SA embraces innovation, but education remains a concern

South African executives surveyed as part of a global innovation poll are bullish about the state of innovation in the country and the role that innovation has played in improving the lives of all South Africans. 

The poll, conducted on behalf of GE (formerly General Electric) surveyed over 3 000 senior executives across 20 countries – including 100 in South Africa – for the fourth year. The countries included a spread of both developed and developing countries with all the Brics nations and emerging countries such as Kenya included for the first time this year. 

The results from the survey are in contrast from the negative outlook that was portrayed by the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report released earlier this month, where South Africa slipped to 56th place from 53rd in 2013, and 52nd in 2012. 

Tim Schweikert, chief executive of GE South Africa, pointed out that while innovation was crucial to a country’s competitiveness, it was not the only factor and the quality of education was still a key concern. 

Curricula aligned with business
The survey indicated that 92% of respondents in South Africa felt that school curricula needed to be better aligned with the needs of business. This score is similar to those from countries such as Mexico (93%), Poland (96%), and Australia (90%); but well behind countries such as Germany (80%), South Korea (71%) and Japan (64%). 

The respondents also indicated that not enough financial support is being provided by the government in supporting innovative companies with only 34% thinking that government was doing enough in this area (up from 32% last year). This places South Africa in the same basket as countries such as the UK (37%), Japan (31%) and Brazil (29%), but behind countries like Singapore (83%), China (77%), and the United Arab Emirates (73%). 

Importance of SMEs, startups
However, the results of the survey show that South African companies score ahead of the global average in a number of key areas, including the recognition of the role of small and medium businesses in fostering innovation – 88% agreed that collaborating with SMEs and startups would drive innovative success in the future. This is in contrast to countries like Nigeria, Brazil, India and South Korea where the expectation is that large national companies and multinationals will be the main drivers of innovation. 

The issue of collaboration is one where South Africa stands out from the pack, where 78% of respondents saw the risks associated with collaborating with external business partners worth taking in order to innovate successfully and 65% indicating that they had seen the revenues generated by collaborative activities growing over the past year. 

Another area where South Africa stood out was in the recognition of the role of big data and companies’ readiness to take advantage of it. Big data refers to the collection of large amounts of information either from customer interactions or from sensors linked to machines, vehicles and computers and the analysis of this data to produce useful information. 

Two-thirds of South African respondents indicated that it was essential to use the intelligence gained from big data to innovate successfully, while 42% indicated that their companies were either totally or quite prepared to make the most out of big data, as opposed to a global average of 25%.   

The GE Global Innovation Barometer results were presented at the SA Innovation Summit in Cape Town on September 16 2014. The Mail & Guardian is a media partner of the event. The full report is available here.

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Ben Kelly
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