Series: Promoting innovation systems praxis in Africa

This year there have been several series of events celebrating the centenary of Christopher Freeman, one of the founding fathers of the study of innovation systems. The different events highlighted many older ideas that are still relevant while pondering how some new ideas might play out into the future.

These events provided the perfect opportunity to read up on many of the essential publications created in the Innovation Systems field in the last 40 years. Many of the ideas developed by these scholars have had a profound impact on my praxis. In the next few posts, I will highlight some of the insights that I have gained from this series of events.

During a recent event, the 3rd “Putting Africa First” panel discussion based on the excellent book by the same name edited by Bengt-Åke Lundvall, Mammo Muchie and Peter Gammeltoft, Prof Mammo Muchie invited me to share some thoughts from the perspective of an innovation systems practitioners.

The remainder of this post expands one of the points I shared during the event about the role of innovation systems practitioners in Africa.

There is too much focus on technological and scientific knowledge and not enough emphasis on learning and innovating in social technologies.”

I am not arguing that we invest less in strengthening scientific research in Africa. Scientific research should continue in areas where Africa face unique or pressing challenges. There are many knowledge domains where learning primarily takes place through scientific research. Examples are healthcare, water management, drought management, etc. that are very important in Africa but are not attractive to international research efforts.

However, we must admit that strengthening scientific research capacity is more exclusive; it involves fewer people, costs more, and takes longer to show results. Moreover, this kind of knowledge accumulation is driven by scientists, engineers, technologists and professional management.

Instead, we have to invest more effort into learning. As practitioners, we must mobilise industries, academics, innovators, and policymakers to learn about problems or opportunities they can explore together in their local or regional context.

In many African Innovation Systems, I believe that this kind of knowledge accumulation through learning-by-doing involves a different set of actors. The attention shifts from universities and supporting organisations towards firms and industries, where most learning-by-doing takes place. Scientists, engineers from academia and other supporting organisations can still play a valuable role here, but the emphasis is different. The mode is also different. Learning-by-doing is a social process. To be effective, it must be inclusive, transparent and accessible to a broader stakeholder network.

Whereas in science management we try to manage risk, in learning-by-doing we try to reduce the risks of trying something new, often involving somebody or knowledge from beyond the organisation.

The role of the innovation systems practitioner is also different. Our function is to enable learning, enable knowledge exchange, joint problem-solving and adaptation of institutional mandates. We often have to overcome coordination failures that constrain investment or reduce the search costs of finding technological expertise or solutions available in the system – irrespective of whether the capability resides in the public or the private sectors. We must often connect decision-makers from different spheres of society, fragmented institutions, divergent knowledge domains, and capabilities around a theme or a topic that matters to an industry.

So, for example, I often take individuals from universities or other supporting organisations to go and visit companies, factories or farms. Or I take entrepreneurs and their staff to go and visit research labs or other technical organisations.

There are two challenges that I have to overcome when I work with technology and education institutions that want to have a more meaningful impact on the innovation system:

  • Firstly, academics, engineers, and policymakers must not see the companies they want to reach as beneficiaries of their wisdom. Nor should they see companies and the technological choices they make as subjects in a research project. I have to help these institutions listen and carefully observe how companies make investment, recruitment or technological decisions.
  • Secondly, technological and educational institutions often have low credibility with or relevance to the private sector. Or worse, institutions like university research centres, research labs, and other specialised organisations may even look down on the private sector.

To get a social learning process going within a firm, or between firms, or even more importantly, between firms and their supporting institutions, I have to find something that different people have in common. In my experience, it seems like it is easier to get companies to work together on problems that are too difficult for individual companies to solve by themselves. Perhaps this is the case because it is easier to quantify the value of a potential solution. It seems much harder to build trust around an opportunity where different stakeholders are worried that others derive more benefits from the process than they are.

I received this image via a Whatsapp message and could not figure out the origins of the photo. The rabbit and the tortoise reminds me of the two modes of learning.

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