SHoP Architects -- one of Fast Company's 2010 Most Innovative Companies -- has won a competition to design a colossal $50 million science and tech park in Botswana. A project initiated by the Botswanan government, the park is expected to catapult this nation built on diamonds and beef into the 21st century.
The Botswana Innovation Hub is designed to throw start-ups, global corporations, and research and health organizations under one massive green roof stretched long and low over part of a 57-hectare site of barren veldt in the capital city of Gaborone. The design is a clutch of lean volumes reminiscent of sand dunes that link via bridges to create an intimate community (or as intimate as you can get in 270,000 square feet). A raft of green technologies, from rain water collectors to photovoltaic cells, will help the building achieve LEED certification, a first in Botswana. This is sexy stuff -- sexy enough, the hope goes, to attract outsiders to what's effectively the middle of corporate-nowhere.
And the rhetoric here is irresistible to the West: A nation rich in natural, but ultimately limited, resources wants to convert to a knowledge-based economy and uses starchitecture, that evergreen symbol of institutional greatness, to literally cultivate its ambitions. The question, of course, is whether it'll work -- or just end up a white elephant like some other places we've heard about nearby.
If any African country is going to swing it, it's Botswana. Independent since 1966, it counts among the continent's stablest nations and, until the financial crisis, enjoyed one of the fastest growth rates in per capita income in the world. Its prosperity results from improbably generous diamond mines and, to a much lesser extent, cattle; it's the largest producer of gem-quality diamonds on earth. But its greatest asset is also its biggest liability. The deposits are expected run dry as soon as 2030, sending government officials into a lather over how to diversify. Enter the Botswana Innovation Hub. "The goal was to create an incubator to invite new startups and other companies into Botswana," says SHoP principal William Sharples, "and get the country into another economic line besides just diamonds."
Botswana could've commissioned any old business building and branded it an Innovation Hub. Instead, they hired SHoP, a firm with a reputation for high-wattage architecture that doesn't empty clients? bank accounts. SHoP's design does two important things (besides being a showcase). First: It's adamant about fostering a science and tech community -- not just a sprawling business park. Bridges link the four central volumes and between them, you've got gardens -- what Sharples calls "breakout spaces where people from various companies could come and meet and have an opportunity for collaboration." It sounds negligible, but it's actually an important selling point. For one, it'll help overseas employees feel less isolated in a foreign country. But also: Imagine how tickled a start-up would be by bumping into Google folks on a break. Likewise, Google could doubtless benefit from the creative energy of fresh blood. (This is purely hypothetical; we have no idea if Google will open an office here.)
Secondly, the building introduces green architecture to a part of the world where it doesn't exist. SHoP's design exploits both active and passive energy-saving techniques to slash the building's carbon footprint by 50 percent compared with the American national standard (called ASHRAE). The roof, for instance, draws on both photovoltaics and large overhangs to passively shade the building's interior from intense solar heat. "They've never done a sustainable building in Botswana. It's going to be very new," Sharples says. "We're bringing in new technology, and we're showing how we use digital technology to design and manage the design process." In short, SHoP sees the Innovation Hub itself as a model of innovation.
Still, it's a chancy move. Just because a building looks nice and feels nice and is nice to the environment doesn't mean companies will pick up and move there. Botswana, after all, is a long way from Silicon Valley. The risk, then, is that the building -- this behemoth with more square footage than the White House and the U.S. Capitol combined -- never attracts tenants. (Some 50,000 square feet is already dedicated to an AIDS research center that has drawn interest from Harvard, Baylor, and Penn.) "I couldn't agree with you more," Sharples says. "We don't know who the end-users will be. We have very guarded optimism about the project. Though there does seem to be an interest. And they [the government] have already spent a significant chunk of money on the infrastructure, so they're going to move forward on this. I believe they're going to get the investment they need."
[Images courtesy of SHoP]