Innovation as culture – The missing link?

It is time to move beyond the idea of innovation as a holy grail – a somewhat mystical and ‘hi-tech’ solution to developmental challenges – towards the creation of a broad-based culture of innovation and problem-solving. And universities are key players in that process, according to Universities South Africa CEO Professor Ahmed Bawa.

Addressing the 9th annual South African Technology Network Conference – a coalition of South African universities of technology – held in Cape Town last month, Bawa said innovation should not be seen as the preserve of a handful of “innovators”.

“Without changing the culture to support innovation we are not going to get anywhere… We need to make a shift towards a broad-based conception of innovation,” he told SATN delegates during the opening session.

Appointed in February as CEO of Universities South Africa – the umbrella body for South Africa’s 26 public universities which includes traditional universities, comprehensive universities and universities of technology – and as former vice-chancellor of Durban University of Technology, Bawa has many years’ experience in, and a keen understanding of, the universities of technology sector.

“Debates about nurturing innovation tend to focus on the importance of conducive structures, adequate funding and effective intellectual property policies, but they overlooked something far more 'fundamental': embedding the notion of innovation within the social fabric," he argued.

The global quest for innovation

In South Africa and other parts of the world, the quest for innovation as a route towards job creation, economic growth and development has resulted in an emphasis on education and training for innovation and entrepreneurship, an emphasis that has highlighted massive opportunities for universities of technology – which focus on professional and technical tertiary education – and their partners in government and industry.

In recognition of these opportunities, the theme of the annual conference co-hosted by the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, was “Partnerships for Innovation and Development – Making it happen. Making it matter”.

However, according to statistics, education alone is no silver bullet when it comes to boosting national innovation levels. The Bloomberg Innovation Index for 2015 notes that while education may be necessary for innovation, it is clearly not sufficient. Russia, as the report highlights, has an “illustrious tradition in science and math”, but this does not translate into innovation as a national strength.

A similar point was made by Bawa during his speech. He said that although Brazil had grown its PhD numbers several-fold as part of a concerted national drive, the country had seen no significant rise in innovation levels as a result. “There is no simple relationship between qualifications and innovation,” he said. The key, he reiterated, lay in building a broader “culture” of innovation.

“You can put the best structures in place, but if a culture is missing, innovation will be restricted to narrow sectors of people. We have to move beyond that, to a point at which innovation becomes embedded in the social fabric of society, where it is ubiquitous.”

Perceptions of innovation

Bawa said it was difficult to understand how a society that had produced Nelson Mandela, the 1994 transition to democracy and even the current #FeesMustFall campaign was not considered, even by itself, to be an “innovative” society.

When it came to cutting-edge technology, South Africa had produced its fair share of world firsts: the CAT scan, the digital laser, the Kreepy Krauly automatic pool cleaner, open heart surgery – all of which militated against the notion of South Africa as a “low innovation” nation.

“So we should be careful not to slide into the view that we are not an inventive society. The real question is why such inventiveness is not more pervasive in society,” he said.

Concerned about the “dichotomisation in South Africa of creativity and innovation” which had seen greater status being given to creativity, with innovation relegated to second-class status, Bawa said innovation and creativity should in fact feed off each other.

“For some reason in South Africa we’ve adopted the idea that knowledge production must take place in rarefied contexts. Engagement in the broad sense must serve as an important site for knowledge production. We shouldn’t be creating a false hierarchy,” he told University World News.

Universities as problem-solvers

In fact universities had a key role to play in this process of broadening innovation. Describing universities as “social institutions”, Bawa said they could not “sit on the sidelines, produce papers and expect others to solve problems… Engagement [with society] in itself is a source of knowledge production, not a second-class set of activities.”

Universities should be demonstrating innovation in their own right too. “Students have to see innovation in action. You can’t have universities operating in a closed, old fashioned way and expect students to think out of the box. While many institutions already do this, they need to intensify these activities,” he said.

There was also a need for universities to create opportunities for innovation in all fields – not only science and technology fields.

A theoretical physicist by training, Bawa said while the kind of hi-tech innovation which produced the Large Hadron Collider was obviously important and incredibly exciting, there was also a need to see innovation more broadly as improving the basic quality of life or solving day-to-day problems informed by the local context.

Social innovation

Some of the biggest challenges in South Africa are social problems so we need to involve students in real-life projects aimed at solving problems affecting society, be it gender, race, people making crafts, or stopping water wastage, said Bawa. “We need to broaden the base of innovation and it’s not just about high-tech solutions; we need massive levels of innovation.”

“Not everyone will become an innovator as a result, but many will choose topics that they are passionate about and the experience will give them the opportunity to develop as innovators,” he said.

Given the complexity of our world, there was also a need to work across different knowledge domains, and recruit people who have a real understanding of the value of innovation into institutions.

On the sidelines of the conference, Bawa told University World News that while there were significant levels of engagement between industry, government and academia, particularly in the university of technology sector, such engagement needed to be intensified in order to benefit students more directly.

In his view South African students were ready to play their part in growing an innovative society. At the Durban University of Technology, he said, there had been an “explosion of creativity” in areas ranging from software applications to fashion and graphic design.

He suggested that innovative real-life research projects – the kind already being pursued in engineering and other programmes – be introduced in all undergraduate programmes.

“Universities should be thinking about defining of research and innovation projects that span the entire undergraduate programme. Students from all disciplines will be expected to identify problem-solving projects and spend their time solving them with support from the institution.

“In this way we contribute towards building a broader base of innovation.”