South Africa: African innovation set to happen here

The University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB) has created an innovative space at the heart of its campus, to break the mould of a traditional business education in order for more holistic and creative responses to African challenges to emerge.

The Solution Space is dedicated to inventing and testing new business models, products and services, and incubating businesses aligned to African markets. It will act as a collaborative living lab for students, social innovators, entrepreneurs, foundations, government and industry players, who are interested in finding new and creative ways to address complex problems on the continent.

GSB Director Walter Baets says that the space is a manifestation of the business school of the future. “Business schools need to shift to meet the needs of an unpredictable and unequal world. This means we need to move away from just training MBAs towards getting involved in creating new business solutions for the world. We need to be more hands on by turning out real solutions to real problems.”

“The Solution Space is an opportunity to experiment in a real space with real people,” Baets says. “And because complex challenges demand collaboration and partnership, the Space will be a nexus between industry, government, academia and civil society.”

The multi-million rand initiative, which forms part of the Workshop 17 project (a joint initiative of the V&A Waterfront and UCT GSB), received funding from UCT Vice Chancellor’s Strategic Fund and The Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. The SAB Foundation has also partnered with UCT GSB with a funding commitment of R1-million as seed capital for promising social entrepreneurs.

Sarah-Anne Arnold, Solution Space manager, says the area will provide a home to GSB students of innovation and entrepreneurship. The school already runs several programmes with a focus on innovation including an MPhil specialising in inclusive innovation and the Social Innovation Lab – a stream on the MBA, which immerses students both practically and theoretical in the field of social innovation.

The space will be attractive both to start-up companies in search of “hot desk” space at a nominal fee and also to entrepreneurs in need of advice and funding. Arnold explains that the school plans to run an entrepreneurial development programme from the Space.

 “The Space is a dynamic, intellectually stimulating yet informal environment. Here, multiple and potentially divergent action-learning experiments will be piloted. The aim is to learn how best to shift increasingly interconnected social, political, economic, and environmental challenges in Africa,” said Arnold. “These unorthodox and applied experiments will revolve around the themes of values-based leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship, sustainability, inclusive innovation, and business model innovation.”

Arnold says that the Solution Space is made up of three main activities:

Learning Lab: A space dedicated to teaching, learning and research, moulding and shaping innovators and entrepreneurs through relevant and scholarly learning processes applied practically to real world problems.

Incubator: A space for corporate and government partners to help develop promising start-ups working on new and inclusive solutions with business models that have commercial potential for African markets.

Exchange: A space for people to meet, network, and build a community committed to working together to enable innovators and entrepreneurs.

The area embodies the GSB’s philosophy of Full Colour Thinking. Moveable desks and chairs, and bright coloured chalkboard walls on which to graffiti ideas create an environment where predefined models are discarded in favour of creative approaches.

Arnold says that the Solution Space is a forerunner to Workshop 17 at the V&A Waterfront, alongside the GSB campus, where construction is currently under way and due to be completed later this year.