A Culture of Innovation: Contributions from Civil Engineering Students at the Addis Ababa Institute of Technology

This project at the Institute of Technology in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) provides insight into the local innovation culture of students in the civil engineering program.  


The research took a cultural approach, attempting to provide a holistic, qualitative insight into the discourse and structures influencing the conceptualization, aspirations and limitations of innovation and students’ ideas on the relationship between innovation and development in general.

A model was developed that includes the goals (policy), input (people and materials) and process (structure and methods) of the institute, resulting in the eventual output of innovation culture. A crucial element of this model is the overarching influence of culture and national development strategies.

Among the relevant questions are how students’ ideas on innovation are related to inclusion and development, and whether there is an understanding of the use of bottom-up approaches and frugal innovation. And how should new ideas be created and implemented in the local context?


The results are based on open, in-depth interviews with undergraduate and graduate students, teachers and staff of the civil engineering program, campus library visits and observations made in attending both undergraduate and graduate classes. Attention was also paid to the possibility of finding significant inclusive and frugal innovations throughout the country. Data was collected in a 3 month period, from 20 September to 20 December 2015.

Abstract of theses

Innovation offers opportunities for modernization and development. In recent years it has become a buzzword in the world of NGO’s, IGO’s and governments in developing countries and is featured in the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Different types of innovation are increasingly recognized in research, complicating the classic notion of innovation as a tool for high-tech advancements of the market. It is now possible to see the benefits of social innovations, user innovations and inclusive innovations emerging in both developed and developing countries. However, the concept is often used indiscriminately without a clear definition and proper knowledge of the local context. With a focus on civil engineering students at the Addis Ababa Institute of Technology in Ethiopia, this paper introduces the notion of an innovation culture present in society as a factor with far-reaching influence on the way the innovation process takes shape among students and members of society. Engineering students, being the future engineers and innovators of the country, articulate the nature of present and future innovative processes in the country.

A series of observations, interviews and policy documents show students’ understanding of innovation, how it takes shape, individual and collective aspirations and expectations of using innovation as a tool for the development of their country. In addition, a model has been developed based on the concept of culture in organizations while seeing universities as a specific type of organization. The model provides a framework for the qualitative analysis of innovation culture in universities or specific university programs. Its purpose is to provide insight into the cultural process around innovation by looking at the goals and aims of universities, the material inputs, the learning process and the university context. The underlying relations and structures presented in these lead to the output of students’ discourse and behavior concerning innovation.

The main finding in this study is that some discrepancies can be found between government goals and aims for the present and future behavior of students at the Addis Ababa Institute of Technology, while discourse shows great similarities with goals and aims. The main policy focus is now on quantitative results, leading to a lack of innovative capabilities in the general student population. On the other hand, there are great opportunities for change initiated by individuals and groups within and outside the university. I argue these can provide the low-cost quality changes required to achieve policy goals in this context.

By contextualizing these findings within broader development policy frameworks, this paper provides insight into what kinds of innovation are relevant and feasible and in what way these could and should be used to promote national development. In Ethiopia, inclusive innovation with top-down strategy seems most feasible. It also shows what factors influence innovation culture, providing a framework for further research. The study supports a “rest-to-the-west” approach that supports local and national knowledge creation and can be used for future endeavors by NGOs, IGOs and government.


Researcher: Simone Reinders | supervised by Courtney L. Vegelin, UvA

In cooperation with:
- University of Amsterdam (MSc International Development Studies)
- Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa