Central Joburg’s ambitious new tech centre, the Tshimogolong Precinct, is looking to raise somewhere between R5m and R10m to begin work on the centrepiece of the project, a massive shared workspace for software developers and makers in the old Inc nightclub in Braamfontein.
The project, which is being run out of the Johannesburg Centre for Software Excellence (JCSE), is built around a five building block off of Juta Street, which its hoped will be a thriving centre for start-ups and hackers by this time next year.
htxt.africa visited Tshimogolong earlier in the year, where we described it as potentially “the coolest place for tech in Africa”. Since we last visited, one building ha already opened up and is home to Microsoft’s AppFactory incubator and internship program, a graduate software development team from JCSE and a citizen journalism project for young women.
Work on a second office building, which will become the home of JCSE – a partnership between Wits University and the City of Johannesburg – is due to begin next week.
The main area, however, will be the old Inc nightclub which sits in the heart of the complex. Driving force behind the precinct project and head of the JCSE, Prof Barry Dwolatzky, says that he wants to keep as many of the original features as possible, including the water feature and courtyard and many nooks and snooks within the building for meeting places. Their history, as dark corners of a rather insalubrious club, will be left far behind. Maybe.
Prof Dwolatzky says that the organisation still needs to raise up to R10m to begin work proper on this space, which he hopes to do via a founders’ programme for supporters and benefactors.
The founders’ programme is described as an opportunity to partner with Wits rather than donate. “We don’t do fundraising,” says Wit’s Clare Jeffery.
Once complete, he says, Tshimologong will be part of the ongoing story of urban regeneration within Johannesburg, adding its own spin to the already changing nature of the city centre.
“It’s not exactly a national disgrace,” Dwolatzky says, “But it is a shame that the most important city in southern Africa doesn’t have a world class tech space… That’s not to put down people like Jozihub who are already doing fantastic things… we are not doing anything in competition with established people.”
Tshimologong is a northern sesotho word which means ‘new beginnings’.
Dwoltatzky says that Tshimologong will aim to collaborate with rather than compete against existing hub spaces like Jozihub, Bandwidth Barn and the Innovation Hub in Pretoria.
“Innovation isn’t going to come from big corporates or lone inventors in their garages, because it’s become a much more social activity. It’s my contention that in the next century we’ll see a lot of important innovations coming from these technology hubs where people interact, learn and incubate new ideas.”
It’s Dwolatzky’s dream to make Braamfontein the heart of a tech cluster, a type of informal economic area identified by Michael Porter in the 1970s which specialise in a particular type of activity and attract similar businesses and start-ups to the region. Well known international tech clusters include Silicon Valley in San Francisco and Silicon Roundabout in London.
“We see this as being the kernel of a cluster,” says Dwolatzky, “But we see this as part of a major regeneration scheme. It’s a grand plan, and I see new buildings for trade unions, government and big businesses like Microsoft and IBM springing up and old buildings being repurposed and brought back to life… and Wits gaining an appetite to move back into the neighbourhood.”
Dwolatzky is careful about drawing parallels, he says, but he does liken Braamfontein to Kendall Square near MIT in Massachusetts. In the 07s, he explains, it was a run down, dangerous inner city. Now it’s a rival to the better known tech community on the west coast thanks to investment by the university and big business.
Architects from Meshfield are working with JCSE and Wits to ‘green’ Tshimologong’s buildings as they are redeveloped.
Dwolatzky’s colleague, deputy vice chancellor of Wits Prof Rob Moore, says that he has the full support of the university.
“Wits has been trying to reach into its urban surrounds in a number of ways in a number of forms,” Moore says, “I might mention our Hillbrow Health Precinct,working with a very vulnerable community – sex workers – and the city and significantly transformed life and life chances in that environment, and I think what we’re seeing here today is something similar in terms of the ambition and role that the university plays.”