I am preparing to conduct a 2 day training on diagnosing innovation systems. The participants will be mainly from universities, but there will be also some senior government officials responsible for promoting industrialization and R & D.
I already know what some practitioners will ask me. They will ask “why bother with an abstract concept like an innovation system if we can directly help enterprises to innovate?”
This is not a trivial question. Practitioners from universities that assist enterprises to develop new products, solve problems, conduct research or improve processes have direct evidence that their services are contributing to better results, new products, new markets; in other words, they are directly facilitating innovation.
However, helping one firm at a time is costly, and takes up time. While this kind of 1-on-1 support is necessary, it is not sufficient. Innovation is only to a small extent the result of isolated actions by producers and their technological intermediaries that support them. We need to recognize that there are many other facts that makes it more likely that whole industries, countries or regions will be competitive because they are innovative.
For industries, countries and regions to innovate, a more systemic approach is needed. It must be recognized that innovation rests on:
1. The interaction between companies, which include interaction with:
- input suppliers,
- equipment manufacturers,
- joint ventures,
- alliances; and
- demanding and sophisticated customers
2. The interaction between companies and their supporting institutions:
- Education institution and training providers that are not only responsive, but creating the skills needed for tomorrow
- technology extension that reduces the cost of experimentation and that overcomes high costs,
- knowledge intensive business services and technical consulting services that adds value
- Research and Development institutions and specialists that are accessible,
3. The framework conditions that determine:
- the incentive to innovate (which is often related to the pressure by others to compete and try harder)
- the direction of technical change
- the overall market conditions domestically
4. The ability to leverage unique regional demand or sophisticated demand to create innovation eco systems
In Africa, we have to focus on using the unique regional demands placed on our industries, our products and our innovation systems. We have to use these unique demands to create supporting institutions, creative firms and specific products that responds to these needs. Because our domestic volumes are often low, we have to focus on making sure that we can better integrate different disciplines, technologies and knowledge bases. This will require much more than innovative products and innovative processes, but will demand that we also create innovative business models.
We have many examples of entrepreneurs who have (despite some very demanding local conditions) managed to create innovative products and processes that have been successful globally. The question we are trying to ask with an innovation systems approach is “how do we increase the chances of our innovators to be successful by creating a dynamic system around the entrepreneurs?”. We recognize that a creative entrepreneur or technologist is not enough to create a new momentum. The whole system around these entrepreneurs need to be dynamic and innovative in itself.
When we get institutions, experts and policies around entrepreneurs to be more innovative, we will immediately see results at the levels of firms, industries and regions.