Dan Breznitz’s incisive critique of the endless and largely unsuccessful attempts to cut and paste the Silicon Valley innovation model is extremely welcome. But while we share his interest in equitable and inclusive development, we also think his own prescription takes a growth-oriented neoliberal paradigm too much for granted. Such a vision not only fails to reckon with environmental sustainability at a moment of acute climate crisis; it also threatens to replicate colonial legacies by further subordinating indigenous knowledge, ways of life, and cultural values. In order to decolonize global innovation thinking and practice, we look instead to indigenous worldviews such as Ubuntu in Southern Africa, Swaraj in South Asia, and Buen Vivir in South America. Together they demonstrate that a radically different kind of innovation is possible.
The fate of Kenya’s Silicon Savannah should serve as a cautionary tale about exporting Western models to the Global South. The idea of an African Silicon Valley emerged around 2011 amidst the digital technology ecosystem developing in Nairobi. The success of Nairobi’s first innovation hub inspired many imitators and drove ambitious plans by the government to build a new innovation district in the city. The term “Silicon Savannah” captured these aspirations and featured in a series of blog posts, white papers, and consultancy reports. Advocates argued that Nairobi could leapfrog other innovation centers due to lower entry barriers and cost advantages.
These promises caught the attention of many tech entrepreneurs and policymakers—including President Barack Obama, who cohosted the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya. As part of its Silicon Savannah vision, the Kenyan government proposed to build a “smart city” called Konza Technopolis in the south of Nairobi. This government-led initiative—designed with McKinsey consultants—was supposed to help turn Kenya into a “middle-income country providing a high quality life to all its citizens by the year 2030.” The city was proposed to attract investors, create jobs at a mass scale, and use technology to manage the city effectively and efficiently. Its website identified Konza as the place where “Africa’s silicon savannah begins.” Years later, the dream remains unfulfilled. As Kenyan writer Carey Baraka’s has recently detailed, the plan has only reinforced existing inequalities as it caters mainly to international multinationals and the country’s wealthy elite.
One of the most important lessons to be derived from studying such efforts to import foreign technologies and innovation models is that they inevitably come with ideological baggage. Silicon Valley is not just a theoretical model for economic growth: it represents a whole way of life, carrying with it all kinds of implications for how people think about themselves, each other, and their place in the world. Venture capital pitching sessions prize what is most monetizable, what stands to deliver the greatest return on investment, and what offers the earliest exit opportunities. Breznitz is right to criticize this way of thinking, but similar worries arise about his own examples, which say little about environmental sustainability or maintaining the integrity of local communities. Neoliberal modes of private capital accumulation are not value neutral, and we must be sensitive to the way innovation models are situated in uneven structures of power, discourse, and resource distribution.
Fortunately there are very different conceptions of innovation and inclusive development we can look to for inspiration. For centuries, communities across the world have been innovating to adapt to the increasingly changing world by drawing on local and indigenous ways of being and thinking. These epistemologies of the South—as Portuguese economist Boaventura de Sousa Santos famously called them in his 2014 book by the same name—have largely been ignored or marginalized in the Global North, but they offer urgent lessons for reimagining our economies, our societies, and our selves. Unlike the Western emphasis on individualism and individual human rights, Ubuntu is a Southern African philosophy that emphasizes the importance of group or communal existence. As an ontology of interconnectedness, this worldview contends that the benefits and burdens of the community must be shared in such a way that no one is prejudiced, and it is shaping efforts to reimagine development in Africa.
Similar efforts are unfolding in India. The Hindi term Swaraj, loosely translated as self-rule, derives from ancient Indian concepts and practices of participatory democracy and played a central role in Mohandas Gandhi’s arguments for Indian independence. Recent movements have revived the idea in discussions of “Eco-Swaraj,” which connects direct or radical political democracy with ecological wisdom, social well-being, and justice, as in The Radical Ecological Democracy initiative.
Finally, the philosophy of Buen Vivir is based on the cosmovision of several Andean Indigenous peoples of Latin America. The term, meaning “good living” or “living well,” is a Spanish translation of sumak kawsay in Quechua and suma qamaña in Aymara. As development researcher Eduardo Gudynas describes, these ideas gained traction in Latin American political movements in the late 1990s in reaction to neoliberal market reforms. At the same, they refer to something quite distinct from Western conceptions of well-being or welfare. “With buen vivir, the subject of wellbeing is not [about the] individual,” Gudynas notes, “but the individual in the social context of their community and in a unique environmental situation.” This vision advocates instead for the renewal of social and economic relations based on the principles of reciprocity, solidarity, and respect for nonhumans as subjects of rights. At the turn of the century, this approach gained traction and permeated the structures of some Andean states, shaping, for example, the new constitutions of both Ecuador (in 2008) and Bolivia (in 2009).
These perspectives—hailing from indigenous communities marginalized by the living legacies of colonialism—differ radically from the neoliberal values that underpin growth-oriented innovation. Despite their origins on different continents, they share a rejection of individualism and extractive growth at the expense of the environment, emphasizing human and environmental interconnectedness instead. And crucially, they also provide valuable resources for reimagining innovation. In Peru, India, China, and Kenya, for example, researchers have documented a range of important biocultural innovations: products and processes that have been developed by indigenous communities and smallholder farmers that deliver innovative products and services without damaging Earth or increasing inequality. Their innovations draw on deeply traditional knowledge and biocultural heritage and produce more equitable and sustainable innovation.
Breznitz is right that we must explore alternative models of innovation that enable us to achieve social goals without increasing inequality. But in the end, his prescription does not go far enough. By looking to indigenous worldviews of the Global South, it is both possible and necessary to do innovation radically differently. Nourishing local development that is both equitable and ecologically sustainable requires freeing ourselves from hegemonic conceptions of ceaseless acquisition, globalized capitalism, and extractive growth. Instead, we must radically rethink what innovation should mean in the larger project of living well.