South Africa needs purpose-driven innovation as a key lever  to accelerate its expansion, inclusiveness and stability. This presents the private sector – which contributes 70% of South Africa’s GDP – with an exciting opportunity to translate innovation’s economic promise into reality.

Businesses not only focus on generating profits, but also on the creation of new and improved products and services to increase buyers’ welfare and boosts sellers’ incomes. Profit and contributions need not be mutually exclusive and, in a country where around 35% of adults are unemployed, a synergetic relationship is, in fact, imperative. Innovation is one of the best ways in which to achieve this relationship and we are fortunate in that global best practice on the implementation of effective ecosystems abounds.

The majority of global successes are driven by technological innovation, which is why connectedness and innovation also make up two of the four ‘city vitals’ or globally acknowledged imperatives for successful cities. The remaining two ‘vitals’ are distinctiveness and talent. When it comes to innovation ecosystems, talent is the first among equals and we need people with good ideas and the ability to transform them into marketable products. Driving skills densification is essential to unlocking the potential that innovation holds and a more enabling migration policy must remain at the top of any government’s agenda.

Cape Town is Africa’s most innovative city and also the World Design Capital 2014. The right skills would help the city transform itself into a ‘living lab’ in which African solutions are developed and commercialised to address continental challenges and to overcome lingering Afro-pessimism. Notable initiatives already underway include:

  • The University of Cape Town’s H3-D drug discovery lab, which is focused on pharmaceutical innovation.
  • Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s satellite application for the agricultural sector;
  • The University of the Western Cape’s work in hydrogren fuel cells;
  • Innovus at Stellenbosch, perhaps the leading example of an academic institution commericalising intellectual property;
  • Private sector efforts in the generation and storage of renewable energy.

Such initiatives are not only meaningful in their own right, but also act as strong attractors of rare talent to aid skills development. Strong opportunities for collaboration are now also starting to surface. Imagine the potential for association between the Square Kilometre Array team — with its over 200 PhDs and post-doctoral academics specialising in mathematics, science and technology – and the H3-D centre for the development of cures for communicable and lifestyle diseases.

Basing research and development for African pharma in South Africa and Cape Town, will yield enormous economic and social benefit. The industry across the continent is growing at 10.6% annually and will top $45-billion by 2020 to position us to become for Africa what Singapore has been for Asia. Singapore’s economy grew at 8.4% a year over 40 years, from low-value high volume to high-value high volume. Success in these areas, and a flourishing innovation ecosystem, will also do much to boost the South Africa’s distinctiveness.

After 20 years of democracy, we need to make swift progress towards realising South Africa’s economic potential and Innovation-led growth is essential to realising this objective.

This is an extract of an article by Chris Whelan which featured in the Mail & Guardian in Sept 2014.