Is the next Elon Musk an SA graduate?

Many know entrepreneur Elon Musk as the inventor of the futuristic Tesla car; the founder of innovative online payment portal PayPal and the founder, CEO and lead designer of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) – but did you know that he hails from local shores? Musk was born and bred in South Africa, which shows that we have fertile ground for breeding BIG thinkers. The question remains: how do we inspire more of our graduates to achieve Elon-like innovation and Musk-like drive?

This was one of the questions that the Africa Design Challenge leg of Innovate Durban’s Youth Innovation Challenge (YIC) sets out to address. Driven by global engineering and infrastructure advisory company Aurecon in partnership with Oracle, the Africa Design Challenge is part of African Design Innovation, a design-thinking-led agenda initiated by Aurecon. African Design Innovation introduces a human-centred design approach to the conventional systems of thinking strategies employed by engineering firms.

This means viewing Africa from the inside-out – rather than the other way around – to develop solutions which put human beings at the centre of the design process. Especially relevant to an African context, it is aligned to both government’s development agenda and global development goals such as the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

However, this means nothing if we don’t find and develop the talent who will revolutionise our cities. The digital age is changing the way that cities run and the way that people move, socialise and work in them. It’s crucial to begin empowering our youth with engineering skills founded on innovation as a point of departure, and combined with essential skills such as design thinking to develop integrated solutions in response to the challenges confronting cities.

Now in its third consecutive year, the YIC focuses on creating a platform for innovation to thrive in eThekwini by empowering the youth. This year’s theme is directed at finding sustainable, innovative solutions to a host of challenges such as urban sprawl, informal settlements, collapsing infrastructure and congested roads in Africa’s rapidly growing cities.

“A better future for our city relies on out-of-the-box thinking and often, it’s the bright young minds that come up with big ideas. The private sector has a crucial role to play in giving the youth the tools, guidance, technology and insights they need to bring their ideas to life. Aurecon felt that the YIC was an opportunity to offer its mentorship services to create a link that spurs innovation between the youth of eThekwini and public enterprises,” says Aurecon Technical Director Richard Ahlschlager.

The Africa Design Challenge participants, who are primarily school leavers and students, have been grouped into teams and tasked with thinking of new ways of addressing energy, water, waste, mobility, Information Communications Technology (ICT), and urban renewal challenges in eThekwini.

In the past, the challenge was largely involved with ICT, but Ahlschlager approached the Innovate Durban organisation and introduced the concept of the Africa Design Challenge, with the aim of developing sustainable cities.

“Many of the Africa Design Challenge themes require engineering and technical solutions ‒ of which Aurecon has vast knowledge. I contacted the organisers of the event and indicated that our engineers would like to collaborate with them, and show the young participants how their ideas could be engineered in real life. This type of knowledge transfer benefits the future leaders of our country as well as the city as a whole,” explains Ahlschlager.

After brainstorming sustainable business solutions that will improve the city of eThekwini, the Africa Design Challenge teams submitted their concepts online. Shortlisted candidates will now receive mentoring sessions from the companies involved in this leg of the YIC to create business proposals and present their plans to a panel of judges. The Innovation Summit, where the winning proposals will be presented, will take place on 19 – 20 July and the Innovation Awards will take place on 20 July. As part of the first prize, the winning team will join Aurecon’s engineers for mentoring sessions at the company’s eThekwini office for six months.

Aurecon eThekwini Office Manager, Walter Nxumalo, says this is but one of the many mentoring initiatives that has been implemented by Aurecon. In eThekwini specifically, the company has launched a Student Learning Programme where 50 students from disadvantaged schools in the region receive mathematics and science mentoring from Aurecon engineers.

“We are actively involved in training, upskilling and mentoring the youth within KwaZulu Natal and South Africa. Aurecon is proud to be partnering with Innovate Durban on the Youth Innovation Challenge, and we look forward to seeing what the winning team has come up with,” comments Ahlschlager.

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