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When setting goals, aim for Jupiter …

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South Africa and its fellow countries on the continent need to boost innovation if they hope to thrive. How? By aiming for Jupiter…

If we were to speculate what motivated Siya Xuza, wunderkind, inventor of a new rocket fuel, Harvard alum and one of South Africa’s innovation leaders, what would the conclusions be? Did he yearn after a career in science? Was he aiming to lift his family out of poverty? Might he fancy himself as the next Isaac Newton?

No, he wanted to go to Jupiter.

After seeing an aeroplane for the first time at age five, as it dropped election pamphlets preempting South Africa’s first democratic elections, Xuza was overcome with curiosity. His quest to find out what an aeroplane was and how it worked led him to discover something far bigger: the king of the gods itself, the largest planet in our solar system.

“As I start learning about aeroplanes, I learn about rockets. Rockets go to a part of the universe known as space and in space there are planets. As I learn about planets, I learn the biggest in the solar system is a planet known as Jupiter. And so, at the age of five, I decided to go to Jupiter.”

Absurd? Fanciful? Yes. Everyone looked at him as if he was crazy. Yet this moonshot would guide his life, teach him about failure and helping him understand that success is not just about pursuing the possible. It’s about reaching toward the impossible and discovering so much along the way.

No Half Measures in Innovation

This all-or-nothing view may seem absurd and lacking in true grounding, yet Xuza’s own success challenges that assumption. But don’t just take the word of a maverick rocket scientist. Ask the CTO of one of the modern world’s most maverick technology firms – JB Straubel of Tesla:

“We took information [gathered from previous products] and used it to bootstrap ourselves into the next product. Something that Tesla has done repeatedly and continues to do today, is we’d bet the entire company on the next product. Instead of cautiously getting one product under our belt and nursing that to success and make some profit from it, we never felt that would let us grow fast enough. It’s a phenomenal approach to grow very quickly, but it is very risky and very stressful.”

What is the common thread here? Jumping into the deep end. Taking a chance. Doing what others say can’t be done. Indeed, Valerie Fox, Chief Innovation Consultant at The Pivotal Point and a stalwart evangelist of incubator culture, does not even embrace modern notions such as ‘fail fast’ or ‘fail forward’:

“I don’t believe in the word ‘failure,’ because failure is when you stop. What I found in the entrepreneurial world is that they don’t stop. Entrepreneurs don’t stop. It might not work. That doesn’t mean they failed, just that it didn’t work. It’s always about how you pick yourself up and apply it to the next thing.”

Spreading Innovation’s Message

All three were speaking at the recent Accenture Innovation Conference, which pursued the theme of innovation and how to ignite it among people, companies and countries. This is not a ‘nice to have’: innovation is fast becoming a necessary catalyst in forging competitive businesses. Dovetailing with this is the rise of digitisation, which empowers companies to really start flexing their innovation muscles.

“Embracing innovation from the top of the company is what drives innovation in a company,” said William Mzimba, Chief Executive of Accenture South Africa and Chairman of Accenture Sub-Saharan Africa. “We are seeing businesses leveraging digital as an enabler for innovation, and they are leveraging digital technologies to change their business models and make sure that they can set up platforms for innovation.”

Yet while this message resonates in broad strokes, at more nuanced levels South African companies are still slow to adopt innovation thinking. Accenture’s third annual Innovation Index reveals that small gains have been made, but not enough. Out of the businesses surveyed, only 8 percent qualified at the top tier of Innovation Value Champions. In terms of which digital platforms are being used to drive innovation, the laggards perform best with mobile (54% as opposed 70% among top innovators), but fail to capitalise on analytics (36% vs 80%), cloud technologies (45% vs 65%) and social media (42% vs 80%). Even though digital presents opportunities, the challenge appears to be the entrenched cultures at companies.

Linda Trim, Director of Giant Leap Workspace Specialists – a past winner of the Accenture Innovation Index – laid out what makes her company innovative: “Every time we see a gap, we’re a small team and we make quick decisions. Because we’re self-funded, we’ve always chosen to collaborate with others people to get to the market quickly and do what we want.”

Other attendees at the event reflected this as well: the ability to move on an idea, to experiment instead of stifling inspiration and to take risks are key to innovative thinking. Mzimba also noted that, from a practical perspective, companies should shift away from pipeline thinking where products are conceived and delivered in the ‘build it and they will come’ mantra. Instead companies should reorientate themselves as platforms, sandboxes even, where ideas can take root and have a chance at reaching for the sun or, perhaps, Jupiter.

Cultivating Business Innovation

This way of thinking is evident in many trailblazing companies, be they old guard turned new such as GE, the anything-goes world of Amazon or challengers of the status quo such as Tesla.

“Innovation has to be culturally embedded in your organisation,” said Straubel. “It can’t be something that is just a side project or whole separate little team. I have seen that at a lot of the big corporates. Inevitably we find those innovation teams are not connected to the main company. They have the right culture in of themselves, but you need to find a way to spread that culture into the whole company or else it really can’t have the effect that you want it to have.”

To adherents of innovation advice, Straubel’s comment may seem contradictory. Often companies are encouraged to have separate teams that drive innovation goals without the interference of the larger organisation. Salim Ismail, renowned technology investor and co-founder of the Singularity University, defined the issue as a company’s immune system will often try to kill innovation. Yet this is not at odds with Straubel’s view – as the Tesla CTO noted: the trick is how you spread that culture through the rest of the enterprise.

“Apple is the master of this technique,” said Ismail. “What Apple does is take a small team that is highly disruptive and take them to the edge of the organisation. They’ll keep them completely stealth and tell them to go disrupt other industries.”

Yet he added that it’s not easy. Walmart failed numerous times before it was able to adopt this approach. The company routinely created edge innovation teams, but these were felled by company interference, being too close to the main company (or mothership, as Ismail terms it) or were brought back into the space too soon. Eventually Walmart learned to create an autonomous entity and slowly adopt its way of thinking instead of amalgamating the entity in a hope of innovation culture through osmosis.

In fact, fear of the unknown often prompts companies to be over-cautious and not take such bold steps. Yet this is exactly what is required. Tesla’s Straubel said the biggest advantage was not knowing what they didn’t know. By not having a manual on how you should build a car, they made something new and superior to the entrenched norms of the industry they were besieging. It is a journey made easier with the help and support of consulting services such as Accenture, but it can’t be accomplished half-heartedly.

Xuza, the maverick rocket scientist and currently battery innovator, brought it all to a succinct point, a philosophical challenge:

“The purpose of my talk was to humbly ask you: what is your Jupiter? What is that impossible vision that you have that will transform your company, your country or your world? What is that Jupiter or how can you help others achieve those Jupiters through innovation? The way we will be able to transform the image of Africa from one that is dark to an Africa that is bright, that takes it rightful place, is through this spirit of innovation.”

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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