Touching lives through innovation

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On 11 and 12 November 2020, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) held its 7th Biennial Conference, under the theme of Touching Lives through Innovation. As part of remote working caused by Covid-19, the conference was hosted online for the first time. 

It felt different from the norm. There was an emphasis on explaining available opportunities and how organisations fit into the innovation landscape. This was possibly due to the new online platform, as well as a drive to find better ways of creating links for multidisciplinary solutions. (FOMO hitting you? You can still view all the discussions, virtual tours and webinars at www.csir75.co.za.)

The conference was part of celebrating 75 years of the CSIR’s contribution to research, development and innovation in South Africa. The CSIR, a leading scientific and technology research organisation, has a new strategy with a primary aim of leveraging its science, engineering, technology and innovation capabilities to improve industry competitiveness.

The conference programme was designed around nine topics: chemicals; health; advanced agriculture and food; manufacturing; mining; defence and security; smart mobility; smart places; and next-gen enterprises and institutions. Science and technology are seen as key enablers for economic recovery and the conference was a way of exploring new partnerships and collaborations to respond to South Africa’s pressing needs.


Partnerships for solutions, with CSIR as a conduit

Keynote speaker, Mr Buti Manamela, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, positioned the conference as an opportunity to engage in dialogue, to see how far we have come as a country in the science, engineering and innovation domain, and to come up with solutions to the various challenges that South Africa is facing. 

Manamela said that the CSIR can operate as a conduit between industry, government, higher education and other stakeholders. While government creates an enabling environment through policy and regulation, partnerships between the private sector, civil society, government departments and other stakeholders have the potential “to provide scientific and technical support to enhance service delivery, create new industries, resuscitate declining ones, and share complementary technologies”. 

He added that entities such as the CSIR play a pivotal role in helping government to implement various programmes and provide service delivery to its citizens. He noted that government plans and strategies see the science, technology and development sector as “directly linked to providing South Africans with jobs through strengthening the competitiveness of our industrial sectors and by creating new industries”. His final words were to remind the delegates to focus on the youth, in particular around upskilling.

Some clear themes emerged from the plenary sessions, which looked at the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) and industrialisation, innovation strategies for Africa’s food insecurity , and SMMEs as drivers of South Africa’s economic recovery, all within the context of responding to Covid-19. 

From 4IR to digital ubuntu

The 4IR can be explained as a convergence of technologies within the physical, biological and digital domains, where the boundaries between them are blurred. Advances in disruptive technologies (such as artificial intelligence, Big Data analytics, robotics, the Internet of Things, 3D printing, and genetic engineering) are changing the way we live, work and relate to one another.

Yanesh Naidoo, Sales and Design Director at Jendamark Automation, says that there is a significant difference between developing and developed countries when it comes to 4IR. For example, Germany has an ageing population and wants to do more with less. When you look at the population pyramid of Africa and south-east Asia, it’s the opposite — a large youth population that is increasing.  

It’s not as simple as copying developed countries. Naidoo says that in Africa we need to think of it as “digital ubuntu”, where we use technology to solve problems. He also sees the future in network businesses. Uber is an example of this, pulling together a whole lot of elements to solve a transport problem and, in the process, creating a lot of jobs.

When looking at 4IR and technology, Mr Lee Naik, CEO of TransUnion Africa, delved further into the use of technology. He says that people need to understand technology and 4IR as part of the solution, an enabler, rather than technology for technology’s sake. 

Covid-19’s impact on the economy 

In South Africa and globally, it’s clear that the pandemic and lockdowns have had a big impact on the economy. Many businesses have been negatively impacted, and some may not survive or may take a long time to recover. 

Mamello Matikinca-Ngwenya, chief economist at FNB South Africa, looked at the economy sector by sector. She noted that the manufacturing and mining primary sectors were negatively impacted. Agriculture has done well because the movement of food was allowed. Construction in South Africa was already ailing prior to the pandemic and the situation was exacerbated by Covid-19. Real estate, particularly offices, has seen significant change. A lot of businesses moved to working from home, leading to offices becoming vacant. She said that, in the short term, moderate recovery is expected in all sectors of the economy. 

The economic squeeze has meant business closures, job losses or reduced income, said Matikinca-Ngwenya. Consumers are spending less and are more discerning about where they allocate their money. At the same time, there are also opportunities such as rethinking product offerings to cater to the current situation.

Impact on 4IR and SET solutions

There was general agreement that business and life changes (due to Covid-19) have caused significant digital acceleration. Yet, we can’t frame 4IR, as well as science, engineering, technology and innovation, from a single point in time. Advances have been coming for quite some time and this change is part of a continuum. 

As explained by CSIR CEO Dr Thulani Dlamini, success and resilience also depend on past investments in areas from technology and human capital to infrastructure and R&D. As a rule, South Africa is well below its peers when it comes to gross expenditure on R&D. 

Shifts and trends in business 

Mr Mauricio ZuaZua, partner and board member at Kearney, spoke of four main shifts that have occurred globally: 

• From economies of scale (big production, low labour costs) to economies of skills (products that are more innovative and/or quicker to market); 

• Moving from a focus on low-cost production to a focus on innovation such as features, agility, functionality, and production;

• From perceiving change (such as the introduction of new technologies) as big and slow to transformations being fast, small, and in steps; and 

• Shifting from capital intensity (assets) to skills intensity. 

ZuaZua noted that while South Africa is moving in this direction, there is a need to do more. There was general agreement around the principle of “smart competitiveness”: focusing on sectors with the most impact that have a multiplier effect and that drive the economy. Other areas include focusing on enablers such as the institutional regulatory framework, human capital and skills, access to broadband and sustainable resources. 

He also said that there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about South Africa and Africa. Examples included the integration of Africa to the rest of the world, which is in the process of separating. This results in advantages, such as continental free trade and more malleable supply chains. Africa also has a high youth population that adapts to technology quickly. Furthermore, he sees Africa as the most entrepreneurial continent in the world. 

These highlight some of the discussion points, but really only touch the surface. See more at www.csir75.co.za

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