Network Description

Open AIR is a unique collaborative network of researchers spread across more than 20 African countries, Canada, and elsewhere in the world, answering two overarching questions:

How can open, collaborative innovation help knowledge-based businesses scale up and seize the new opportunities of a global knowledge economy?

Which knowledge governance policies will best ensure that the social and economic benefits of innovation are shared inclusively?

Open AIR’s primary goal is to uncover new insights about the balance between control over, and access to, knowledge. We aim to solve a problem at the heart of intellectual property (IP) and innovation policy: how to reconcile tensions between appropriation and access, excluding and sharing, and competing and collaborating. Our research is showing how knowledge-based businesses can capitalise on open collaborative innovation strategies.

Open AIR’s landmark foresight study, Knowledge and Innovation in Africa: Scenarios for the Future, identified plausible scenarios for the future of knowledge and innovation. This showed areas that are local priorities, especially for marginalised communities, and formed the basis of our current research. From this research, Open AIR has five thematic research clusters:

  • High Technology Hubs;
  • Informal Innovation;
  • Indigenous Entrepreneurship;
  • Innovation Metrics; and
  • Laws and Policies.

Following our 2018 review, we added another question to our research:

How can open, collaborative innovation help scale the impacts of next-generation technologies to promote gender equality, youth employment, and other aspects of inclusion?

In order to promote scalable African innovation that is inclusive, policymakers and practitioners have identified to us that they need new research on the intersections between innovation and two specific subtopics:

  • gender equality and empowerment of women and girls
  • African economic integration and international law and trade policy

While these are not the only challenges to be addressed, we decided to add both topics after our 2018 review in order to respond to the real-time priorities of African policymakers, and indeed many stakeholders across the global innovation system.

Through our research, Open AIR is bringing insights and perspectives to the rest of the world, learning from what is happening and what works in Africa. Through mutually beneficial research partnerships, Open AIR is recognising Africa’s role in the global knowledge economy. Our research has created a unique interdisciplinary community of established and emerging African researchers. Our joint activities have improved research quality and capacity and have added credible, independent, and distinctly African voices to global policy debates. We are also leveraging our social capital and connections to bring this research to key decision-makers from international organisations, national governments, and civil society associations.

The Research Problem

Based on many African nations’ recent records of strong economic growth and shifting demographic trends, businesses on the continent are emerging as important players in the global knowledge economy. Yet, if Africa’s tremendous potential for global economic and trade opportunities is to be realised, many issues must be overcome. One of these issues – the focus of Open AIR’s current research – is learning how to scale up knowledge-based businesses without jeopardising sustainability or sacrificing core values. Our hypothesis has been that business models grounded in networked, open, and collaborative innovation can help to make that happen.

The Open AIR network’s research during the past decade shows that innovation is happening in Africa in ways that were previously overlooked. Our research also shows that the role of intellectual property is more nuanced than often portrayed. Parallel to our research in African countries, we have been conducting comparable research in the global North. Cross-regional comparative research has revealed commonalities and contrasts that can be used to improve governance of the global knowledge economy for the benefit of people living in developed and developing countries alike.

Refocussed Research

Following our 2018 review, we refined our research and added a new core research question: 

How can open, collaborative innovation help scale the impacts of next-generation technologies to promote gender equality, youth employment, and other aspects of inclusion?

This has added new sub-topics that cut across our research themes:

Economic Integration, International Law, and Trade Policy

The African Continental Free Trade Area, AfCFTA, is a potential game-changer for intra-African trade, economic integration, law, and IP policy. While free trade in goods and services is the immediate priority, the aim is eventually for significant labour mobility and even a common currency. Research to solve problems associated with economic integration and trade policy are intended to be responsive to these real-time policy impact opportunities on the continent. To assist trade policymakers, we have been exploring IP issues to show how process and substance issues are both important to create fair and balanced IP systems on the continent that stimulate innovation, growth, and competition.

Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women and Girls

Our emerging emphasis on gender is, most fundamentally, a matter of women’s rights as human rights. We know that women are as innovative as men but must overcome systemic barriers to the protection and adoption of women-led innovation. Our research has been investigating whether – and if so, how – innovation frameworks not only ignore the disproportionate effects that laws, policies, and practices have on women, but also project male-dominated perspectives on ownership and compensation. For example, we are exploring the relevance and practical uptake of various aspects of ICTs as tools to advance the participation of women in economic development, wealth creation and ultimately poverty alleviation.

Artificial Intelligence

Monumental advances in technology are impacting human lives, including in Africa. Fourth industrial revolution (4IR) technologies, data, and artificial intelligence (AI) feature prominently in research in Africa and in Canada. An array of activities, including research, teaching, and outreach related to 4IR and AI are taking place at our different hubs. These topics are an extension of our ongoing thematic research on high technology hubs, informal innovation, and Indigenous entrepreneurship in Africa. Open AIR has been taking steps towards advancing an emerging research agenda on AI for development, tackling questions related to AI and gender equality, AI’s future impacts on youth employment, and the inclusion of marginalised communities in African AI policies.

Maker Movement

Open AIR is one of the pioneers of maker movement research. We see maker communities as key drivers of collaborative innovation, socio-economic inclusion, and livelihood development in Africa. Open AIR researchers have studied the activities of maker communities in South Africa, Kenya, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Senegal. We have also funded and jointly convened – with the South African Maker Collective – a South African Maker Movement Workshop in Pretoria, and funded and presented at Africa Open Science and Hardware (AfricaOSH) summits in Kumasi (Ghana) and Dar es Salaam. In Canada, we have presented at two editions of the University of Ottawa’s Ontario Makers and Mentors Innovation Conference (OMMIC), conducted research interviews with Ontario maker communities, and participated in the Great Lakes Gathering for Open Science Hardware (GOSH). Moving forward, we plan to collaborate with AfricaOSH, the Africa Makerspace Network, and the South African Maker Collective in development of a set of open access online resources under the theme of “Sustainability Guidelines and Best Practices for African Maker Communities”.

Questions and Methods

Across the research clusters we are investigating several sub-questions:

  • Which knowledge management strategies work to facilitate collaborative business models in practice, and which do not?
  • How can organisations tailor strategies to accentuate benefits or mitigate problems of existing IP laws and related regulations?
  • What kinds of policies would facilitate integration and exchanges of knowledge and innovation across formal and informal sectors, and how?
  • What kinds of professional intermediaries seem to deepen integration and exchanges of knowledge and innovation across formal and informal sectors, and how?

Interconnected, empirical case studies

To implement the first step in our research, we adopted the method of “situational analysis” through case studies throughout the African continent. We addressed our research questions at the situational level, that is, where the units of analysis are not micro or macro, but are instead at the intersection of actors and forces that shape innovation situations. This approach enabled our researchers to engage with mixed methods, within the various sub-studies, for example, literature reviews, internet-based data mining, social network analysis, key informant interviews, and surveys.

Grounded theory building

The method of grounded theory building allowed us to conduct our research by beginning real-world empirical evidence before solidifying a theoretical framework. That meant we were developing new conceptual models based on our network’s on-the-ground research observations, rather than entrenching assumptions based on questionable theories. At the same time, we realised that some preliminary theory building, consolidating and refining terminology and taxonomies, was helpful in order to conduct our case studies.

Policy design and testing

We are using our new empirical evidence and theoretical frameworks to inform the development and design of recommendations to different countries’ policymakers and influential stakeholders. Where applicable, we are suggesting policy changes to facilitate improved marketplace frameworks and new practical tools for businesses to successfully scale up their innovations, thereby helping to further stimulate innovation. To ensure the largest impact, we have been combining our empirical and theoretical methods with “action research”, thus ensuring Open AIR’s research beneficiaries are directly involved in the execution of our partnership.