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Dr. Geci Karuri-Sebina - Kenyan

Civic Tech Innovation Network (CTIN) Organiser

Geci Karuri-Sebina is an accomplished thought-leader who is a Visiting Associate Professor at the Wits School of Governance, where she also coordinates the Civic Tech Innovation Network. She is also associated with South African Cities Network (SACN), an urban governance learning network of metros, with the UCT African Centre for Cities, and with Singularity University in Palo Alto.

Geci has a background in using tech and innovation to work with communities on a wide range of local development and social transformation issues. Her previous roles include being the Executive Manager for Programmes at SACN; Developing knowledge and evaluation systems for National Treasury’s Neighbourhood Development Programme; Managing research programmes at two major science councils (the CSIR and HSRC), and Technology associate at the UCLA Advanced Policy Institute.

Her research interests are in development foresight, policy, planning and practice topics relating to urban governance, socio-technical systems, and innovation systems. She is also a co-editor of the Innovation Africa book series (2016, 2021-forthcoming) and on the editorial boards of several journals on futures and innovation.

WiredUp had a Q & A interview session with Dr. Geci Karuri-Sebina, Civic Tech Innovation Network (CTIN) Organiser

Tell me more about yourself – who is Dr. Geci Karuri-Sebina, what is your background?

  • There is no simple answer to this, unfortunately. I sometimes refer to myself as a “scholar-practitioner”, and I am based in Johannesburg with my partner, kids and books. I currently work in several roles – as an Associate Professor at the Wits School of Governance through which I also hold the role of National Organiser of the African Civic Tech Innovation Network, and I am also associated with the UCT African Centre for Cities and South African Cities Network.

  • My background – I am Kenyan born, studied mostly in the US for college and came back as a “romantic refugee” (i.e. following partner) to southern Africa. 20-years later, this is our home and I feel very much a child of the continent, comfortable to be in any / every corner of it. Education-wise, again, not an easy answer – my undergraduate degrees are in Computer Science and Sociology with a minor in Art & Design. I have dual Masters in Architecture and in Urban Planning. And my PhD is in Planning and Innovation Systems. It sounds a bit crazy, but it was an organic journey and somehow it all works to contribute to my work on people, places and technology.

What sparked your passion for the STEM field?

  • Initially probably I was just rising to the challenge at school, but really it was ultimately the stewards or angels who I encountered in my path, and curiosity. The stewards were people who sparked and nurtured a passion and love for science and pursuit of knowledge. My primary school and high school Math teachers, my Physics teachers in high school and college, the tinkerers I came across everywhere, from Kenya to the US. They all exposed and taught me. And the curiosity that was necessary to remain interested, I suppose, comes from within. In one of my community groups, I have jokingly took on the name “Super Q” – and the Q stands for Questions. Many questions. I have no end of them, and I have come to appreciate that my questions are often driven not so much by the need for answers, but for the open-ended understanding they seek. I came across a great quote about this today: "It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question." – Decouvertes.

  • What is important is to know that you can use scientific and technical know-how in so many different ways. We are no longer in the days of “doctor, lawyer or engineer”. Combine tech with any of these and you begin to see how digitalisation is disrupting traditional industries and professions, and creating many many different pathways for kids in the future. For me, I loved computer programming but I hated working alone at a desk with other anti-social people working on challenging but ultimately meaningless projects for me. But what I found over time was that I could combine that technical skill and passion with the issues that mattered to me. This early realisation defined my non-traditional path. I don’t think we have to waste time lamenting that we don’t know what the jobs of the future will be; what we should be doing is telling young people with an interest in STEM that there are no limits to fields of application. “Poverty of the imagination” is the limitation.

The Civic Tech Innovation Forum (CTIF) 2021 is taking place this September. Can you tell us a bit about this event?

  • The Forum is an annual convening of civic tech innovators, users and enthusiasts from all over Africa to share with, learn with and inspire each other. It’s been going since 2018, more or less, although the past year was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But even then, we innovated into it and in 2020 we were able to host some online webinar events, as well as partner in a novel and exciting collaborative Urban Festival themed “Empowering the Civic” in October. In 2021 we are back, in partnership with the Journalism & Media Innovation Conference (JamFest) with a week-long event themed #DIYAfrica, where we will have multiple plenaries, roundtables, workshops, exhibitions, exercises, entertainment and other offerings focusing on how we Africans can leverage digitalisation to participate directly in defining and driving development. We hope to have as many participants as possible from across the continent, and to get them to engage more continually through our growing community of practice.

This fifth edition of the CTIF conference is themed #DIYAFRICA. What motivated the selection of this year’s theme?

  • We are going through such tough times over the past year or more. We have pandemics, stunted economies, climate change, etc. which have compounded Africa’s challenges further as we have to reckon with governments’ austerity, intensifying nationalism around the world (including vaccine-nationalism and reduced funding), natural disasters and civil instabilities to name but a few. But this is not the only upward trend. We have also had rapid expansion and democratisation of technology – in Africa, largely on mobile platforms. This technological trend - combined with the vast range of needs and challenges - has created a valuable, important opportunity for Africans to participate directly and actively as innovators, commentators, and even moderators of public rights and goods. For us, #DIYAFRICA speaks into this. “Do It Yourself” is proposed as a basis for exploring the potential for a more practically democratised society – one where technology enables empowerment, participation, critique, and even resistance.

As an African who is passionate about using tech and innovation to work with communities, what opportunities do you see for the future in this regard?

  • It is always very exciting for me to see just how innovative Africans have been across the continent, sometimes in very low-tech and disadvantaged circumstances. We are creative do-ers! If you don’t believe me, have a look at our CTIN online database where we have been identifying amazing initiatives from across the continent! Africans have the capacity to do a lot with very little, and to do even more with a lot. And technology has no limitations (other than of access and imagination). I believe there is opportunity for Africans to transform our conditions and narrative in ways that are unique and meaningful for us; not just to copy the West or to expand our divides. The more we believe in ourselves (as grounded and diverse identities), expand our imaginations, and leverage the tools (especially in the digital age) – we could literally signal new and wiser paths for humanity and re-frame notions of “development”. And no, we would not become a Wakanda; we could be a million times better and different than Wakanda!

What are the current key challenges when it comes to socio-economic development and urban governance in Africa?

  • There are many. Poverty, inequality, poor infrastructure access (both physical and digital), lack of capital, weak innovation ecosystems, weak and mal-governance, poor anticipatory systems and emergency governance – the list is long and growing. But we also have to take a capability-based approach where we ask “what are our strengths and opportunities”? I believe that this list could be longer.

What advice would you give to young people who are interested in the STEM field, especially when it comes to tech innovations in Africa?

  • First of all, have a hunger for learning. With that hunger, whatever your circumstance – whether it is formal or informal, privileged or not, hard or soft tech – you will find a way to hack through it and innovate. Definitely use the opportunities you have – e.g. to study STEM in school, to gain practical experience through learnerships and apprenticeships, to gain exposure to other contexts, to experiment. However, even if you don’t have these options, you can create opportunity within your circumstance. Frugal innovation has increasingly become popular (innovating for low cost, low complexity but for accessibility and performance, and therefore maximum impact), and there are many inspiring stories of what you can achieve with a little talent, spirit and luck. You may be the next William Kamkwamba (from The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind) or Elon Musk (SpaceX) or Nneile Nkholise (iMED Tech). Or you may simply be the next social activist, tech developer, or good citizen who is able to make a difference in your own neighbourhood by combining your passion and scientific skills. Either way – sky is the limit. Expect something from yourself and get involved in making the changes that you wish to see.

Where can people get more details about the CTIF conference?

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