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Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga: “What Do Science, Technology, and […]” | Talks At Google

Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga: “What Do Science, Technology, and […]” | Talks At Google


[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER: Clapperton
Chakanetsa Mavhunga’s professional interests lie
in the history, theory, and practice of science,
technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship in
the international context, with a focus on Africa. He joined MIT as an
assistant professor in 2008 after completing his PhD at
the University of Michigan. He is the author of “Transient
Workspaces, Technologies of Everyday Innovation
in Zimbabwe.” And his second book
is an edited volume, which we’ll hear about
today, entitled, “What Do Science, Technology, and
Innovation Mean from Africa?” Please join me in welcoming
Professor Mavhunga. CLAPPERTON CHAKANETSA
MAVHUNGA: Thank you. Thank you all for coming. I would like to start off by
giving just a brief background to how this project came about. It’s a progression from my first
book, “Transient Workspaces.” And what I was trying
to do in that book was to ask this very important
question; why is it that in the history of
technology, science, and Innovation, Africa does
not seem to be on the map. Is it a question that it
does not have any technology, or simply that it
has been ignored? So as you know, Africa
is a very big continent, 54 countries, probably plus,
if you include the islands. And this is not something
that you can just cover inside one book on your
own in a short period of time. So I wanted to ask this
question on a larger scale, and this was the
birth of this book. Take a closer look at the title. The major word there is “from.” The idea was to take
seriously African voices. Not just as empirical evidence
or cannon fodder for a theory, but as an intellectual
audience in their own right. What if we took what they
know seriously enough. To do that, I organized
a number of scholars, some of them mentors to
me, others colleagues at the same level; DA
Massolo at Louisville, Shadrek Chirikure at
University of Cape Town, Gerie Augusto at Brown, Katriene
Pype at KU Leuven, Ron Eglash, who some of you may know, at
RPI, Ellen Foster, his student, Toluwalogo Odumosu,
and Garrick Lewis, both of them at
University of Virginia, both engineers, and their
colleagues, [? Nazima. ?] So the idea was could
we have a conversation across disciplines? I didn’t want this idea of us,
just the science and technology studies people
speaking to ourselves. I wanted to open up
this conversation to multiple disciplines; the
bench sciences, engineering disciplines, lawyers. The conference that I
organized in November 2014 was actually very eclectic. And actually, this became
the actual title of the book. We haggled over this. Some of you may
know from publishing that publishers want a
certain type of title for marketing reasons. I said, no, this is the title. Like I say, there is this
persistent negative image of Africa. But there is also
the agency of some of us working on Africa to
escape a rather stifling Western dependence on theory. Could we imagine science,
technology, and innovation from, say, our own languages? I look at definitions
of science, technology, and innovation today, and I’m
sure you would agree that they are very reductionist. Science comes to be removed from
all kinds of social dimensions. But as we know, science
itself is a social activity. The idea was to restore that
and see where we would get. In Africa, for example,
it is impossible to reckon with any major innovation
without taking seriously the religious aspects that
undergird the rich wall of knowledge production. The same for technology. If you look at
technology today, it’s as if it’s just
technical gadgets. And I’m saying this at Google. But it’s a whole complex system;
social, technical, cultural, et cetera, et cetera. My interest was to restore
that, but also to disturb the meaning of technology. Is it that obvious, or
could it be something more? Could it be that we are– in being– in reducing
it to gadgets, we are missing out
on something else? What could that
something else be? The same with– if we look
at innovation, innovation has been reduced to this
very commercialized, techno-centric realm. So what are we to do
with those activities that people engage with
that fall outside that? Now, why did this conversations
OK when they did– this was just a year
before I got tenured, 2015. And I was beginning to be
frustrated by the insular way in which academia
engages with questions that affect the world. And so I begin to engage
policymakers, for example. Could I see myself
playing a role making interventions in policy? I had been conducting
research since 2008 on what I call everyday
knowledge, that knowledge that sustains people when the– our nice careers
here, when people don’t have those carriers. They never went to school, or
if they were fired from work. Many of these
people in Africa go back to what is now
called informal sector or the informal economy. What undergirds the
informal activity? These skills that you need to
go by every day, most of them are not in the curriculum,
in the school curriculum. A good number of
them are actually dismissed traditionally
as primitive or simply unknowledgeable. So I say that I started
this project in 2008. By then I had already
begun to hear this talk, Africa is rising. You’re seeing a
new young African who is quite driven
to make a difference. There is one generation
that still says colonialism is to blame for all our ills. There is another that
says, no, no, no. We have been
independent for a while. Quit this nonsense. This generation that
I’m talking about, the younger generation,
I feel they needed a different kind of
narrative about Africa, deeply rooted in history, but
also tackling the key words in their own time, like tech,
like science, like innovation, like entrepreneurship. And yet when you look
at Africa’s history, it’s a blank slate. Historians have ignored that. Anthropologists, yeah. They are beginning
to come around to it. As for engineering,
science, and tech, they don’t deal with that stuff. So each nation subsists on
its own myths and heroes. What kind of heroes will
this generation subsist on? That’s the basis for
writing this book. It was intended for what,
since the book was published, is now imaged clearly in my
mind as a project of training critical thinker doers. In other words, it’s
to say that Africa has a lot of critical thinkers,
but most of them are not doers. And those that actually
do things are not critical thinkers. So how do you bring these
two and square the circle? The research that I
had done both during and since PhD had
taught me that the best way to be effective
in the world is to be humble before knowledge. To not appear like you
monopolize the space of common sense and reason. And I was coming from being
at MIT as an academic. And what I learned in my field
work and through growing up was a lot of knowledge that
is handed down from generation to generation through practice. And part of this
required me to have to really look at Africa in a
different light as somebody who was coming back from
years in the diaspora. I found that one of
the most underestimated strengths, the most
underrated assets of Africa, is what one would call
creative resilience. Where even when people’s
backs are against the wall, they don’t just die
or roll over and die. They die fighting. And so that creative
spirit is often ignored. People just talk about
oh, Africa’s people are very resilient. Look at what is thrown at them. No, it’s not just resilience. It’s also creativity. You can be resilient
all you want, but if you are faced
with hunger and death, you have to innovate. The concern for me was that a
lot of what we are seeing now in the African context,
in terms of innovation, arises out of trying to make do. To deal with a very
tough situation. So let me take you through
the individual chapters in the process of answering
this question, what do science, technology, and
innovation mean from Africa. I have said that I held– I convened a meeting
at MIT in 2014. I had also organized the
previous one in South Africa to recast the idea
of laboratory. Why recast it? Because I don’t
believe that the built laboratory is the only
laboratory that exists. If we limit it to that, we are
shutting out the door a lot of possibilities. Now, where would
you start with this? The first port of
call for me was can we engage
philosophers who have been dealing with a
lot of these questions about African knowledge? And so in the chapter
that DA Masolo writes, it’s a very interesting
example from Egypt. The concern for the
afterlife and how it gave rise to the science
of mummification, and this discovery
of natron, which was used to preserve the body. And one of the theories he
advances is that this was– the rationale for turning to
natron and mummifying a body or preserving it
in a fresh state was so that it could
travel the journey to the afterlife
in a fresh state, instead of arriving there
in a decomposed state. Now, however we may
think about the belief systems of the ancient Egyptians
is not the question here. Usually, in the past, African
knowledge has been dismissed. Oh, this is cuckoo. That can’t happen. And yet, when you look at
the science that follows, usually, that’s what we
just take, and say, OK. This is what we hold on to. The rest is rubbish. Marsolo touches on
what is often conceived of as a “primitive
society” in trying to find technology and
innovation in that space, the Masai of Kenya and
other parts of East Africa. And how they have been
able to both maintain salient aspects of designing
spears as well as adopting and adapting some elements
that are coming in. In my own chapter, I focused
on something different. I wanted to see if
we can really think about science from a
truly indigenous language. And if we did that, what kind of
keywords might we come up with? And what I found was
quite interesting. In several parts
of the chapter, I give the example of the way in
which observations of animals and animals signs give rise
to a whole way of defending against enemy attack and
constructing defense systems. My best is mice. As a rule, mice always
have a plan B. When they dig, they have two exits. One is the obvious one. The other is the
other you don’t see. So they enter up this way. If you wait here and think
that the mouse is going to come back this way, and you
are ready, poised to hit it, oops. It has already
bolted the other way. It’s gone. When it digs, there are
all these various caverns that it hides in. So you may be digging this way,
and it takes a detour and just hides there. Mice are also known to
be very good at defending against seige warfare. One example I give
there is they stick– and squirrels do this as well,
but in this case, it was mice. And this had very
substantial consequences to the concept of chimurenga. The idea that women would be
stocking food in the caves while all the men would be
busy mounting the defenses. It was a communal effort. What I’m interested there
is not so much the war. I tend to be anti-war. I am much more
interested in the idea that you can learn a lot of
things from other animals. And I’m sure if you look at
some of the science that’s coming out, like
Geckskin, for example, it’s coming out of this
idea to learn the animal world in order for you to
apply to other purposes. For Shadrek Chirikure,
the interesting thing was to think about
the laboratory as a site which is not
fixed or tethered to space. It’s something that is moving. You can lift it and
press it somewhere. What remains constant
is the practice. And for this example,
this is a stunning example of how you could actually
build furnaces, blast furnaces in clay in order to
smelt iron and do so in a way that is capable
of being shifted elsewhere. And I’m calling this
science because how else do you explain the fact that
these ironsmiths on this [INAUDIBLE] plateau in
the Congo, in the 16th to 18th centuries, they
out-competed the Portuguese. We had come with their
engineers from Europe to construct foundries. And the Portuguese,
lo and behold, they couldn’t penetrate
the local market. In fact, they did not even have
confidence in their own iron. And then they deferred
to these locals in order to continue
to be viable. Part of what I
find interesting is the way in which
these ironsmiths were able to manipulate air supply. To initiate combustion
and control it. To know what kind of trees
were required to provide wood with good charcoal. And to be able to
do so in such a way that they prepared the charcoal
under specific conditions. That’s science. There is no way we
can go around it. That’s science. So iron working is one
of the two activities that Chirikure looks at. The other one is pottery. Pottery is interesting because
it’s practiced by women, mostly women in Africa. I’ve not heard of
societies where men are to be found making pots. Nor have I heard of– until, perhaps, recent times,
of any women smelting iron. Both were governed by taboos. If a woman comes anywhere
near the furnace, the iron would not
come out nicely. At the same time, if a
man came anywhere near where women were making
pots, they would crack. That was the taboo. Production could
only take place under these specific conditions. Nothing else. And before anything was
done, these folks had to go before their ancestors
and the ghosts of technology, if you want, to say, this
is what we are going to do. If anything failed, they
would blame the failure to observe taboo. Taboo may sound
strange, doesn’t it? It’s nothing more than
the kinds of things that you do in science. Science has its own taboos here. The do’s and don’ts under which
an experiment is carried out. We often think of
innovation as something that we are free to do. And if you look at the
narrative of innovation, it is usually this independence
period of creativity and risk taking, particularly
by the [INAUDIBLE].. Think slavery. How do you innovate freedom? Or how do you innovate
survival or a life under bondage, when your
life has been reduced to nothing more than a
machine of mass production on the plantation? That’s the focus of
Gerie Augusto’s chapter. She is trying to reposition
the Trans Atlantic trade in Africans as slaves– I don’t call it slave trade– as a technology transfer
and innovation process. The argument she’s making
through seeds and medicines is an interesting one. That it’s easy to say
they were carriers of ready-made
products from Africa or knowledge in their
heads from Africa. That’s easy to say. Some scholars have said that
for ice, others for masonry, others for metals. The work of Candace
[INAUDIBLE],, for example. But what she’s saying is that
in that space between departure and arrival, enslaved
Africans had to survive. The only way you would
survive was to keep yourself with high morale. Of course, there was
also the possibility that you could recuse yourself
from the space of being molested by your captor and
just jump overboard and end it and deny them profit. That was another way. Still very creative under
difficult circumstances. Or you could take only those
resources that you had– there was nothing
else to work with– and shift them in form. Transform them in order
to create something that would enable you to survive. So the space between
departure and arrival was not a dead space. It was a creative space. What she calls the
inter-trance, the in between. At the same time,
when they arrived, picture yourself arriving in
a foreign environment, where you have to eke out a living,
even as you are enslaved. What she is calling
attention to is to look at the slave quarters
as an innovation space. I like this picture
because it partly tells a biography of me growing
up, where a lot of things were not– did not
have space locally. It was during sanctions. And I saw the Rhodesian
community innovating in very interesting ways. Replacing imported
parts with local ones that they could
easily manufacture. And when they ran their
life, they actually began to manufacture
them locally. Examples include a
lot of the Humvees that you see in the
battlefields in the Middle East that are coming from
Australia, much of that R&D was Rhodesian made. These Rhodesians then
migrated after independence. They did not want to have– to be ruled by a
black government. They migrated. That’s one narrative. The other narrative
that’s interesting is that if you wanted your
mom to cook food for you, you had to make the utensils
necessary to process it. In precolonial
Africa, for example, there were no hammer mills. There were no steam machines. The only way you could
grind grain and produce meal was to produce
mortar and pestle. And what you see in this
picture is a process. A dad taking his son through
the process of how you make one. And to the point until
your mother actually pounds grain to
make food for you. At MIT, we talk
of mind and hand. This is mind and
hand as you can get. The subject of Toluwalogo
Odumosu’s chapter is an interesting one. Because you are hearing
more and more now Africa being referred
to as leapfrogging. For most of Africa, there
was no fixed land line. Then comes cyber, which
by the way, did not come– cell phones. They did not come just
by the grace of God, nor were they brought
by foreigners. The first– the pioneers
of cellphones in Africa, who brought cellular
phone to Africa, included people like Miko
Rwayitare, who founded Telcel. For us to have undersea cables
that circumnavigated the Cape, that idea was pushed
very vociferously by former South African
president, Thabo Mbeki. His argument was simple. There was one slot reserved for
hosting the World Cup for 2010, and it would go to
an African country. Now, which country would it be? Would it be Egypt? Egypt was too far north. In any case, it was almost right
on the path of the undersea cables going to India. The argument that Mbeki
was making was interesting. If Egypt gets the
World Cup, Africa has lost its chance
to have its internet. It has lost this chance. So the only way it can
have it is if the Cup came to South Africa. We now know that if you look
at the map, the cyber map of Africa, that has come to be. Come to pass. Since then, we have seen
interesting developments. We have seen innovations in
mobile money with M-pesa, which is revolutionizing
not just African– how Africans movement. It’s revolutionizing the
way the whole world does mobile banking and so forth. The latest innovation is
by Zipline International in Rwanda, a partnership
that has resulted in the supply of blood to
difficult-to-reach countries using drones. And this is now
expanding into Tanzania. These things have
policy implications. For example, how
can a sensibility of Africa as the center of
technology shape policy? And part of the reason why
we produced this volume when we did is because
we were concerned that the strategic
plan for Africa, the science, technology, and
innovation strategy for Africa, focuses on big science and
national systems of innovation derived from mostly European
countries whose economies are science intensive. They are research intensive. By contrast, 70%
of Africa’s economy is generated in the
informal sector, produced by that everyday knowledge
that I highlighted earlier on. So part of what
Chux Daniels does is to try and return us to
that kind of conversation. Can we have something more
sophisticated than just cutting and pasting? In closing, I’ve talked
so far about what we did. This is what has happened since. The imperative now
is to transform some of these findings
into actual curricula. And so we have been
turning the networks that we built through this
process into syllabi like this. For example, how
about we take students to these sites like this forge
here, and taking seriously the science involved in this
and combine it with engineering. What might we get? How about we take
knowledge of grain storage, under which Africans
dug underground or constructed structures
made of clay and heated them. And after heating,
and it’s cool, they put grain inside
and then seal it, thereby ensuring that
no weevils get in. What are we to make
up of that, as opposed to using all these toxic
pesticides to preserve grain. Finally, I’ll say that one
of the things that I’ve been trying to do
is to demystify the purpose of education. And this is a matter
that is dear to my heart. When we are educated, we leave
the villages, the communities, and go abroad, we
never come back. And many of these insights,
as good as the were, they were produced by academics. And these academics,
what do we do? Does it just end in talk? I said earlier that Africa
has a huge deficit of doers. A lot of critical thinkers
who are not doers. A lot of doers who are
not critical thinkers. The challenge personally
was what have I ever done? Because I want to change
the whole of Africa. I want to change the world. What have I ever really done
for my own little village? And so I wanted to challenge
fellow academics who come from Africa to say, can’t
we be catalysts and build it? So I returned home,
remodeled my own homestead into a kind of laboratory
where I could try out– if I had ideas that
I thought worked, why not try them
out first to see if they work before I can
propose them to government? I can’t just talk from– that’s empty rhetoric. And as you spend substantial
presence in the village, you realize that
actually, people, where they work,
every day, these are their own laboratories. Like this young man
here, who told me that if you want to see
if one fertilizer works among three of them,
just plant three crops. Three plants, right? One, two, three, and then put
the same amount of fertilizer on each. Three different. The one that grows more
has justified itself as the better option. So you could come to that
space as a learner and not just somebody who’s
telling people what to do. Finally, there is a
concept that I talk about in the introduction called
[? nimbe. ?] Under which the society came together
to do communal work– the whole village– to do community work
for women were widowed, for orphans, or those that
were too old to do work, or simply for those that
had excelled and got overwhelmed by their
own crop production. It’s called [? nimbe. ?] It’s
an ethos of collective work. The idea that I
was bringing back was can’t we do this
again, but this time focusing on self-development
in the village. The picture you see
was taken this morning. It is a picture of us
electrifying our own village using that concept. It’s not easy. There will be people who are
still very individualistic. But it has turned out, once
you cut off the rough edges, this turned out to be a
very, very successful model. Thank you very
much for listening. AUDIENCE: You remind
me of an– ahem. Excuse me. An experience I had recently
with a community garden. It is near here. It is not individual plots
for people in the community. It is done communally,
as a group. And many of the people in that– maybe most– in that group,
are engineers, and a lot of the engineers from MIT. And I learned from
there that farmers– in the US, at least, in the
Western world, don’t innovate. The industry of
selling them products does the development,
the innovation, and sells them answers to
their questions, basically. So they don’t ask questions
at all, themselves. But clearly, in a village,
you get this sense of being not just empowered,
but required to ask and answer your own questions, or
they will never be known. It seems a natural thing
for a village environment or a group large enough to
be able to differentiate who is doing what work,
but small enough that everyone is an
individual, and everyone can hear what one
person has to say, to do that kind of innovation. To learn, perhaps,
that one kind of tree blocks the wind better
when the wind is making it difficult for young plants. So thank you for
bringing that to light. But it very much
clicked with me, based on my personal experience. CLAPPERTON CHAKANETSA
MAVHUNGA: Thank you so much. AUDIENCE: I’m curious if you see
one particular nation in Africa or a particular city or region
as the most likely to export the next world-changing
technology, or if that doesn’t
really matter so much, and if you’re more focused
on some of the work you’ve shared today that
really has direct, local impact in communities. CLAPPERTON CHAKANETSA
MAVHUNGA: Rwanda. Rwanda. Why? Because if you look at what
President Paul Kageme is doing, he’s willing to take risks. I was very impressed
by the story that the [INAUDIBLE] Ronaldo
from Zipline told me. He was saying that everybody
else just laughed them off, basically. Even the big
pharmaceutical companies, the big foundations
in the United States, let alone government. They just said, you
are crazy, little boy. Get out of here. But Kageme was prepared
to take the risk. And they piloted
the first– it’s the world’s first, actually. So that on it’s own, what’s
happening, is very interesting. You already have
M-pesa, so that, to say nothing of [INAUDIBLE]. Now, one could
say, oh, but these are people who are
coming from outside, or they’re big
corporations, in the case of– that are doing this. But why is it that it’s
possible in Africa? And what kind of infrastructures
are they creating? Zipline is very interesting. Where it goes next
will be critical. So I would say Rwanda,
without any doubt. Second to which
would be Mauritius. I think the big innovation
will be in problem solving education. You have two institutions,
one in Mauritius called African
Leadership First Academy, they’re now a university. And they are modeling their
education system as declaring– you declare– a student declares not
a major, but a mission. And one of their missions is
to solve global challenges. [INAUDIBLE] in Ghana is
doing the same thing, I think differently, though. But I would watch
Rwanda in Mauritius. AUDIENCE: I work on education
initiatives at Google. I was wondering if you
could provide a little bit more specific information
about those examples that you just
mentioned, where there are these educational
models around mission rather than knowledge for
the sake of knowledge? Where can I go and learn
more information about that? CLAPPERTON CHAKANETSA
MAVHUNGA: They– so the thing with African
Leadership University is that there is a big vision. And they have started
their journey to get there. And they are on a big
recruitment drive. That’s how I got to know
that, in the interest of full disclosure. What interests me
about them is that they are willing to gamble
and take big risks and start entirely
something new. They are not interested
in settled waters. Because when the water
is crystal clear, you see where the crocodile is. They are prepared to
plunge in and gamble that the crocodiles will
see that they are too brave, they must be banking on
something, and back off. So their website
is a good start, but they are very
approachable in terms of– Fred Swaniker, this
founder himself, is very, very approachable. They are mixing this corporate
style of doing things with, I can’t say traditional way
of delivering education, but that corporate
style is interesting. Because when he has a vision,
he can push it forward. SPEAKER: Please join me again
in thanking Professor Mavhunga. [APPLAUSE] CLAPPERTON CHAKANETSA
MAVHUNGA: Thank you so much.

Comments (3)

  1. I tried to be open minded and than he said the magic word "religion". More post modern crap. smh
    Build your country of Wakanda and see how magic and science fit together and become better than western science.
    There is so much woo woo at Google, how do you still innovate?

  2. Google Talks needs more diverse speakers like this, please.

  3. Woe this is mind opening. We were studying this in school and after reading I had to supplement it with this video. Education is truly a necessary tool in Africa and yeah we had our own type of innovation before the only thing we need to do is to add onto what we are currently doing.

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