Innovation, while it may not have been explicitly identified as such, has been fundamental to the development of humankind over the ages. It is only recently that the word has become in vogue, with the advertising industry turning it into a cliché! Few companies or institutions today can admit that ‘innovation’ is not a key strategic driver, but it would be an interesting challenge to survey boards and staff to provide a simple and consistent definition, let alone an implementation plan.
What then has created this renewed drive for ‘innovation’ over the last decades? Without doubt, the evolution of increasingly ubiquitous and rapid communication has created a world where knowledge is no longer the preserve of a few. Research results are integrated into products and services with increasing speed, and the crossing of disciplinary and international boundaries is the norm. Technological entrepreneurs have, in many cases, become the new industry drivers and many traditional businesses have been blindsided by developments. One fact that is guaranteed is that the world we once knew will never return, and who knows where the current economic meltdown will take us.
Many governments, including South Africa, have realized the importance of these dramatic changes and have formulated policies to strengthen their ‘national innovation systems’, which consist of institutions, policies and procedures that affect how a country acquires, creates, disseminates and uses knowledge. But the question remains: ‘Can innovation be legislated?’ Certainly in the developing countries of Africa, there is little evidence that this will ever be sufficient. With large proportions of populations living at the survival level, there is no doubt that innovation is critically needed to address fundamental issues of health, education, food security, etc., while continuing to strive for enhanced economic growth.
Enough depressing news – let us look deeper into the elements of innovation and thus where the future may lie. Firstly, innovation is certainly not limited to ‘technology innovation’, although there is often this confusion. In the developing world, the social innovation aspects are fundamental but often ignored. The changes needed require new concepts and not ‘copy-cat strategies’. The first and most important starting point lies in the breaking down, by whatever means, of the ‘silo culture’ that pervades institutions, government and business. These countries’ challenges require speedy responses, and the ‘linear innovation approaches’ of R&D still prevalent, are very inappropriate. With the rest of the world moving to accept relevance of research as a cornerstone of innovation, while not in any way degrading creativity or new ideas, the old ‘publish or perish measures’ are entirely inappropriate to the developing country environments. The culture that must be rewarded is one of excellence, collaboration (both locally and internationally) and relevance. The time has come for ‘integrated innovation value chains’ focused on a country’s priorities, as one sees, for example, in India.
Finally, the generation of knowledge in the countries with limited numbers of knowledge workers makes ‘catch-up’ a losing strategy, and close attention needs to be placed on understanding how to incorporate international collaboration, ‘open innovation’ and ‘Living Lab’ approaches, and new ways of addressing intellectual property to allow the economic potential of innovation to be realized.