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Improving systems of innovation

Much has been written about the role of innovation in improving the economic growth and as a stimulus to poverty reduction in developing countries.

The development of national systems of innovation (NSI) is receiving priority in developing countries and emerging economies with considerable investment in four pillars, knowledge generation; increase in technological skills in the labour market; specific investment in high growth areas for local and global markets; improved management and value addition to natural resources; and an increasing trend towards regionalisation and globalisation.

However the question arises – how do we keep track of progress and development of the above without validated data to track these trends and observations? Linking innovation and economic metrics has also been the underlying core functions of many institutions such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), World Bank and UN agencies.

Measuring innovation in developing countries has always been a challenge due to the paucity of data and insufficient data recording, management, retrieval and dissemination in countries; and poorly selected indicators that truly do not measure innovative capacity.

Various institutions, including the African Observatory funded by African Union and the Nepad ASTII observatory, have undertaken capacity building and training around the measurement of innovation in African countries.

Global capacity for innovation
Even more so, criticism has been leveled around the validity of data, relevance of metrics developed for G20 countries having relevance in a developing country or emerging economy context.

However the stark reality is that if developing countries have to compete in a global market then they have to be measured within a similar framework.

Clustering countries according to their economic status as classified by World Bank rankings is also one way of overcoming these stark differences between the developed and the developing countries.

The Global Innovation Index for 2013 (GII 2013) published by Cornell University, INSEAD and WIPO has introduced three new indicators that aim to address the shortcomings of traditional innovation metrics, human capital and research business sophistication and knowledge and technology outputs.

The GII 2013 also aims to provide a global snapshot of the innovation capacity and is establishing itself as the leading reference on innovation for researchers and public and private decision makers.

Over the past six years the GII 2013 has evolved into a valuable benchmarking tool to facilitate dialogue around different players in the innovation domain and to be used as a resource for countries for peer review, and assess country profiles over a period of time with validated data to identify relative strengths and weaknesses.

The producers of the GII 2013 also acknowledge that this exercise in itself is part of a continuous journey towards capturing the multi-dimensional facets of innovation across both developed and emerging economies.

Looking at the GII 2013 as a reference point, what can emerging economies in the sub Saharan African region, particularly focusing on SADC member states learn from the highly ranked subset within the GII 2013?

Systems of innovation
The GII 2013 report clearly indicates the local dynamics of innovation that create the nexus of the innovation ecosystems in developed and developing countries is fundamental to the development of national systems of innovation.

Within these local “hot beds” of innovation, there is considerable support for the interplay between different actors in the innovation ecosystem very much along the multi-helix system of innovation where public, private, academia and civil society actively engage to produce local innovative solutions for local challenges.

In addition, within these local innovation ecosystems the interplay of different actors, the transfer of tacit knowledge and deeper cooperation and trust generated within critical relationships to share and impart knowledge and co-create technology solutions is vital.

The GII 2013 also concentrates on the local dynamics of innovation and particularly around the creation of hubs.

These hubs serve as innovation growth points and focus on the local interaction between innovation catalysts and also share some insight into regional growth patterns.

Innovation hubs have been demonstrated successfully in Silicon Valley, in Europe, in South Korea and China to provide the perfect convening point and a catalyst for innovative activities, and form one part of the ecosystem.

These hubs serve as the focal point for innovative activities and idea generation, development and commercialisation.

These robust ecosystems also provide a support network for emerging technology based companies that flourish, generate more investment into new products and research in groundbreaking emerging technology areas, attract more people into the ecosystem and stimulate entrepreneurship.

This has also been successfully demonstrated in other emerging economies such as those in East Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

The presence of highly successful large enterprises within the hub regarded as hub champions also serve as support players for other emerging companies.

The facilitation of knowledge sharing, building of core capacities and attraction of new investment further stimulates growth of the existing enterprises and the provision of services provided by the hub management further support commercialisation and increased investment into the ecosystem.

Joining efforts
Apart from creating microenvironments where innovation catalysts can be supported, there also needs to be a focus on the regional dynamics whether at local government, national, sub-regional or even within regional (intercountry) economic groupings.

Robust policies, open transactional processes and more efficient procurement practices within local and national government also play a pivotal role in securing support for emerging companies within the innovation hubs and their associated innovation ecosystems.

Associated with the physical and human capital investment, the refinement of policies related to innovation, for example, intellectual property protection; support and investment into knowledge and technology transfer activities; incentives for small and medium enterprise investment; robust and inclusive innovation policies; and the capacity and skills in government to support and enable the growth of technology based businesses is also critical for innovation ecosystems to thrive.

Support programmes and incentivised programmes to engage local communities to be involved in the creation and adoption of locally produced innovation is also critical, as well as building a robust and effective communications infrastructure to facilitate knowledge sharing and uptake and active programmes.

The Southern Africa Innovation Support (Sais) Programme is a pilot programme that supports knowledge sharing, capacity building and regional practical innovation projects with the aim of enhancing national systems of innovation and building a model for regional innovation support.

Currently piloted in Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia, with South Africa as a knowledge sharing partner, the Sais programme funded by a multilateral funding agreement with the government of Finland, aims to make innovation practical and relevant and supports the creation of tangible offerings by a broader community of multi-helix players.

Even more challenging and of relevance today is the move towards inclusive innovation, innovation focused on enhancing and improvement of socioeconomic wellbeing, and generally referred to as the democratisation of innovation.

Thus innovation is transitioning to become the right and provision of innovative solutions of the larger population rather than the exclusive use and privilege of the few.

Thiru Swettenham is the programme co-ordinator for the Southern Africa Innovation Support (SAIS) Programme.

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