Need for transformative innovation to benefit society

Innovation for sustainable development was high on the agenda at the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the United Kingdom's Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) onference held in Pretoria last week.

The conference was part of a SPRU-Africa Engagement Week. The DST and the SPRU - based at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom - are collaborating to discuss research and development, the National System of Innovation and transformative change, which are key concepts related to innovation policy.

Speaking at the conference, the DST's Deputy Director-General of International Cooperation and Resources (ICR), Mr Daan du Toit, said science, technology and innovation (STI) could play a very important role in fighting poverty, inequality and unemployment in South Africa.

"We should be able to identify the role that STI can play in deepening democracy and how this can contribute to sustainable development globally," said Mr Du Toit, welcoming the SPRU's partnership with Africa to strengthen the potential for innovation to radically reconfigure economies and society.

He said that building partnerships was strategically important, not only for South Africa, but for Africa as a whole, citing policy frameworks such as the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA) as guiding principles for STI development in Africa.

He also mentioned that the United Kingdom was strategic partner for South Africa, referring specifically to the South Africa-UK Newton Fund, which focuses on building capacity in STI, food security and public health, adding that both the SPRU and Africa could learn much from each other.

The British High Commissioner to South Africa, Dame Judith Macgregor, said an invention would remain merely an invention if it stayed in the lab. It would only be an innovation once it was out there in the real world making a difference, with people prepared to pay money for it and benefiting from it.

Dame Macgregor said it was critically important for innovation to support the development of small and medium enterprises, saying that, in the UK between 2000 and 2008, innovation accounted for about 51% of the country's productivity and growth.

"We do need to facilitate innovation because a strong research base does not necessarily reflect innovation, productivity or growth per se," she said.

She said it was a partnership between government and the private sector, national and international systems, and added that government support was essential for skills development to ensure the creation of an adequate pipeline of skilled people. "Without such skilled people, there will not be innovation."

Prof. Rasigan Maharajh, Chief Director of the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation at the Tshwane University of Technology, also emphasised the need to ensure that STI policy contributed to improved quality of life of all citizens.

Citing the importance of having a solid STI policy for human resources development, Prof. Maharajh said it was extremely worrying that South Africa had a lack of seamless integration possibilities at higher education institutions.

"We must ensure that the generation of students that are coming into the system at least find STI opportunities that create the space for them to develop further. We must continuously put in place mechanisms to discourage people from retiring so that they can mentor other people to reach the same levels of proficiency in science institutions," he said.

The Director of the SPRU, Dr Johan Schot, said people should be part of the innovation process from start to finish and policies should be more diverse, giving more options to open up to new ideas.

He cautioned against ignoring informal economies, which played a very big role in society, particularly in Africa, and the need to have foresight, interfaces and coordination in innovation.

"If you develop new products and new systems, you change society, because you are not only designing a product. This means that there are responsibilities that come with innovation, and innovators must be aware of these," said Dr Schot.

Source: Department: Science and Technology Republic of South Africa

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