analysisBy Ron Eglash and Ellen Foster
Contemporary African design trends based on fractals tap into a venerable tradition of self-organisation and open new spaces for local creativity and civic participation.
Before European colonisation, many African societies possessed centuries-old design traditions that made use of similar shapes at different scales. In other words, a fractal, geometric structure.
These scaling patterns are perhaps most evident in traditional African architecture in which buildings are clustered as circles of circles, rectangles of rectangles, and other self-similar patterns. See for example the Ba-ila village architecture below.
These fractal models arise from a phenomenon of 'self-organisation', whereby a system is built, step by step, from the bottom-up rather than from the top-down. Usually when architectural features are established in this more organic fashion, they can better fit the environment and social dynamics that support it.
This bottom-up form of organisation is also reflected in many African philosophical traditions, particularly the idea that life itself has a kind of self-generating character that we need to honour and nurture. This is one reason why we see fractal-like structures throughout traditional African arts, from textiles to sculpture.
In some ways, Africa draws on its fractal design tradition in the same way that Europe has always drawn upon the work of Euclid, a Greek mathematician known as "the father of geometry", who was active in Alexandria, Egypt around 300 BC.
Similarly, just as modernist designs from the Bauhaus, a German school of fine arts and design that operated in the early 20th century, became emblematic for their clear linear geometry, many African designers are now looking to fractals for an indigenous resource of form and function.
Architect Xavier Vilalta's design of a vocational school, the Melaku Centre in Ethiopia, using fractal-based hexagonal grid is one example.
Here, the iterations of a similar form at many different scales create smaller communities within the school: classrooms, workshops, administration buildings, a library, living spaces, dining spaces, a health care centre, a supermarket and more.
Just as human lungs evolved to a fractal form in order to maximize both surface area and flow, fractal architecture can similarly maximise the functional area of a restricted space without causing congestion or claustrophobia.
Another, perhaps even more profound, way to think of the fractal tradition, is to focus more on its recursive and self-organising aspects.
This facet of the tradition can be referred to as 'generative justice': the ways that flows of value, whether from human labour or nature's own productive capacity, will prosper best when allowed to re-circulate from the bottom-up, rather than be extracted from the top down.
Better to fertilise a garden with compost from its own local ecosystem than to extract it all and try to keep the soil going with chemical fertilisers. Better to allow workers to manage themselves in a cooperative they own, than to extract their labour for a corporation or state government.
Globally, one of the best cases for the advantages of generative justice has been the rise of the 'maker movement'.
This movement is often cited as a worldwide trend focusing on grassroots knowledge production, peer-to-peer learning and a hands-on approach to technology. Its mission is to create a society of producers.
Citizens whose creative activities - recreational, entrepreneurial, artistic, pragmatic, or otherwise - go against their positioning as passive consumers of increasingly obfuscated technology, which permeates their daily lives.
A large part of this hoped-for transformation is the creation of hacker or 'makerspaces' accessible to ordinary citizens.
These spaces enable like-minded individuals to share tools, skills and facilities to revolutionise their access to technological fabrication, in much the same way that public libraries revolutionised access to books.
Within the global imaginary, the maker movement is typically seen as a more Euro- or American-centric activity, but there are makerspaces popping up across the globe - including in Africa.
In addition to locally-run makerspaces in different countries across the African continent, there have been four continent-wide Maker Faires in Africa so far, organised by the Maker Faire Africa group.
These convention-style events have attracted makers, tinkerers, hackers and innovators from far and wide to the cities of Cairo, Lagos, Accra and Nairobi.
One Maker Faire contributor, Emeka Okafor, explains the importance of the maker movement within Africa. "Taking the focus away from extractive ventures, we instead focus on those that are doing, making and producing", he says.
"Globally, there is a re-examination of manufacturing, production and design that is moving past the classical industrial sense and pointing to more distributed forms of production. Moving beyond mere celebration, there is also an interest in the interchange between these emerging global dynamics and local inspiration in Africa."
As Okafor points out, Maker Faires build on the importance that African countries feel in creating solidarity among the network of tinkerers and innovators across the continent.
Bringing together a vast cross-section of people, it also highlights local projects and confronts globalisation and other hegemonic technological trends that discount local needs and position citizens solely as consumers.
Local hackathons - such as the Lasgidi hackathon in Lagos - where groups typically compete in all-night coding sessions have also been an integral part of this trend.
The particular event in Lagos was sponsored by IBM, which left some questioning whether the involvement of a large, multinational corporation would threaten the value of these communitarian efforts to recognise and nurture local knowledge and practices.
There are certainly advantages to having powerful patrons, but organisers striving for independence should at least consider the distinction between those spaces and activities that are born out of local community interest and partner with pre-existing local resources on the one hand, and those which are more externally-maintained, resourced and possibly extractive on the other.
One notable example of a locally-sourced group is Girl Geek Kampala, which operates out of a local IT incubator space.
The organisation was established by local women working within IT whose vision was to create a supportive environment for women to learn IT and web development skills.
This, as Christine Ampaire, one of the group's founders, explains, is in keeping with their interest to rely on locally-centric resources and conceptual developments.
"The tech scene is growing, and the thing I love is that developers are passionate about building products that are locally relevant, built by Africans, for Africans," she explains. "It's more about 'Think Local'. What problems do we have in our local scene and how can we solve them?"
Attempting to fully delineate all of the makerspaces emerging from the many different cultures and practices in Africa would ultimately be somewhat reductive.
The tendency to reduce Africa to one entity, culture or socio-economic base is all too familiar. However, there are certain qualities in a more fractal concept of solidarity, which can be seen as a kind of multi-overlapping form of connection rather than a unity. We see many of the same implications in calls for Pan-African solidarity that are seen in the Africa Maker Faire initiative.
According to a map on the user-maintained site hackerspaces.org, there are currently nine makerspaces and hackerspaces, or shared-space working groups, across a number of African countries. But when one examines each country individually, more spaces come to light.
There are spaces with a virtual presence in Ethiopia (the ice-Ethiopia space), Uganda (Blind Security), Egypt (Cairo Hackerspace, El-Minya Hackerspace, Alexandria Hackerspace), Kenya (IHub and Gearbox), South Africa (House4Hack, Binary space, Codebridge), Cameroon (ActivSpaces), Nigeria (Co-creation Hub, NgHackerspace, Port Harcourt Hackerspace), the Ivory Coast (AMN Co Working), Morocco (Open Taqafa, Enactus Esith Labs, Tangier Hack Lab, Sahara Labs, Had Kourt Lab), Tunisia (Nawaat, Hackerspace.tn, Elfabrika), Senegal (Ker Thiossane), and Togo (WoeLab).
And at UR-COSTECH in Rwanda there is a group entitled YoungMakers4Rwanda. These are all community-run spaces based off of local interest, resources and needs.
There are also 'FabLabs' in Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa. Although these groups are based out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US and mainly funded by a grant to bring outside equipment into African countries, they partner with local groups to sustain their practices and make tools available to the public for hacking and innovative projects.
All the FabLabs are associated with universities and technical institutes, except for one in Soshanguve, a township in Gauteng Province, South Africa, which runs independently.
Hackidemia, which is based in Germany, is another group that is approaching several African nations to set up workshops and bring toolkits for mentoring.
The main goal is to establish educational workshops that focus on maker and tinkering practices, as well as citizen science actions to combat issues within healthcare, energy and food scarcity.
In the Ghanaian capital of Accra, the organisation has teamed up with the Open University of West Africa to work on a project which traverses the divide between being internally- and externally-resourced.
The toolkits are external technological materials, but much of the conceptual, organisational, intellectual and physical resources involved in running the workshops will be based on the Open University's involvement.
Some activities meanwhile blur the boundary between a maker space and an NGO. Zamirize, for example, combines developmental objectives with their dedication to hands-on technology experiments which draw heavily on makerspace knowledge and techniques, such as their use of as MIT's "app inventor" to develop their Women's Rights App (WRAPP).
Such use offers both constraints and opportunities. Since their app inventor is open source and was created in cooperation with Google, it is currently limited to Android devices.
But if we truly want to spread the philosophy of generative justice, perhaps limiting the media to open systems is worth the loss of market share, and will ultimately force currently privatised systems to allow more open source access.
Further research must be done into what can best sustain these spaces and create a mutual symbiosis with local communities. Some are particularly adept at drawing from community practices and local, renewable resources that can keep returning value to their grassroots.
Others manage to maintain some of the basic philosophy of shared knowledge and openly-circulated value, and perhaps even help its spread as they make compromises in their alliances with private corporations.
Contemporary African Fractals, whether in the scaling structure of architectural design or the scaling up of tinkering in the makerspace movement, tap into a venerable tradition of generative justice, one linking past and future, public and private, as they help us rethink what entrepreneurship and civic space might mean across the African continent.
Ron Eglash is an Ethno-Mathmatician, exploring the way in which maths and cultures intersect. He is currently a Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Ellen Foster is a researcher on African Maker movements.