/ 21 April 2023

Universities are engines of innovation and research

Unnamed (8)

World Creativity and Innovation Day is observed annually on 21 April to raise awareness about the importance of creativity and innovation in problem-solving, economic development, societal advancement and driving positive change in the world.  

While there is no one definitive way to celebrate this day, I think it is important to acknowledge the role universities, specifically African universities, can play in solving pressing global challenges, improving lives and making a positive impact. Many important breakthroughs have come out of universities, from the development of the internet to the discovery of vaccines and treatments for diseases and solutions to climate change.

As deputy vice-chancellor for research, innovation and postgraduate studies at Stellenbosch University, I am fully aware of how important cutting-edge research and innovation, excellent infrastructure and high-quality training are to produce new knowledge needed to solve our environmental and societal problems. 

I would argue that universities could be considered to be the engines for innovation and research. Just as an engine converts fuel into energy to make a machine, such as a vehicle, move, so universities convert innovative ideas into knowledge and inventions that move society forward and address our challenges. 

Just like the engine is made up of different components (the head, the block and the oil sump), a university typically has a combination of resources that allows for innovative thinking and research. 

These include, talented and motivated researchers and students who are constantly collaborating to generate new ideas and ways of doing things; well-equipped laboratories, libraries and other facilities that can support research and development activities; a network of industry, government and other organisations that can provide the support and funding needed for research and development activities and a culture driven to do work in service to society while striving for excellence. 

Research and innovation in Africa

Since I live and work in Africa, I cannot let the opportunity go by to reflect on the importance of research and innovation for the continent and the role that African universities play in this regard.

We need innovative and creative solutions for Africa’s unique challenges related to, among others, water; clean energy; diseases; food security; education and training; land ownership and use; transformation; technology; health and housing. This is where tertiary institutions in South Africa and the rest of the continent, through collaborative partnerships, can make a valuable contribution by using the discoveries and inventions of their scientists to change society for the better. 

There are many examples of how universities have done this in the past. One recent example is how our country’s scientists used innovative methods during the Covid-19 pandemic to detect important variants of SARS-CoV-2.

Another one is the Biomedical Research Institute, a cutting-edge biomedical research facility, that was officially opened at our Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences this week. 

Here, leading South African and African researchers and students are coming up with creative ways to investigate the diseases that have the greatest impact on the country and the rest of the continent. Through innovation, they can translate their discoveries into improving the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of illnesses such as tuberculosis, cardio-metabolic disease, HIV, diabetes and neurological disorders.

If universities want to be locally relevant, but also globally competitive, they will have to be creative in how they help to address societal challenges.

They will have to continuously focus on the unique areas in which they have developed expertise over time and built collaborative networks with knowledge partners. This will help them to remain engines of innovation where creative minds work together beyond disciplinary silos to find solutions to some of most pressing challenges.

Overall, universities play a crucial role in fostering creativity and innovation through their research, education, collaboration, entrepreneurship and openness. They provide an environment that encourages exploration, experimentation and the development of new ideas that can have a significant impact on society.

Just like an engine needs fuel to work, universities need funding to support and enable research activities and to drive innovation in collaboration with communities, municipalities, governments and the private and public sectors to benefit society as a whole.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.