/ 24 May 2022

OPINION| How can innovation and technology address social exclusion, equity and poverty?

Kagiso Trust is helping South Africans prepare for the fourth industrial revolution
The technology has huge implications for the country and the world. Experts say if South Africa fails to prepare, it will be preparing to fail. Graphic: John McCann/M&G

As many inventors have found to their cost, you can develop a technology that has the potential to change lives but if the enabling environment is not conducive, that technology will be impossible to produce.

This could be because of high taxes or energy costs or possibly that the infrastructure is too unreliable. The people it is meant to help could reject the idea because of fears about the risks and harms of the technology or lack of skills and funding to use it.  

The Covid-19 pandemic has everyone now thinking about what we call “the innovation system” or the actors, knowledge flows and institutional arrangements that ensure new things are introduced into new environments. A better understanding and awareness of how this enabling system works is necessary if those working in the subject areas of  sciences, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) have any chance of ensuring their activities bear fruit.  

Despite this, we still see most funding in science, technology and innovation studies goes on building new science and technology and, to some extent, its commercialisation or what I refer to as “research and teaching in innovation”.  Very little funding goes towards its sister area of “research and teaching on innovation”.  This latter type of research and teaching focuses on understanding why regulatory regimes are not working, it looks at the publics’ understanding of science and technology and the pros and cons of different commercialisation strategies, to mention just a few areas. This subject area can be referred to under the broad umbrella of science, technology and innovation studies (STI).  

A sub-area of STIS studies is “innovation and development studies”, which has even more relevance since the pandemic began, because it is interested specifically in how we can ensure STI interacts with economic, social and environmental issues and the degree to which STI activities address social exclusion, equity and poverty. The questions asked in this pandemic about who has access to science solutions, whose solutions can be trusted and what the pandemic has done for jobs, wellbeing and access to core services are all addressed in this study area — if the research area is promoted. 

Thankfully things are changing. First, here in South Africa, the government has funded the Trilateral Research Chair on Transformative Innovation, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and Sustainable Development at the University of Johannesburg, to which I contribute.  

This group of researchers operates in South Africa, Kenya and the United Kingdom and does research that looks at the barriers and opportunities for South African firms to use frontier technologies such as robotics and additive manufacturing (3D printing). It is also working with government departments, notably the department of science and innovation, and colleagues at the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII) to support transformative innovation policy experiments.  

These experiments help government departments to think about the effect they want to have on society and what that means for the innovation they conduct and support. The Chair has also just launched one of the first master’s and PhD programmes on the continent that focuses on research on innovation and, specifically, the interrelationship between innovation activities and economic, social and environmental development processes. Intake for its first cohort of students is ongoing.

Second, a side event at the recent United Nations STI Forum looked at how we can move research and teaching on innovation forward. The participants highlighted the importance of focusing on real world problems such as efforts towards ensuring sustainable development goal seven on energy access. Linked to this was a call for attention on social and environmental development issues as much as, if not more than economic development through the lens of inclusive development.  

Moving from the topic of what to research and teach, the participants also argued for a need to change how we teach and research this subject. They emphasised the need to include a multitude of voices who do, use and support innovation activities. Specifically, they argued for a focus on those whose voices are not usually heard and the need to recognise different and divergent voices. The participants also emphasised the need to enhance the focus on short learning courses for professionals outside of academia and inclusion of the course as electives in different disciplines (especially STEM) inside academia. 

The need for more research and teaching on innovation and not just research and teaching in innovation is gaining traction and should become more visible in South Africa in the next couple of years. But, without more funding and teaching in this area, the ability for the country to answer the questions raised by the pandemic on issues ranging from local production capabilities to the use of technology to enhance wellbeing will be limited.