South Africa is currently grappling with significant, seemingly intractable, social and economic issues. There is an urgent need to find creative, innovative solutions that will drive the country forward.
A key component in finding these solutions is to build an innovation landscape that will have real impact. One way to do this is to incentivise and enable the transfer of knowledge and skills in the pursuit of solutions for real-world problems. This will also expand small- and medium-sized enterprises for broader job creation and greater social impact.
In his recent 2020 State of the Nation Address, President Cyril Ramaphosa made several statements that hint at development and funding for greater innovation: building more student housing, introducing coding at schools, fast-tracking the high-demand spectrum to enable further access to the digital economy; and funding and portals for women-empowered businesses.
His statement encapsulates the role that the government has to play in the convergence of intellectual capital and socio-economic development. It reinforced national government’s commitments to drive and enable innovation.
Government should also be driving innovation at a provincial and local level. In one example, the Western Cape Government has pledged to continue to elevate Cape Town as the leading tech hub of South Africa and is actively developing opportunities in this ecosystem.
But Government is just one cog in the wheel.
Universities are also playing a greater role in driving solutions for city, regional and national development. The most obvious opportunity is for universities to bridge the gap for graduates in the transition from university to the world of work. To this end, academic institutions are beginning to collaborate with graduates and post-graduates to incubate their ideas for real world solutions. Innovus, at the University of Stellenbosch, and the Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of the Western Cape are two examples.
The third strand in the triple helix of innovation is business. It is critical that the commercial sector sees the opportunity to use innovation as a tool to harness innovative solutions that will fast-track and future-proof their own growth. Their commitment in this respect means more jobs for graduates and a steady talent pool for their own operations.
Underpinning these three strands is an enabling environment that supports a culture of innovation. By this I mean creating a congregation point for business, academia and government which can break down siloed thinking and to drive collaborative innovation systems.
In the Western Cape, Bellville is rising as an important congregation point for developing, testing and implementing new ideas. With three major universities present, at least six headquarters of national and multi-national corporates, thousands of other small- and medium-sized businesses and several government operations, the area has all the ingredients for an innovation hub that connects all sectors.
The hub is supported by multiple road and rail transport routes. It is close to Cape Town International Airport, serving domestic and international travellers. Comparatively low rentals, top speed fibre and generous office spaces, and thousands of active residents and commuters, provide innovators and start-ups in manufacturing, communication, technology, education, retail, logistics and financial services with a living, breathing laboratory to test ideas and products in a live environment.
These assets complete the picture of a prime environment that has a key role to play in driving innovation to solve the many intractable issues facing our society. The Greater Tygerberg Partnership, a not-for-profit development facilitation agency, is driving the regeneration of Bellville, identifying opportunities to infuse a culture of innovation into Cape Town’s secondary city. The opportunities and potential already exist, they just need to be ignited. Because when sparks fly, fires can burn bright.