There's A Disconnect Between Research And Technology, And This Is Undermining Our Attempts At Innovation

There is a lot of talk about innovation in tech.  Indeed, Kenya is nicknamed the ‘Silicon Savannah’ because of its vibrant tech scene. If the number of tech competitions and tech startups is to go by then we are quite literally throwing all our eggs in the tech basket. In fact, most of us who are in the tech scene have attended at least one pitch competition that seeks to showcase tech innovations.

Each of our 60 plus universities offers one IT degree or the other. Even the Kenyan government has not been left behind, what with the distribution of laptops to schools and launching of digital programs, but those are stories for another day. Similarly, there has been a lot of talk about coding and programming in most countries in the world. There is almost a worldwide push towards getting people to write code, examples being Hour of CodeAfrica Code Week, and President Obama’s own Computer Science For All .

Yet, it seems to me that we are holding tech on our right hand and research on our left; then we do not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. About a week ago I gave a talk on research and tech at the ‘African Women in Tech’ conference by AkiraChix. We played a simple game where participants go around the room to find a person who can tick any of the statements on a sheet of paper. One of the statements was ‘I am interested in research but I do not know where to start’. Almost all the sheets came back with that statement ticked.

While this is a trivial example and this simple experiment was not controlled, it indicates that while we have done a heck of a lot to make coding and tech look ‘cool’, we have done very little, if at all, to make research look equally as cool. And if that is the case, what then is the basis and motivation for all the tech innovations that we seem to be producing?

There is an apparent disconnect between Kenyan academic institutions, which should ideally be the sources and inspiration of research, and the tech ecosystem. Eleanor Marchant wrote a brilliant article that asked the question: University-based research inspired Google – is research needed to inspire Kenyan innovators too? But it would be difficult for universities to inspire any innovation while our students are seeking ‘research services’ from publicly-advertised vendors.

What's worse is that most of our universities do not have measures to curb or detect plagiarism and unoriginal work. If they did, then these ‘research services’ would have run out of business a long time ago. Instead, they are thriving, complete with business cards openly distributed to students and faculty. As Dr Franceschi asked in his article, Kenyan universities do hardly any research – who has the time? It is a small wonder that the World Bank raised concern on the quality of Kenyan graduates.

In my first article on this blog, I wrote about the need for additional practical tests in programming courses at Kenyan institutions. I was happy to see that Sidney Ochieng’ had expressed similar sentiments in an open letter  to Kenyan Universities teaching Computer Science. While it is just as well to teach programming languages, we have not done very well in teaching our students how to combine their programming skills with good problem identification, proper background motivation, correct design, and finally, implementation.

So we end up with a generation of students with the ‘hackathon’ mentality, where they take a question and run to the keyboard. Indeed, no matter how many people gather at a hackathon, unless there is an existing pre-and-post plan for the project, nine women cannot make a baby in one month.

One of the ways that we can get people thinking about research and tech as one package, and not two separate and unrelated things, is by asking the hard questions at tech hubs, schools, and competitions. Sure, it is great to know the cost projections and user uptake of an application, but I think we have forgotten the basics of what makes any innovation great and impactful in the long-term: the why, the how, and the so what.

This is such a problem! So much so that most IT faculty would tell you that supervision of final-year projects is a long, boring and laborious task of listening to yet another recycled idea that was thought of the night before. Sadly, we see very few, if at all, final-year projects that see the light of day beyond the need to tick a box of completion towards graduation.

It is not strange to listen to tech presentation and hear that the  motivation behind the application is that the developer thought it was “cool” or “a nice thing to do”. It is also not strange that, when asked if they have tested the application, the presenter would say, “yes the app is running properly”. Meaning that their idea of testing is testing by themselves in their room and over their laptop, not testing with real users, and certainly not designing with potential users.

So then, the combination of research and tech needs to be repackaged. We have long sold the tech idea and it has sold in trucks and barrels. Unfortunately, the tech idea is still very much the “overnight solution” and the “quick money product”. Unfortunately, also, after the excitement of the pitch is gone, we are left with innovators who struggle to keep a product useful and that really resonates with users. To this, I ask several questions:

  • What if we teach our apprentices, students, and innovators the fundamental skill of identifying good problems that they care about and that potential users would care about?

  • What if we teach them how to work with users as the originators of the problem and not developers as the originators of a (sometimes imaginary) problem?

  • What if we teach them how to work with users right from a throw-away prototype to the final product, as opposed to testing only an end product?

  • What if we teach them design strategies that are not based on ‘nice to have’ but based on user feedback and evaluation results?

  • What if we teach them that the justification of using a mobile phone as a platform should not be “everyone has it” but because they can justify it as a better tool for the innovation than say, a website?

  • What if we teach them that transferring an application from a website to a mobile phone is not innovation, it is actually just migration?

  • What if we create tech-hubs that are not merely spaces for developers to hurdle over their laptops, but ones that are spaces for team collaborations and spaces for potential users to come in and work with innovators on product inception and design?

  • What if, as researchers and innovators, we combine our own tech innovations with sound research as an example to upcoming students and innovators?

Indeed, research should not be this gigantic monster that is the preserve of academia and industry researchers. Research in tech should ideally be a combination of passion for a problem, active involvement of users throughout the process, application of sound principles of inception and design, and only as the very last thing, implementation. Yes, there is a lot of talk about innovation in tech. Perhaps it is the time that we enrich the talk on what innovation actually means so that it does not just mean ‘a new app’.

This post first appeared on Chao Mbogo's Education, Research, and Mentorship blog.

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