Brain Gain Or Drain?

Africa’s got software talent… but for how much longer? What do African techies make of Silicon Valley? What might Silicon Valley make of them?

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Steve Mutinda: Kenyan App developer.
Photo Credit: WhiteAfrican

No Prada suits, hoodies or flip flops. No algorithms stolen off dorm room windows. None of that Social Network, San Francisco stuff. Steve Mutinda’s award-winning mobile health app may be designed for the global market, may end up slaying them in Silicon Valley, but, built in Africa by Africans for Africans, MedKenya comes out of a clear African sensibility — that’s its unique selling point.

“We want to showcase the potential of Africa in creating solutions that make a difference,” explains the 29-year-old software developer from Nairobi. “We want the world to see that, yes, it is possible for Africa to be a net producer of solutions rather than a net consumer.”

A one-stop shop for healthcare advice, the app squeezes out revenue from the realities around Mutinda: the technology available to him; Kenya’s most urgent healthcare issues; and, crucially, what’s considered affordable by ordinary Kenyans.

Subscribers to MedKenya pay to receive health alerts. Doctors pay to be included in its directory; the more alerts they write, the better placed their entry.

Designed to meet UN and Kenyan government development criteria, the app is an affordable way of getting expert medical information over to patients rather than an easy knock-off of the latest dotcom fad to hit San Francisco or London.

Top of the Tech

Mutinda is part of a wave of young software developers emerging out of the fast-moving East African tech scene. Find them in the big urban centres, around universities, tech incubators and wherever there’s talk of technology as a way of making serious money.

MedKenya could do well. It came top in the Pivot25 apps competition held in Nairobi last June. Over 100 app developers from across East Africa applied to take part.

Sharp coding skills together with a robust business plan gave Mutinda and his team the edge over the competition. As well as a cheque for $5000, they get to go to Silicon Valley and pitch MedKenya to potential investors at the prestigious DEMO conference this September.

Products launched at DEMO have gone on to become household names — TiVo, Adobe Acrobat and Google’s first attempts at mobile search.

What’s most exciting about going to Silicon Valley isn’t so much the investment possibilities there, says Mutinda’s 28-year-old business partner, Mbugua Njihia. There’s venture capital enough in Nairobi. What sends Njihia “off the scale” is the prospect of the Silicon Valley learning experience.

“It’s like taking an MBA in seven days,” says Njihia. “It’s soaking up the wisdom of people who really understand how to build multimillion dollar businesses.”

Brain Gain?

The African brain gain is nothing new. The key shapers of Kenya’s current tech landscape received their basic training abroad. Coming back, they brought with them the expertise and investment needed to bring about huge improvements to Africa’s telecom sector.

Michael Joseph left South Africa for America and its new mobile phone sector before returning to Africa, to Kenya, to become Safricom’s CEO where, with Vodaphone, he set up the revolutionary mobile-phone based money transfer system M-Pesa.

Mo Ibrahim studied in the UK and then worked for British Telecom before setting up Celtel, the African telecoms giant, and becoming one of Africa’s few billionaires.

Lower down the tech chain, however, the benefits to Africa from the migration of its brightest and best to the West become less apparent. Making connections and knowing how to pitch to potential investors, the tricks of the successful tech entrepreneur’s trade: what’s the best way for African migrants to pass on this kind of insider knowledge?

Out of Africa

In Buea, southern Cameroon, Mambe Nanje Churchill, CEO of the Afrovision Group, says that going abroad has changed many of the developers he knows into New Yorkers or Londoners: they’ve lost touch with their base.

“The fact that Africans leave and invest their skills out there hurts me so much,” says Churchill. “Going out there to study and coming back is a great experience and good for Africa. It’s just that in recent times, the flow seems to me to have been one way: people mostly don’t return.”

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 20,000 Africans leave the continent each year. Out of the skilled professionals leaving, a high proportion work in IT.

Both Africa’s healthcare and educational systems have been hit hard by migration. At least 60 per cent of doctors trained in Ghana during the 1980s now work abroad, reports the UN Development Programme (UNDP).

Even worse, perhaps, there’s a danger that the best resourced African techies, those who’ve internalised the Silicon Valley vibe, who’ve become members of the global kinetic elite, forget about what’s best for Africa even when they’re in Africa.

“As the saying goes, you might have the greatest idea in the world, but if it doesn’t work ‘on the ground’, it doesn’t work,” says Linda Raftree, Social Media and New Technology Advisor for Plan West Africa, an NGO working with young people.

This is true even if an idea or technology is developed locally. “If those developing it are from the city and they expect it to work in a rural area, but haven’t talked to anyone who would actually use the technology or the application, it can still fail,” warns Raftree.

Homing Instinct

Andrew Mugoya in London views migration more positively: “The majority of Africans born and raised in Africa will always view Africa as home, regardless of whether they return to settle.”

Mugoya left Nairobi after school to go to university in the UK. After working in IT in the blue chip banking sector, he set up Asilia, a creative agency specialising in web development. His team members are based in both the UK and in Kenya.

As well as sending back remittances and making investments, expat African entrepreneurs tend to find ways of sending business back home, he says.

“Africans in the diaspora will tend to look to Africa when trying to get back-office support because they know the region. It’s less of a risky black hole. It’s almost as though they become Africa’s agents, generating business for the people back home.”

A version of this appears in the September issue of Bspirit, the Brussels Airlines magazine.

African Tech Joins Up

By developing its developers, Africa’s tech sector hopes to go from ping to kerching.

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Photo Credit: Sundhult

Time was when African software developers didn’t register on Silicon Valley’s radar. No undersea fibre optic cables meant that there wasn’t much of a digital infrastructure in most of sub-Saharan Africa and so accessing and developing its software market was tough work.

These days, with access getting easier, the African blip on the Silicon Valley screen is starting to ping somewhat louder: the world’s biggest technology companies can’t get enough of the right kind of African ideas.

Seeking solutions to African needs, the kind not generally grokked by Silicon Valley VCs, companies like Google and Nokia are working hard to encourage African developers.

They go into schools and universities. They set up apps markets. They help with marketing. They sponsor conferences. But the most obvious way, the one which gets the most attention, is via the kerching and bling of the apps challenge.

Going app?

US Dollars
Photo Credit: AMagill

Typically, the challenge is to design a new app in exchange for a small cash prize. With the announcement of the competition, marketing departments go into overdrive. Blogs posts and tech events show off the competing apps. Finally, there’s an impressive award-giving evening with pitches and backslapping and toasts to Africa’s tech potential.

When it works, it’s great. Developers are forced to consider what the outside tech world wants. The companies get a sense of what the developers can deliver.

However, there’s a feeling among developers, voiced across blogs and net forums, that this apps ride stops somewhere short of Silicon Valley. You meet the app challenge, you take part in the competitions, get judged by tech experts and then what? Isn’t it the case that big tech companies are likely to spin off the best apps and develop them in-house?

It’s true that young developers can end up giving away their work for not much, says Ken Banks, developer of FrontlineSMS, the free text-messaging software for Africa-based NGOs, and a veteran observer of the African tech scene. “The suspicion is that competitions like these, coming at the developers left, right and centre, are just a cheap way of scooping up the most potentially lucrative new ideas.”

Broadly speaking

Cash register
Photo Credit: liewcf

The current excitement about Africa’s tech prospects is triggered by the ring of the cash register. The business analysts say that where there’s broadband in Africa, there’s new business. With the new undersea cables rapidly increasing broadband capacity, the economic growth that Africa has seen over the past five or so years is likely to continue.

As in Silicon Valley’s dotcom era, first mover-advantage mania rules among the big tech companies: the company which gets its platform, its killer apps, its tech ecosystem into place first, wins Africa – or so the theory goes.

In order to do this, an entrepreneurial culture needs to be created among Africa’s tech whiz kids.

Among Silicon Valley techies, there’s the perception that a potentially good cultural fit exists between Africa and global tech. Although it’s easy to over romanticise this, Africa’s culture is one of innovation, of make do and mend. Out of necessity. And this fits nicely into the tech world’s hacker ethos, the idea that you take what’s around you and hack it into something better.

And, of course, there’s the wider issue of African knowledge. African developers understand African needs in a way outsiders just can’t.

For example, with computers priced out of the reach of many Africans, the mobile phone became the key tech device. Unlike their counterparts in the West, African developers are mobile net natives, wise to its opportunities and limitations.

The key question, then? How best can business harness this African potential? The answer? Build an entrepreneurial tech community.

“Someone working at Google in San Francisco is going to struggle to understand how a service needs to run in rural Kenya,” says Banks. “By providing help and resources to a rural Kenyan developer, however, Google can tap local knowledge and build exactly what’s needed.”

Community spirit

iHub, Nairobi, Kenya
Photo Credit: WhiteAfrican

Taking place on 14 to 15 June in Nairobi, Kenya, Pivot 25 is a step towards the kind of ideas chain Banks describes. Open to east Africa’s mobile startups, it’s an apps challenge with a difference – it’s as much about creating community as kerching. Yes, there are the judges and the pitches and the cash prizes and the networking opportunities, the chances to click with potential investors.

What makes Pivot 25 interesting, however, is that it’s based within an innovation hub, a physical space for developers, which in turn is part of a wider African tech community.

Created by the team behind the award-winning Ushahidi software, the iHub acts as a space for events held by and for the local software developer community. It “incubates” young coders: it gives them somewhere to hang out and swap ideas and learn how to collaborate on projects.

The iHub is part of the new Afrilabs Association, a network of innovation hubs across sub-Saharan Africa. Run by expats and children of the African Diaspora, techies all, they aim to inject a Silicon Valley entrepreneurial vibe into local tech cultures.

What innovation hubs like Afrilabs will do is encourage the survival of the fittest apps while ensuring that developers get to develop too, says Banks.

“The best ideas will naturally rise to the surface, but people will have the chance to keep hold of their ideas and not sell out cheaply. Any success will be because of the merit of the idea rather than because a panel of experts hyped it.”

Jon Gosier, co-founder of Hive Colab, an Afrilabs hub in Kampala, Uganda, says that what he and the other Afrilab hubs are building on is “local creative surplus”, the knowledge peculiar to Africa which Africans have and which could be used to drive innovation.

The business models and focus of the hubs vary: incubating talent, coworking or even just creating a community space for local hackers.

What the hubs have in common is access to funds and “pools of talent on the ground”, says Gosier. Operating across boarders, they bring the two together.

“So instead of an investor worrying about the nuances of doing business in so many different countries, we can take on some of that responsibility and let the investor and entrepreneur focus on building their businesses.”

Find out more:

Afrilabs Association

The iHub, Kenya

ActivSpaces, Cameroon

Hive Colab, Uganda

Nailab, Kenya

Banta Labs, Senegal

A version of this appears in the May issue of Bspirit, the Brussels Airlines magazine.

Mob Rules

Africa’s mobile phone kiosks: tech hubs set to rival Silicon Valley?

Ken Banks 1

Photo Credit: Ken Banks, Kiwanja.net

In the West, there’s an app for everything. In Africa, so goes the latest business/development mantra, there’s the mobile phone kiosk. The noise around Africa’s diy mobile phone culture sometimes sounds like a faint repeat of the dotcom hype from 1990s San Francisco.

However, Africa’s kiosks are for real: in the last decade or so, mobile phone kiosks have appeared everywhere, on every African city street corner.

They add up to entrepreneurial ecosystems buzzing with innovative goods and services, claim the business pundits. It’s an MBA case study scrawled across an entire continent.

Your phone doesn’t take multiple sim cards? Not a problem. African kiosk hackers are able to re-engineer your phone so that two cards can fit into one sim slot. Need instructions for the phone you bought up country? Don’t worry. Chances are that the kiosk’s clever geeks can download and print off the manual for you.

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Photo Credit: Ken Banks, Kiwanja.net

It’s innovation born out of necessity, suggests Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net, the non-profit behind FrontlineSMS, free text-messaging software for Africa-based NGOs.

“Some of the most exciting innovations happen in resource constrained environments,” says Banks.

“Anyone who travels around African countries will see people making things out of the most unlikely components and cobbling odd scraps together because really they have no other choice.”

What’s happening at the level of the street kiosks is a distant echo of the noise around African communication globally. Over the last decade, the international community has gradually turned up the volume on the idea of jumpstarting Africa’s economy via technology.

Rather than sending aid money into Africa, big business, development economists and NGOs and international institutions like the UN and the World Bank hope to encourage African development at home, from the phone kiosks up.

Celebrating innovation, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in a speech at the start of 2010 that new technologies meant that “billions of people” were about to “leapfrog into the 21st century after missing out on 20th-century breakthroughs”.

Africa’s leapfrogging is a three-stage tech work in progress. First, there’s the external scaffolding.

The 2000s saw the push to provide the big infrastructure for Africa’s digital revolution. Gradually, the governments and then the corporations installed the phone masts and then the undersea cables. In the last year, large parts of Africa have finally become wired, linked via fibre optic to the global internet.

The second stage is the internal wiring. The hope, in boardrooms in the City of London, in lecture theatres in Ivy League schools, is that the introduction of new technology, like mobile phones and the services associated with them, leads to a surge in African development.

The great Kenyan mobile phone success story has been M-Pesa, the hugely popular mobile money transfer service. In 2009, nearly half of all Kenyan cash transfers were by mobile phone.

Sign up with an M-Pesa agent to buy digital cash. Send the cash off by SMS to any mobile phone user in Kenya. They can swap the digital for real shillings by visiting their local M-Pesa agent.

Around 10 million customers, around 40 percent of the population, use M-Pesa. According to Safaricom, the Kenyan mobile phone provider running the service for Vodophone, the mobile service transferred the equivalent of 20 percent of Kenya’s GDP in 2010.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that IBM’s Bruno Di Leo sees Africa as the “next major emerging growth market”.

Big Blue is providing the computing power for an upgrade to the mobile phone network operated by Zain Africa in 16 sub-Saharan African nations. It’s spending a cool $1.5 billion in Africa over the next ten years.

Zain Africa itself was bought up in June by India’s largest mobile phone company Bharti Airtel for a whopping $9 billion.

Kenyan mobile phone customers couldn’t be happier. There’s the better service. And, keen to get a bigger slice of the Kenyan market, Zain has cut its charges in half since the late summer.

In the current price war, other mobile phone operators have been forced to follow Zain’s example, cutting call charges in some cases by up to 75 percent. Meanwhile, Orange is giving away handsets to anyone buying $13 worth of airtime.

However, it’s not the handsets which matter, not in the long run. As M-Pesa demonstrates, the way in which mobile phones give real benefit to ordinary Africans is via the services they carry.

Farmers with mobile phones can find out market prices. Doctors can send healthcare information to nurses. Activists can keep tabs on election results.

Ken Banks 3
Photo Credit: Ken Banks, Kiwanja.net

Economist and UN Special Advisor Jeffrey Sachs says that the digital revolution is putting “wind in the sails of development”.

The third stage in Africa’s great leap forward is universal access to broadband internet. With industry insiders expecting the announcement of cheaper smartphones aimed at the African market, the CEO of Opera, one of the leading mobile browser developers, says that the mobile web could amount to a “turning point” for Africa.

Jon von Tetzchner told South African tech journalists recently that Africa’s enthusiasm for mobile phones and services shows the continent is “jumping over years of tech development”.

He continued: “But the most important thing with all this development is that it’s easier to build things up by yourself. There is a great opportunity for Africans to build services locally and sell them locally.”

 

Costing Calls

The rise in the number of Africans owning mobile phones has been incredible.

In 2000, 16 million Africans subscribed to mobile phones; by 2008, the number had gone up to 376 million – that’s a third of the population of sub-Saharan Africa.

However, it’s unlikely that mobile phone ownership in Africa is as widespread as this. Some people own more than one phone.

For the majority of Africans, phones remain an expensive luxury.

A cheap mobile phone in Kenya costs half the average monthly income.

Which explains the brisk trade around streetside mobile phone kiosks.

 

Calling Home

Fine tuning the platforms on which services like M-Pesa run, the big tech companies have made a point of tuning in to potential customers.

One method has been to send anthropologists into rural villages to find out how people live and what they need and want from new technology.

Relayed back to the design teams in Helsinki or London or San Francisco, the surveys have resulted in phones designed specifically for rural Africans.

Nokia has entry-level phones for the African market which use icons instead of text cues – not all of its customers can read and write.

PIN-protected multiple address books ensure privacy – unlike Europeans or Americans, Africans often share their mobile phones.

A version of this appears in the November issue of Bspirit, the Brussels Airlines magazine.

Fast Company

With the arrival of broadband, sub-Saharan Africa’s tech entrepreneurs are on the verge of take off. Question is: to where?

Computer cafe, Nairobi, Kenya

Photo Credit: White African

In Buea, southern Cameroon, the tech boys are pulling an all-nighter. Mambe Nanje Churchill’s fingers go hurtling across the keyboard. With his 20-year-old junior looking on, the 24-year-old self-taught veteran of the local cyber café scene deftly reworks a website banner.

It ain’t rocket science, but it pays.

Popular with students at the town’s university, the 60 or so cafés straggling along the streets on the green slopes beneath Mount Cameroon have become informal centres for incubating tech entrepreneurs.

The cafés provide a testing ground for novice techies. Regulars can pick up the basic tech skills needed to become front-of-house cyber attendants. Those sharpest at dealing with customers’ queries go on to become café managers. Those geeking out to the hardware become the network trouble-shooters. And the brightest and the best, those with an eye on the big dollar rewards, on emulating Silicon Valley, convert their tech know how into ambitious business plans.

At $100 a pop, Churchill’s Afrovision Group designs, hosts and manages websites across Cameroon and Africa. His five-strong team of young software developers has plans to build an African social media platform.

“Africans like the idea of community, knowing about each other, talking about each other,” Churchill explains. “The collaborative net, Web 2.0, fits well into our culture.”

Churchill’s big problem is that this social capital needs a nudge to go liquid, to go online. He needs customers eyeballing adverts on Afrovision’s websites. But the cafés charge customers around 80 US cents per hour. That’s expensive for Cameroon; the average income is just $2,300 per year. As a result, the average student can only afford to go online for around four hours a week.

How to make broadband affordable for ordinary Africans? It’s becoming Africa’s key development question. How best to create the tech market to support entrepreneurs like Churchill? To support the big tech corporations of Silicon Valley?

The answer – by thinking big: a multi-million dollar international race to wire up the continent to the Internet via tens of thousands of kilometres of undersea fibre-optic strands.

Africa used to be one of the least connected parts of the world. Accessing the Internet depended on expensive and unreliable satellite connections.

Overcoming technical and political obstacles, international financial institutions like the World Bank and then the big global telecom companies set out plans for networks of undersea cables stretching across the oceans. They started building the tech infrastructure needed to bring Africa’s billion consumers and producers to market.

The number of cables serving Africa has shot up from none to seven over the last year and a half – with four rivals snaking over from Europe and the Mediterranean in the past six months alone. By 2012, Africa should have 12 undersea cables.

Brian Herlihy, heading the consortium of Africa states and telecom companies responsible for laying down the $600 million Seacom cable, has predicted that the cables will lead to an “African technological revolution”.

With broadband prices set to crash, the number of broadband users in Africa could increase from 2.5 million to 24 million users by 2011, according to Delta Partners, an investment firm for media and technology in the Middle East and Africa.

And then a boom time for African entrepreneurs like Churchill?

Russell Southwood, editor of the Balancing Act African telecoms newsletter, says that as broadband becomes ubiquitous, the key to Africa’s tech future will increasingly turn on making the new commodity pay for itself.

If the cash isn’t coming in from high broadband prices, the only other way is by charging for services and applications. The key question will become: what’s Africa offer to the Internet?

“Whereas it’s relatively easy for Europe to go ‘post-industrial’ and to make use of what you might describe as thinkwork, services of various kinds, adding value to fashion and design, it’s much more difficult to see how Africa will make those things work for it,” says Southwood.

“But I can’t believe that there won’t be a very large African fashion industry within ten years. I can’t believe that the film and music that come out of the continent won’t have a much larger global presence than it does thus far.”

But there’s a way to go yet. Africa’s first broadband-fuelled foray into the global e-market relies less on thinkwork, more on gruntwork. Africa is setting itself up as an outsourcing destination.

In Nairobi, Kenya, Lucy Mwatibo, director and founder of Ken-Tech Data, which specialises in providing foreign companies with call centres and outsourcing services, says her business has grown amazingly because of broadband.

Three years ago, Mwatibo paid $360 a month for a 128 kilobits per second connection. Internet telephony was impossible. Even data transfer made business difficult, says the 29-year-old Information Technology graduate.

“Sometimes the net would just cut out. At the best of times, the connection was up and down and very slow. And so business suffered. Sometimes you wanted to send something to a client, but had to wait for two or three hours for the net to come back up.”

Since the fibre-optic cables first switched on, as well as getting an Internet that works, Mwatibo’s broadband costs have gone down dramatically – from $3,000 per megabit to around $300.

As a result, Ken-Tech Data has new Indian investors; the number of employees has grown from 10 to 81. Mwatibo is taking on local university students to fill the company’s new purpose-built 150-seat call centre.

With broadband in place, expect African outsourcing to become increasingly important – at least for those states with the human capital needed for competition at a global level. The Kenyan government expects to see the number of its citizens working on subcontracts for foreign companies increase from 8,000 to 120,000 by 2020.

Other African states hope to follow Kenya’s example. Ghana wants to create 40,000 jobs in the outsourcing sector by 2015. Rwanda is hoping to become a regional telecoms hub, a “Singapore of the Great Lakes”.

But Africa has some catching up to do. Two million Indians already work in outsourcing; India controls some 65 percent of the sector. African states need to ramp up their tech and business infrastructures, improve general education levels and enhance overseas links with potential US and UK and/or French customers.

In any case, outsourcing isn’t the stuff of Silicon Valley dreams. Critics argue that Africa’s brightest and best can do better than play a bit part in the global factory. Innovation is hardly going to happen in a call centre. Don’t Africa’s cyber cafés – as demonstrated by Churchill – represent the kind of creative environment where good ideas happen? Isn’t that where Africa’s Web 2.0 will be unleashed?

But perhaps better the safety of outsourcing to the relative anarchy of the cyber cafés? According to some US security analysts, the cafés pose a deadly threat to the rest of the world. Africa’s old and unpatched computers are likely to fall victim to viruses: its zombie computers, lashed together into vast botnets, under the control of transnational organised crime syndicates, will be the conduit for global cybercrime on an unprecedented scale.

Scaremongering? While agreeing that cybercrime is a growing problem, Ethan Zuckerman, fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the University of Harvard, fumes at the “alarmist speculation” over African cyber cafés:

“Yes, more internet users mean more unpatched computers… but we’ve got a massive wave of zombie machines coming online in every corner of the world. There are vastly more infected Chinese computers – and probably more infected American computers – than there are total machines in sub-Saharan Africa at present.”

From cyber cafés to call centres and perhaps to crime hubs – but at least sub-Saharan Africa finally has a tech future.

Southwood’s take is that major improvements always have consequences. He points out: “The possibility that African cybercrime will become the thing to worry about is a sign of Africa’s success, not a sign of failure.”

A version of this appears in the July issue of Bspirit, the Brussels Airlines magazine.

Spectacle: Ars Electronica 2008

Linz, a sleepy provincial Austrian town? Cuckoo clocks and the sound of music? Where Hitler went to school with Wittgenstein ? Never mind the cobblestones. As the venue for Ars Electronica , one of the biggest digital arts festivals in the world, Linz is heaven for geeks right now, is overclocking with tech-driven spectacle.

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Back in the 20th Century, when Vienna marked the cutting edge of things, Austrian sophisticates cracked that Linz rhymed with province. Say “province” in an Austrian accent and it ends in “z”. Just like Linz. Geddit? Dear pretty, provincial Linz. No bright lights, no big city: what Linz offered was small-town zzzz.

Wander over to Linz’s main square, the Hauptplatz, a virtual chocolate-box cover, one of the largest squares in central Europe, elegantly lined with pastel coloured Renaissance buildings.

Fast forward past the plaques commemorating visits by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, past the imposing column, past the friendly, back-slapping locals lapping up beer and torte, the trams trundling by, the cobblestoned backstreets winding off towards pubs and cafés in sleepy squares, towards the nearby Danube. The same as it ever was: Linz, a typically Austrian town with a big heart?

Keep that fast-forward button pressed right down. Not only is it about to become the EU’s European Capital of Culture 2009, but every September, beamed up to the holodeck, fragged into a billion pixels, Linz takes a turn for a tech vision of the future.

Knocking away the town’s provincial facade to reveal the wiring underneath, firing enough white light to leave the snootiest Viennese in a whirl, Ars Electronica spills out of Linz’s art mile, the stretch of award-winning galleries and museums down by the river, and deposits culture hackers, media theorists, digital nomads from all over the world, all over the place.

Linz, provincial? Actually, until next Monday at least, Ars Electronica turns Linz into an out-of-this-world tech party – perfect for lab rats, gadget freaks and policy wonks needing to know what’s next.

Jolted into life by academics and avant-garde musicians, Ars Electronica’s goal since 1979 and the first festival has been the “development of tomorrow”.

Above computer generated anime and flashing, twirling, bleeding-edge, bleeding eye art installations, the thump of industrial techno, Ars Electronica’s geek elites delight in tech chatter – convergence, sousveillance, locative, Web 2.0: the latest buzzwords bounce around its programme of debates.

Each year, the festival tackles a different theme. In 2007, it was privacy. This year’s theme is intellectual property: what happens to a culture in which culture can be reduced to ones and zeroes and so copied and shared in just a couple of clicks to the power of – how many friends do you have in your Facebook profile?

According to Joi Ito, venture capitalist, CEO of Creative Commons and the curator of Ars Electronica 2008’s symposium, A New Cultural Economy, the Internet has lowered the cost of communication to such an extent that the legal system governing the business of creativity is being "pushed to its limits". It can’t keep up with a new gift economy based on sharing. Change on an unprecedented scale follows from this. Economics, business, organisations, politics: all require a major upgrade.

Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler kicks off the symposium on Friday with Beyond the Firm, a panel discussion examining what he describes as a new mode of production, "commons-based peer production". Leaving aside the corporations, the "people formerly known as the audience ", as Jay Rosen puts it, are increasingly coming together in non-profit groups to organise their immaterial labour: that’s you, me and Auntie Edna scratching our heads and setting up collaborative blogs, editing Wikipedia, adding public domain texts to Project Gutenberg.

Humboldt University of Berlin professor Thomas Macho leads a discussion later on Friday, Beyond Mass Media, on the tensions between this new participatory media and traditional business. At what point does a "fan" become a "pirate"?

Duke University professor and chair of Creative Commons James Boyle leads a discussion on Saturday, Beyond Professionals, on the demise of the expert and the rise of the amateur.

Joi Ito leads a discussion later on Saturday, Beyond Government, on the evolution of "subjects" into a semi-conscious public sphere capable of challenging the establishment.

Beyond highfalutin? Top-down? Elitist? Ars Electronica’s art practice makes perfect sense, sort of, out of the panellists’ talk. Escaping out of its computer screens, its art installations and events punch pretty abstract ideas into Linz’s pretty reality.

By seeing the effect their work has on ordinary visitors, tech artists and academics can get a better appreciation of how culture and technology fit together, says Ars Electronica’s Christopher Ruckerbauer. It’s applied research.

"We get the technologists out of their ivory towers into a new space. We turn the whole town into a giant stage. And we let them run riot there.”

launchy-view-1220625757597 crLast year, a Linz square was filled with sand and turned into a copy of Sydney’s Bondi Beach. A copy of this square from within the online virtual world Second Life was projected onto giant screens. Lazing in virtual deckchairs, Second Life’s 3d figures, operated by users hunched over keyboards, perhaps thousands of miles away, in Sydney even, chatted with their "meatspace" neighbours.

A plane over the town snapped high-resolution photos of art designed by locals to be seen from the air, 4,424 of them – a portrait of a man by the side of a Linz house, hello mums mown across backyard lawns, roof-top smilies.

The Graffiti Research Lab projected huge luminous messages onto buildings. It threw magnetised LEDs at passing Hauptplatz trams and their startled passengers. Its neon declaration: "reclaim public space".

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What’s created here is a third space, says Ruckerbauer: “The idea is to get to the point where art meets technology meets society.”

This year’s highlights include spectral shapes shot onto clouds by the Paris-based art and design partnership HeHe. Trained at the UK’s Royal College of Art, Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen use advanced laser technology to turn the town into a giant art factory.

The Reactable team from the Universitat Pompeu Fabrade in Barcelona, Spain, rock out on a "tangible" music table. It continually monitors the movement of objects on its surface and turns these into complex sound loops. Icelandic diva Björk played one on her last world tour.

German artist Julius von Bismarck’s Image Fulgurator is a camera in reverse. It projects images onto buildings just as unsuspecting tourists snap their photos. Later, checking their holiday pics, they see a subversive image or message and perhaps realise that photographic “reality” isn’t reliable; your camera can lie.

It’s culture, Jim, not always as we know it, but worth pursuing for what it says about technology and its relationship to society and business. Certainly, it punctures Vienna’s wordplay. Linz, provincial? Far from it.

– Listen to the symposium discussions as well as other festival debates via these Ars Electronica 2008 MP3 downloads .

Photo Credits: rubra, Ars Electronica Futurelab, Graffiti Research Lab.

A version of this appeared in the August 2008 Ryanair Magazine.

Shooting War

071106 Shooting War coverJust published, graphic novel Shooting War by Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman: it’s 2011 and anti-corporate blogger Jimmy Burns is working as an embed for Global News – ‘Your home for 24-hour terror coverage’ – in President McCain’s Iraq… And boom. The beta online version is available here.

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