Many have asked if the association between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa has any real significance. Will it benefit the economies of member countries and citizens? The short answer is simply that it’s still too early to tell.
Brics currently operates at two levels. Viewed from the top down, the work of Brics is carried out at an annual summit attended by heads of state, senior ministers and officials.
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Decisions that have been made at these summits include a proposal for the construction of an optical fibre submarine telecommunications cable system, linking all Brics countries (agreed in India in 2012) and establishing a New Development Bank, to be called the Brics Bank (accepted at the summit hosted in Brazil in 2014).
The other level of Brics activity is being driven from the bottom up. Various working groups have been established to work on developing detailed strategies and proposals that are then presented at an annual summit.
One of these groups is the Brics Working Group on Innovation and Collaboration on ICT and High Performance Computing (HPC), which held its first meeting at the University of Guangzhou in China between 22 and 26 April.
A small group of delegates represented each of the Brics countries at the meeting, which was chaired jointly by China and South Africa, and I was one of the South African delegates.
‘Cultural and economic differences may inhibit innovative digital startups’
The meeting dealt with a number of topics including research collaboration, sharing HPC resources and establishing a Brics cloud infrastructure. Ways in which “high tech” small businesses and startups can be supported were also discussed.
To fully appreciate the scope for Brics to support small businesses and digital startups, you need to appreciate the combined size of the member countries.
Brics countries have a total population of 3.6 billion people, or 40% of the world’s population. Collectively, their gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015 was $16.6 trillion, or 22% of gross world product.
The members of Brics are also all leading developing or newly industrialised countries with major influence in each of their geographical regions.
Can tech startups prosper?
Surely then, small technology-based businesses operating in one or more of the Brics countries should have exciting prospects of success? This question formed the basis of a roundtable discussion, which I chaired, at the working group meeting.
It became clear that historical, cultural and economic differences between the five Brics countries may inhibit innovative digital startups hoping to benefit from access to the collective economy. On the other hand, the Brics countries share many common challenges and opportunities.
If it were possible to leverage such shared opportunities, while dealing with differences and diversity, huge benefits could flow.
As an example, consider a hypothetical startup in South Africa that has developed an innovative medical diagnostic device that connects to a smartphone.
By working with collaborators across several Brics countries it may be possible to manufacture the device in China, carry out software integration in India, and test and adapt the functionality of the device to meet both South American and African conditions via partnerships in Brazil and South Africa.
‘Collaboration will need facilitating, organisational arrangements, facilities’
This kind of collaboration will need facilitating, organisational arrangements and facilities, such as a network of digital incubators in all Brics countries, and access to seed funding and other support. The prospect of setting up such support structures was discussed at the working group in Guangzhou.
If Brics is to really succeed it will need to work from the bottom up finding ways to solve shared problems. Digital startups could certainly provide a very valuable vehicle to solve develop solutions.
Professor Barry Dwolatzky is director of Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) and founder of Tshimologong Innovation Hub. He visited China last month to attend the first Brics Working Group for Innovation and Collaboration on ICT and High Performance Computing.
Featured image: Brics leaders meet on the sidelines of G20 in Hangzhou, China in September last year: Narendra Modi via Flickr (CC 2.0, resize).