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16 Sep 2014 06:57
South Africa finds itself in a fragile economic setting and purpose-driven innovation is a key lever with which to
accelerate its expansion, inclusiveness and stability. This presents the private
sector - which contributes 70% of South Africa’s gross domestic product - with
an exciting opportunity to raise its game and escalate efforts to translate
innovation’s economic promise into reality.
It is argued that the only reason business
exists is to generate profits.
While undoubtedly a leading reason, it is by no
means the only one. Business is about fair exchange as well as the creation of
new and improved products and services to increase buyers’ welfare and boosts
sellers’ incomes. Profit taking and contributions need not be mutually
exclusive and, in a country where around 35% of adults are unemployed, a
synergetic relationship is, in fact, imperative.
Innovation is one of the best ways in which
to achieve this relationship and we are fortunate in that global best practice
on the implementation of effective ecosystems abounds. Consider the value added
by innovation hubs in cities like Shenzhen - a Haka fishing village until
fairly recently - for example.
The majority of such global successes are driven by
technological innovation, which is why connectedness and innovation also make
up two of the four ‘city vitals’ or globally acknowledged imperatives for
successful cities. The remaining two ‘vitals’ are distinctiveness and talent.
When it comes to innovation ecosystems that boost growth, talent is the first
Above all, people with good ideas, and the skills to transform
them into marketable products, are needed. In fact, the likelihood of a city
being economically successful can accurately be gauged by its per capita
tertiary graduates. In addition, higher education standards and relevant
programmes are key to addressing the jobs / skills mismatch. Subsequently,
cities are in a race for talent, particularly young talent between 25 and 34.
Such skills are also among the most mobile in society. Being a net talent
attractor and driving skills densification are essential to unlocking the
potential that innovation holds. For this reason a more enabling migration
policy must remain at the very top of any government’s agenda.
Cape Town - host to the 7th SA Innovation
Summit to be held September 16 to 18 2014 - is Africa’s most innovative city
and also the 2014 World Design Capital. The right skills would help the city
transform itself into a ‘living lab’ in which African solutions are developed
and commercialised to address continental challenges and to overcome lingering
Afro-pessimism. Several notable initiatives are already underway, namely:
• The University of Cape Town’s H3-D drug
discovery lab, which is focused on pharmaceutical innovation.
• Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s
satellite application for the agricultural sector;
• The University of the Western Cape’s work
in hydrogren fuel cells;
• Innovus at Stellenbosch, perhaps the leading
example of an academic institution commericalising intellectual property;
• Private sector efforts in the generation
and storage of renewable energy.
Such initiatives are not only meaningful in
their own right, but also act as strong attractors of rare talent to aid skills
development. Strong opportunities for collaboration are now also starting to
surface. Imagine the potential for association between the Square Kilometre
Array team — with its over 200 PhDs and post-doctoral academics specialising in
mathematics, science and technology - and the H3-D centre for the development
of cures for communicable and lifestyle diseases.
Basing research and development for African
pharma in South Africa and Cape Town will yield enormous economic and social
benefit. The industry across the continent is growing at 10.6% annually and
will top $45-billion by 2020 to position us to become for Africa what Singapore
has been for Asia. Singapore’s economy grew at 8.4% a year over 40 years, from
low-value high volume to high-value high volume. In doing so it moved from
textiles to oil refining and hard drive production by, among others,
transforming their education system and focusing on productivity. Success in
these areas, and a flourishing innovation ecosystem, will also do much to boost
the South Africa’s distinctiveness.
After 20 years of democracy, the time has
come to put an end to deferred hope. We need to make swift progress towards
realising South Africa’s economic potential in an inclusive and sustainable
manner. Innovation-led growth is essential to realising this objective.
Chris Whelan is the chief executive of
Accelerate Cape Town, a business think tank in the Cape Town city region.
This article is part of a larger supplement. This has been paid for by the M&G‘s advertisers and the contents signed off by the organisers of the Innovation Summit
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