FutureTalk Portland logoSilicon Valley might be the heart of the technology industry, but exciting digital innovation is happening all over the world. In Africa, for example, people are doing some creative and inspiring things with technology.

That was the unmistakeable takeaway from our recent FutureTalks event, which has returned after a brief hiatus. Our speaker was Ali Colleen Neff, Ph.D., founder of Culture.Encode. As director of the Digital Undergrounds and Digital Africa projects, Ali explores how subcultures, women, and marginalized communities innovate across the global “digital divide.” Affiliated with Portland State University’s program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, she has also worked with Intel’s She Will Connect program to empower African women online.

In her talk, Ali addressed the tensions between the promise of digital globalization and the reality of the digital divide as well as offered fascinating examples of African digital innovation.

Acknowledging the digital divide

ali colleen neff phd

Ali Colleen Neff, Ph.D.

The democratizing, equalizing potential of digital globalization is substantial and exhilarating, Ali said, as the “Twitter revolutions” of the Arab Spring proved. But the so-called global village inhabits an uneven landscape—one in which many people in the developing world still lack access to software, hardware, training, and infrastructure. Across large swaths of Africa, for example, there are fewer than four computers per 100 people.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of digital images in the age of social media means that Africans are often depicted and represented in ways over which they have no control. As a humorous, if troubling, example, Ali cited Humanitarians of Tinder, a website that collects examples of people who pad their dating profiles with photos of them “doing good” in the developing world. Less amusing is the reliance of hardware vendors on “conflict minerals” mined in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ghana’s emergence as an international center for the disposal of electronic waste.

Harnessing the unknowable

Though concerned by these repercussions of digital globalization, Ali remained enthusiastic about African digital innovation. “It’s about culture-responsive digital development that doesn’t assume a one-size-fits-all approach, but understands that truly universal design is about plasticity, experimentation, and the unknowable.” Imagination, she added, can be far more valuable for an engineer than the formal training and credentials typically prioritized in places like the United States.

As an example, Ali described the work of Caroline Wambui, a schoolgirl living in Nairobi, Kenya. Caroline lost an uncle to illness, in part due to the lack of an adequate organ-donor network in Nairobi, where a black market for organs thrives. When Intel visited her school as part of the company’s humanitarian work, she used Intel XDK to develop an app that connects patients, hospitals, and potential donors.

Caroline’s achievement, Ali said, emphasizes the power of enabling and empowering people, as opposed to simply training them. “We can teach African girls to code things African girls want and need. And how do we know what that is until we let them experiment, and give the them the space—and, more important, the resources—to do that for themselves?”

ali colleen neff

Off-label engagements

Ali went on to praise what she called “off-label engagements” with digital technology. The growing popularity of Nollywood movies (as a particular kind of Nigerian-made cinema is known) is one example. In these films, CGI is used to heighten surrealism, rather than to approximate reality as is done in Hollywood films.

To see more of Ali’s examples of African digital innovation, learn how you can help resource it with “space, staff, and stuff,” and discover what she believes U.S.-based tech communities can (and should) learn from innovators like Caroline Wambui, be sure to watch her full FutureTalk in the video below:

Be sure to read Ali’s own companion post to her FutureTalk presentation: Africa’s Digital Revolution: Learning from Global Cultures of Innovation

Don’t miss our next FutureTalk

For more information about our FutureTalks series, make sure to join our Meetup group, New Relic FutureTalks PDX, and follow us on Twitter @newrelic for the latest developments and updates on upcoming events.


Note: Event dates, participants, and topics are subject to change without notice.

Erin Dieterich is the Director of NewRelic.org, the company's social responsibility function. She leads, designs, and manages programs and partnerships to support the company's social impact strategy, including community impact, nonprofit customer donations, and employee volunteerism. She also produces FutureTalks PDX, the monthly tech-talk series focused on innovation and diversity, equity, and inclusion in the technology industry. View posts by .

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