Rowland Brown

Trends from around the world indicate shifts into more robust digital innovation in the realms of hardware and software alongside the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT) in which over 50 billion connected devices are forecast by as early as 2020 which include connectivity of our homes to our phones, cars, our cities and more. Arguably, this projection with such staggering market potential is enticing yet it may not come to fruition in the current trajectory and estimated timeline. I do however think that the growth is a clear indicator of potential and scope for local innovative contributions to this growing sector, hopefully by creating solutions for real problems which will have a longer and more impactful lifespan. Developments in EDtech, additive manufacturing, biotechnology, robotics, genetics and artificial intelligence are gaining momentum which, coupled with the sharing economy and circular economy movements, give rise to disruptive innovation which is emerging across all sectors. It is fascinating to track the evolution across diverse sectors. Interestingly, with Data being dubbed the “New Oil”, Private Sector and Academia alike are rethinking the perdurable in understanding the human condition such as Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ and its relation to the digital era and the deep learning and machine learning activities of AI. Thought-leaders are reimagining the needs of tomorrow’s citizens; access to massive computational resources, rapidly growing data pools and interconnectivity of people and things is a major force behind a paradigm shift which is spurring on new innovations, inventiveness and the birth of new industries. In Namibia, one major hurdle is the lack of access to this connected world and once this problem has found its solution, connecting all of Namibia together, bridging the digital divide, and breaking down boundaries will surely see the younger generation advancing and innovating in ways we are yet to comprehend. This is a key NUST objective and we aim high, promoting innovation in the digital age of connectedness.

Industry 4.0 or the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed as a driver of future prosperity and job creation locally. In general, this revolution involves digitalisation of production, processes and automation of functions. There are many controversial discussions on this topic and of course whether robots will take away employment opportunities for humans. We need to therefore see this as an opportunity for innovation and explore the possibilities, become early adopters like Rwanda. This country is leading phenomenal innovative initiatives like the first drone airport in the world which is specifically focused on delivering health supplies to areas which take days to reach by car. These new ideas will push the output of innovative technologies in the form of hardware and software which could be designed, developed and manufactured within Namibia, which is an exciting future we are busy unfolding today, imagine what it will look like in ten years’ time!

Sustainability is a hot topic the world over with the initiation of the Global Sustainable Development Goals: all global citizens are tasked with being conscious about how they impact on the world. Green business, among others, is an area where there is a plethora of possibilities; there is potential to prototype and develop innovations which can solve our own local problems in sanitation, energy, agriculture and manufacturing.I believe the notion of farming the sea rather than hunting it holds exponential potential. Within Africa, where we all face similar problems and challenges, Namibia shines as a prototype haven: products are being tested and refined for local consumption and are then available for deployment across the continent. Researchers are developing seamless solar roofing products which charge and store energy without the bulky solar panel aesthetic, wearable garments are incorporating energy-gathering devices to power sensors for monitoring and transmitting data. All of these industries will expand and we need to start focusing on bringing in skills and technologies locally where our youth can research, experiment and develop innovative ideas which can contribute to the growth of new, exciting industries.

The rapidly evolving speed at which technology is growing, pivoting and exploding in niche areas is a challenge to keep up with. At FABlab we have initiated innovative add-on modules or PlusMods that provide access to cutting-edge skills which are relevant today. The team is made up of a group of young, predominantly female creative technologists, as we like to call ourselves, and we meld skills across various disciplines such as ICT, Fashion design and Electronic engineering. The need for being exposed to new trends and technologies is really at the crux where I see a new rise of advanced makers, those who are our inventors and the creators of tangible innovation. I believe that our leaders need to invest in and embrace modern technology, allowing for experimentation in a low-risk sandbox such as our FABlab where your ideas can iterated, tested, redefined and where one is free to fail but also to try again. FABlab is part of a sharing economy, with over one thousand labs across the globe: people are sharing ideas, designs and are part of a distributed learning platform where new information is shared openly. As part of the network, the labs host an academy where learners learn how to “Make Almost Anything”. One of the highlights of this is that learners at our local FABlab are embracing Industry 4.0 applications by creating sensors and applications for SMART products and are even able to create machines made from simple plywood. An example of which is the NAMBOT – a locally designed and manufactured low-cost, 3-axis machine currently programmed as a drawing machine which will draw any image uploaded to it.

SMART Cyber-physical systems embedded into new business will create both opportunities for manufacturing locally and also for the design and development of new products which are able to sense and react with internal states and external environments to ensure optimum functionalities, use of resources and prevent disasters. NAMBOT has multiple possibilities for local applications, it is a case of transferring the skills and building a pool of young innovators willing to get their hands dirty, put in the hard work and commit themselves to building industries which most of the older generation may not understand. Generation gaps are in themselves a hindrance to the creation of new inventive industries. Innovation ranked at 107 in 2015 and moving up ten spaces to 97 in 2017, Namibia is beginning to build this culture of change and inventiveness. In my opinion the industries of tomorrow and the concept of inventing a new future for Namibia would be engrained in the youth population being upskilled in cutting-edge technological fields such as IoT, Virtual Reality, and Robotics in parallel with Product Design which will breed a pool of talented young individuals capable of inventing new products and services that are globally competitive, thereby helping to build the industries of tomorrow.

When FABlab was launched by Hon. Calle Schlettwein in 2014, he said “nurturing such a pool of people will help to transform the economy from its heavy reliance on the production and export of finite natural resources” which is a long-term strategic focus of FABlab. The big business that I champion for Namibia as key innovation areas is soft robotics and wearable technologies, future materials, and mixed SMART industries. These fall under the over-arching Artificial Intelligence (AI) umbrella as well as circular economy industries which would focus on utilising waste to create inventive products and combat climate change through reduction and reuse. We have wide-open spaces, sunshine and abundant natural resources to harness for our future. These are exciting times, times to dream, take risks and make the impossible possible.