by Shannon Manuel


Tech takes off

This image is reproduced with the permission of Brainstorm magazine, photographed by Karolina Komendera
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The last decade has seen a major advancement in digital technology, which has greatly changed the face of innovation.

“Digital technology hubs are spreading around the world,” says Dwolatzky. “Every city you go to, people say the digital tech space is centre point. If you go to London, they’ll say the East End. If you go to Nairobi, they’ll say it’s in a building called iHub. If you go to New York or Bangalore, there are places there, so I really have long believed that we need such a space in Johannesburg,” he explains.

New beginnings

For just over a year, Dwolatzky has been working on getting the hub, Tshimologong Precinct, set up. The name, Tshimologong, seSotho for ‘place of new beginnings’, perfectly describes what the hub represents, explains Dwolatzky.

“It’s new beginnings in terms of startups and new technology; it’s new beginnings for the individuals who’ll get involved in here, and it’s a new beginning for Wits and for the city of Johannesburg in terms of this bold move into Braamfontein and into changing the inner city around us,” he says.

The new tech space is set to become a fundamental hub for innovation, creativity and the creation of intellectual property. Dwolatzky has spent a year travelling and visiting hubs and has seen, in many parts of the world, hubs that are incredibly successful in achieving that which he aspires to achieve. The hub will be located in Braamfontein, which he believes is the ideal location.

Innovation community

“Successful hubs have three things going for them,” Dwolatzky explains. “Firstly, they’re in places where the people you want to be part of the digital technology innovation community would choose to work, live and play,” he explains. “Central Joburg, and especially Braamfontein, has become a real focus point for the young.

“The idea of a technology hub is about learning and innovation, so you want to bring people in who are going to learn new skills, and in learning those skills they’re going to start to come up with new ideas, leading to new businesses and startups. You’re trying to create innovation and new thinking, and I believe it’s young people who are going to do that.” He explains that, secondly, successful hubs must be near universities and, thirdly, close to business.

Dwolatzky says that this space is intended to assist in youth unemployment, creating prospects of employment and prospects of creating their own jobs.

He believes that while a place like this technology hub will not solve the entire unemployment problem, it will certainly contribute to hundreds or even thousands of jobs.

“I think that’s one benefit that business will see because, in the ICT space, business is crying out for skills and this will become an engine for skill creation,” he says. “I believe real innovation in the digital world doesn’t come from big corporates—it comes from startups, and then business buys in or kind of acquires the startup, so I think business will see a lot of innovation that will help them to run their businesses better in a 21st century sense.

“Both skills and new ideas will flow from this, which will benefit business, and then there’s the third very important thing, which is that this is part of a drive to rejuvenate the inner city. Business will benefit from having a much safer, much more used and much more viable inner city centre, of what is our most important economic kind of centre in Africa. Joburg is Africa’s economic hub and I think the centre of Joburg has to be rejuvenated.”

Resource for Johannesburg

While students are involved, the hub is not primarily for young people and will essentially be a resource for Johannesburg, designed for anyone who wants to innovate, learn and create in the digital world.

The hub will operate as a large co-working space with various resources and facilities, from meeting rooms to hot desks, bandwidth to coffee, to hosting talks and events. Dwolatzky explains that the hub will run on a membership model and, based on the space they have currently, will subscribe 400 members. “We’ll choose our members on the basis of them meeting certain criteria and the criteria will cover a range,” Dwolatzky explains. There will be newbies who have no skills and building up skills, to those who are very experienced and can mentor others. There will be people in a range of disciplines, ranging from software to hardware to digital art to marketing people to entrepreneurs.

“We’ll create this ideal mix of who we would like in this space, to fill the places we have, and we’ll then charge a fee for people to be a part of it. The fee may be R1 500 a month but, because we are non-profit and part of Wits University, those who can’t pay the fee will then get a free or a subsidised place if they meet criteria.”

Large sponsors have been acquired who will pay toward a fund that will cover those people who cannot afford the fee, so there will be free seats for certain people who may meet the criteria. “There will be no kind of distinction between who the sponsored people and who the paid-for people are because I believe getting that mix of people from different socio-economic backgrounds will also create the energy we need,” says Dwolatzky.

“We’ve in fact calculated that through that membership ,and occasionally renting out spaces to corporates to use for meetings and corporate events, we can cover completely the running costs of the space—which means the only money we need is the seed money to build the hub.”

Support and partnerships

The greatest challenged face is the financial element. While Wits University has put in 30 million rand, the hub requires close to an equivalent amount in matching funding. Dwolatzky explains that while overall support for the project is good from corporate and local government, it has proven very difficult to raise and secure the funding needed.

The hub will belong to Wits and will be run by the JCSE. Dwolatzky explains that they are currently looking for partners in many ways.

“There’s an organisation that has a co-working space in Maboneng called Open, and they’re facilities managers. They manage a very successful co-working space in Maboneng, which is the other side of central Joburg, and we are busy negotiating a deal with them where they will come in as a facilities management partner to help to manage the facility. Then there’ll be partners like Microsoft who will use the space to run what they call the Microsoft App factory, which is an internship for training people to develop apps and that we are currently running. Of the five buildings we have two up and running and we are partially operating already.”

Old inner-city buildings will be transformed into Tshimologong Precinct, including an old nightclub. Currently, Wits and the JCSE are running the Fak’ugesi Digital Africa Festival in the buildings as is, and will be hosting part of Social Media Week at the end of September.

Dwolatzky explains that once the festival is completed, construction will commence. “We have part of the funding and can start on the project. We can get builders on site and start to do the renovations, which we’re hoping to do in October, and then we need to get the flow of money in to keep the builders on site. If we can do that, then it will be up and running by about March next year.”

Shannon Manuel

Prof Barry Dwolatzky qualified as an Electrical Engineer at Wits University in 1975. After completing his doctorate at Wits in 1979 he spent 10 years in Britain working on software-related research at the Universities of Manchester (UMIST) and London (Imperial College), and at the GEC-Marconi Research Centre. He worked on a number of large software development projects.

He returned to Wits in 1989 where he educates software engineers and carries out research. Barry’s major passion is to promote the growth and development of the South African software industry. He has been the driving force behind a number of strategic initiatives at Wits. He established a new degree option in Information Engineering within Electrical Engineering at Wits. He developed a course-based Masters programme in Software Engineering, and he was a major player in setting up the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) at Wits. In 2007 he became Director and CEO of the JCSE.

In 2006 the JCSE, under Barry’s direction, established a partnership with the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie Mellon University in the USA. Over the past 8 years the JCSE has worked with the SEI and the Department of Trade and Industry (the dti) to promote best software engineering practices in South Africa.

Most recently Barry has been the driving force behind the “TechInBraam” initiative – an activity aimed at establishing a Digital Technology Cluster in Joburg’sBraamfontein inner city area.

In November 2013 he was the joint winner of the South African IT Personality of the year award.

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