Preface & Executive Summary

Open AIR is a network comprising African and Canadian researchers who are interested in open innovation, collaborative initiatives, scaling, inclusion, and policy impact, within African contexts. To do this we are currently working to answer the following question:

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

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, Open AIR made significant research progress. Field research was largely halted but desk research continued apace and, in some cases, accelerated.

This resulted in an increase in the number of publications, the most notable of which are:

  • We released a flagship report detailing the results of an ambitious, three-year phase of research: ‘Scaling Innovation: How Open Collaborative Models Help Scale Africa’s Knowledge-Based Enterprises
  • We produced an entire special issue of The African Journal of Information and Communication (AJIC) featuring research on concrete ways to scale up innovation across the African continent and beyond.

Our researchers have been working extensively to advance economic opportunities through inclusive inter-African trade, especially for women in business, science, technology, and innovation. Our researchers are also at the cutting edge of innovation policy globally, supporting and shaping the data collection and measurement practices of key international organizations.

Yet we remain well connected to grassroots communities of innovators, especially innovators from marginalized groups like women in the informal sector and Indigenous and local communities. Our researchers are amongst the continent’s, indeed the world’s, leaders studying maker communities and innovation hubs.

Together we are at the forefront of Africa’s role in the fourth industrial revolution, influencing the laws and policies that will govern everything from digital agriculture to artificial intelligence.

Open AIR’s “New and Emerging Researchers Group”, which we call our NERG, has been extremely active and successful. Eight emerging leaders received their PhDs, several received prestigious international awards, and others were nominated/elected to important positions in international advisory bodies, businesses, and non-governmental organizations Our large cohort of Queen Elizabeth Scholars were integrated into each of our research themes and received extensive mentorship both in person and virtually.

Open AIR participated in and hosted numerous events this year, the majority virtually. It is notable how the necessity of online events has facilitated participation in events that would otherwise have been impossible to attend. Notable was our participation in the world’s largest gathering of academic scholars of robotics, the WeRobot Conference. Through our network, African perspectives were brought for this first time into this influential community. The best paper prize was awarded to Open AIR researchers for ‘Narratives of #AI in a Gendered and Racialized World: Emergence on the African Continent’.

Our Francophone African engagement has broadened with the identification of a number of researchers with whom we have begun building partnerships. We have also been publishing more original content in French and have been able to recruit several leading scholars from Francophone West Africa thanks to our Fellowship program.

Although everyone has been largely homebound, proactive communication and social media have been the glue that kept us together. The Communications team used our communications tools to continually inform a broader audience as well as helping to build resilience into the network. Since the relaunching of Open AIR’s website in the new news format in April 2020, the website has seen enormous growth. This growth was not only on visitors to the site, but also in the participation of Network members on the site.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have published voluminous, timely information on our website, and disseminated this knowledge through policy papers, scholarly publications, and popular events. The stories of our researchers’ experiences have helped to overcome the isolation and aided in the resilience of the network. Africa’s innovation in dealing with the pandemic was another theme.

On a personal level, at the end of March 2020 we reached out directly to all Open AIR network members and affiliates regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, urging everyone to stay safe and healthy, to stay in touch, and to continue to address their responsibilities regarding Open AIR wherever possible. There was an acknowledgment that COVID-19 necessitates flexibility for all our activities. This is not only due to the lack of travel and limiting of some research, but also due to the personal strain experienced by everyone. We have been dedicated to supporting our researchers in these difficult times. While Open AIR has been lucky to have all the mechanisms for remote working well-established, 2020 was still difficult.

We are proud of the resilience we have shown lately, and look forward with hope and optimism to a healthy future.