Innovation: a catalyst for growth and prosperity

As South Africa joins the discussion on improving the state of the world at the WEF meeting in Davos, Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, CEO of the National Research Foundation, argues that education and innovation are the most important routes to growing South Africa’s economy.

Karoo Array TelescopeA portion of the Karoo Array Telescope, a precursor for South Africa’s massive country-spanning Square Kilometre Telescope project. (Image: Brand South Africa)

Dr-van-Jaarsveld-Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, CEO of the National Research Foundation

South Africa is currently taking part in the World Economic Forum annual meeting in the Swiss village of Davos. WEF is uniquely placed to offer the country a chance to position itself and communicate its value proposition to international decision makers. Importantly, Davos gives the South African delegation an opportunity to learn from other countries and from the many research reports WEF produces. One such report is the 2014-2015 Global Competitiveness Report, which indicated that South Africa’s international ranking had dropped by three points from 53 to 56. The four major contributors to the drop are declines in market efficiency for goods and services (28 to 32), financial market development (3 to 7), technological readiness (62 to 66), and innovation (39 to 43).

While all four areas are important, from my vantage point the drop in innovation is particularly relevant. Far from being a parochial interest of researchers and innovators, innovation has to be a societal concern. From this century onwards, innovation capability will determine the relative wealth of nations and is the future gold for South Africa. In short, innovation is a catalyst for development.

This point is, appropriately, made in the National Development Plan, which states “South Africa’s prospects for improved competitiveness and economic growth rely, to a great degree, on science and technology … innovation derived from science and technology and knowledge creation is the primary driver of technological growth and driver of higher living standards.”

Even though the report records a drop in South Africa’s innovation, it notes improvement in the quality of our research institutions. This is borne out by the 2013 National Advisory Council on Innovation’s report on South African science and technology, which showed that the country’s research system was performing better than all of the other Brics countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – and sometimes better than Japan, the UK and US, as rated by a range of research-effectiveness measures.

South Africa’s drop in innovation, according to WEF, largely due to slides in private sector spending on R&D, university-industry collaboration in R&D, and Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) patents applications. This means we must explore why business is not investing in R&D, despite the existing tax incentive.

We must also encourage more collaboration between universities and industry. South African universities have rich research talent that can be used to support the private sector.

One, if not the major, hindrance to us unleashing the power of innovation is our basic education. Innovation requires large numbers of intelligent and highly skilled tinkerers who can change the course of events, either through small backyard operations or through focused private sector investment. All countries that have rapidly grown their economies – South Korea being a prime example – did so by improving the quality and reach of their primary and secondary education.

Poor education at school level affects the number and quality of those who can gain tertiary qualifications and university acceptance. It also determines the level of job complexity that a South African matriculant can handle, as opposed to someone with and equivalent qualification from another country.

The answers to our basic education challenges lie not in more money but in a societal commitment. Learners must commit themselves to doing what it takes to master the material. Teachers must commit to showing up at school and using every minute to teach the material and ensure the learners master it. Government must commit to providing the necessary resources, on time, and the facilities necessary for education. As a society, we must commit to giving each learner the best possible opportunities for success.

In addition, the country must develop high-end skills necessary to sustain a future knowledge economy. This not only means steering students towards science, technology, engineering and mathematics from school to postgraduate level, but also supporting those who want to pursue PhDs, which are critical for high-end research capabilities as well as for training a new generations of researchers.

This year’s WEF will give South Africa an opportunity to learn from the successes of other countries, investigate ways these successes can be customised and implemented locally, and start a national commitment towards improving our innovation landscape in support of the National Development Plan.