collaborative innovation for the equalising experience of a pandemic

A pandemic like the one we are currently facing is a compelling experience for a city as unequal as Cape Town. The lived experiences and challenges faced by people are relatively specific to their peer groups, this means that many innovators need to deliberately step beyond their comfort zones for solutions that address real challenges. A pandemic like COVID-19, however, doesn’t adhere to demographic or economic boundaries.

On the one hand, this provides an opportunity for innovators across the spectrum to focus their attention on the common challenges that this crisis has highlighted. On the other hand, we shouldn’t let ourselves overestimate the extent to which COVID-19 affects us in similar ways. This increases the need for (virtual) collaboration between innovators from different backgrounds, given that the kind of in-person, participatory design that is generally required for contextually relevant solutions is not possible under a lockdown. And those innovators looking to use this (forced) downtime for upskilling should consider courses in human-centred design, systems mapping and other participatory design methodologies to increase their ability to develop inclusive solutions once things settle down.

  1. Pausing the quest for scale to focus on weathering the storm

Scaling was identified as a specific area that requires upskilling, since running a medium-sized startup requires a skillset that is vastly different from the skillset required for running an early-stage startup. Well, running a startup of any kind under a nationwide lockdown and global crisis is another ballgame altogether!

Upskilling remains critical, but ecosystem players that are focused on skills development should pivot towards weathering the storm – scaling can take a backseat for the moment. Startups should rather focus on managing liquidity, pivoting their offering – either through a complete pivot to offering essential services (like the multiple delivery platforms that pivoted to groceries) or towards expanding their income streams – and maintaining a virtual workforce. Moreover, it is now more important than ever to cultivate the leadership skills required to keep customers and suppliers informed and to keep teams motivated and calm.

  1. Mentoring for perspective

Finally, mentors can give young innovators the kind of holistic learning-from-experience that can’t be taught in coursework. This kind of learning is particularly important in the crisis situation that caught all of us unprepared. While nobody has experienced this kind of global health crisis and full-blown lockdown before, many experienced entrepreneurs will have operated under, and survived, other periods of crisis. This (forced) downtime might be an opportune moment for experienced entrepreneurs to “give back”. This should entail practical advice on weathering the storm as an enterprise, or simply providing a listening ear and giving some much-needed perspective.

In our current uncertain times, we’re in more need of inclusive innovations than ever. The factors identified still stand, but their application now requires some creative and deliberate thinking.

Are you part of the tech ecosystem in Cape Town? What are you doing to ensure and maintain inclusive innovation in your work? Share your thoughts with us in our comments section, or get in touch with Eden D’Oliveira.


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