‘Innovation is more than R&D’

Debbi Schultz

The National Science and Technology Forum's October meeting focused on a ministerial review committee's report on the science, technology and innovation landscape in South Africa, and at least one speaker thought that the review could have done more to foster local innovation.

The department of science and technology ministerial review committee's report on the science, technology and innovation land- scape in South Africa that came out in March 2012 was presented at the meeting by the director-general of the department of science and tech- nology, Dr Philemon Mjwara.

The report's purpose was to review South Africa's readiness to meet its current and future needs in terms of science, technology and innovation.

Common understanding

Mjwara said the report identified a lack of common understanding across government departments that resulted in poor coordination and cooperation. This extended to a lack of coherence between government, business, higher education and civil society.

The report's recommendations included the creation of new insti- tutions and aligning departments and their associated government organisations. There was also a need to focus on social development and social innovation, Mjwara said.

Included in the report was an assessment of the national system of innovation (NSI), broadly defined by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's (CSIR's) website as "a network of players in a country that interact to constitute the country's innovation systems".

(The website continues: "The CSIR and other science councils play a vital role in the NSI — a role that is distinct and [complementary to] other players such as tertiary educa- tion institutions and small and large business.")

The assessment and recommen- dations around the NSI pointed to a large gap between business and government with little joint participation, Mjwara said. There was also a concern around the low number of patents and the lack of international impact from South Africa.

Within human capital and infra- structure, the systemic pipeline jams were seen as hindering implementa- tion. Although the input of educa- tion's value chain was considered, basic education was excluded.

Recommendations on this covered everything from developing a sustained and strategic programme of action to looking at cyber infra- structure — including a recommen- dation that teaching be declared an essential public service, thus reducing strike actions.

The lack of monitoring and evalu- ation were a serious concern, as was the nature of funding, which had resulted in a static number of researchers and research-and-devel- opment personnel, among other issues, he said.

The right framework?

At the forum's plenary session, Dr Neville Comins, a consultant in the fields of innovation systems and science park development, presented a critical assessment of the review. He focused on whether the actual framework was applicable and questioned how innovation was approached in the report.

"There is a dreadful misunder- standing of the word 'innovation'," Comins said. "It's not invention in a lab but a process of taking ideas right through to market or society resulting in economic output or social impact."

The World Bank's Innovation Policy: A guide for Developing Countries (2010) had not been taken into account when compiling the report, he said. It defines innovation as "technologies or practices that are new to a given society". Therefore anything that is "not disseminated and used is not an innovation".

Comins said the review's defini- tion of innovation did not provide strong enough guidelines to trans- late into reliable, resilient sets of practices. The review also relied on "the linear model of innovation" which limited measurement, among other things, and confined "techno- logical innovation to research and development".

There was a need to create feed- back loops and interconnects, and to position research more realistically.

"Most businesses get more infor- mation from customers and exhi- bitions than from research," said Comins. A further critique was the lack of provincial differentiation. "South Africa contains both Venda and Cape Town, so one size may not fit all," he said.

Integrating business

Comins also took issue with the interview process around recom- mendation input, saying that out of 43 interviewees, only two were from the private sector (and neither was a small business or a start-up) and that the committee was dominated by university academics. This make-up, he said, was reflected in the findings.

He said that the review completely ignored the role of entrepreneurship in innovation and recommended that future reviews study "institu- tions in other parts of the world that have changed the paradigm".

To enhance private sector integra- tion, he proposed the creation of a layer of "neutral intermediaries" or "facilitation organisations", rather than employing people with business experience.

The innovation process

Comins said there were dimen- sions, processes and institutions to help drive innovation missing from the national system of innovation. He said this was "limited thinking" and "a repositioning of the current status, effectively moving chairs around".

"Innovation is broader than funding R&D," he said. 

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