Innovation key to building sustainable economic success

BizJacquiIN the mid-1950s, a Stanford professor named Moses Abramovitz did an interesting study: he measured the growth in the output of the US economy between 1870 and 1950.

Then he measured the growth in inputs and made some assumptions about the growth in productivity of the inputs. He found that he could not explain 85% of the growth.

Eighty-five percent! Within the next decade a number of other economists undertook similar studies using different methodologies and found similar results.

How did they explain this rather surprising finding? Technological innovation. The conclusion of these studies is that innovation – the research, development and implementation of new products, processes and services – accounts for the lion’s share of this growth.

What does this mean for South Africa? We know we cannot meet the challenge of sustainable economic growth with the existing capacity in the national economy.

We need to develop new industries to increase our overall economic activity. Part of the solution to this lies in developing a knowledge economy focused on innovation.

How can we, in Nelson Mandela Bay, add to this knowledge economy?

There is a lot happening already: innovative businesses are doing new things; academic and research institutions are producing research and graduates that can add value to our economy; government agencies are funding projects, some of which have an innovation component. But is this sufficient for a “knowledge economy” and will it solve our challenges?

I believe that while these are all worthy and important, it is the linkages within and between the role players that can really tip the scale.

We need to get different disciplines working together on the same problem, we need businesses talking to academia, and we need government talking to academia and business about innovation.

We need to have a network of innovation.

How can we do this? Can this be actively managed and promoted? Yes, it can be, and I believe we have already started our innovation conversation in Nelson Mandela Bay.

The Regional Innovation Forum is bringing business, academia and government together to support, promote and drive innovation.

People are coming together and talking about innovation. Businesses are taking a few hours out of their busy schedules every few months to meet other businesses, academics and government agencies.

At some of these events businesses have found synergies with other businesses.

One of the most exciting projects the forum is launching is called AIMDay, a joint initiative with the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

AIMDay, pioneered at Uppsala University in Sweden, brings researchers and businesses together with the goal of discussing a pressing problem in a particularbusiness.

One question, one hour, one group of experts. It is not rocket science, but the idea is that a new and broad mix of people can provide different perspectives and surprising new avenues to solving problems.

A soon-to-be visible innovation initiative will be the launch of an innovation incubator, Propella, at NMMU. Propella will take technologies from the university to market as well as cater for innovation-based entrepreneurs who need assistance.

Propella is also envisaged as the first phase of a science park to assist in bridging the gap between business and academia. Einstein’s quote “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” has, in these uncertain economic times, been replaced in a business sense by “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting things to stay the same”.

Regions need to innovate and businesses in those regions need to innovate just to remain competitive: the innovation conversation has started – join us.

ýJaci Barnett is the director of Innovation Support and Transfer at NMMU. She writes in her capacity as chairwoman of the Regional Innovation Forum.

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