Op-ed: For SA to fix its innovation deficit it is time for it to re-imagine the way it does things

PUBLISHED: Fri, 29 Dec 2017 17:19:33 GMT

By Glenn Gillis, Sea Monster CEO

In the 2017 Global Innovation Index Report, South Africa ranked 97th out of 127 global economies1. That suggests a serious innovation deficit at a time when we most needs fresh forms of thinking.

With the economy struggling and unemployment at an all time high, the old solutions are unlikely to make a difference, innovation is South Africa’s best hope for meeting its potential. In fact, depending on your perspective the challenge is urgent and significant.

If we’re going to turn South Africa into a thriving example of global innovation, we must start now, and we must be brave.

Simple as that might sound, it involves completely uprooting the way we do things, starting with education.

Radically reimagining the university model

Take universities for example. They’re becoming increasingly costly to run, engagement levels keep falling, and despite throwing more money at the problem, there’s been little improvement in results. It’s hardly surprising then that they’ve become sites of protest and contestation.

If that’s to change, small interventions aren’t going to cut it. A radical reimagining of the model will see operational costs massively reduced, making them affordable to many more people.

It means going back to basics and understanding that the goal of higher education is to foster critical thinking. This will future-proof our students, country, and economy.

Forget the packaging and focus on delivering skills with the available technology. And always focus on the user/student. We must consider more than ever not just the knowledge but the ability to think and act differently.

Similarly in business, optimising existing processes will only result in marginal gains. For businesses to really thrive, they need to take an imaginative approach.

Throw out typical training methods

A great example of where organisations could benefit from abandoning “business as usual” is in employee training.

Typically, it’s something that uses great time and resources. Moreover, typical training methods often fail to engage employees in a way that encourages them to retain information they’re receiving.

Employees are crammed into classrooms to listen to someone whose time could be better spent doing their actual job. Why not let already available technologies take the lead?

You could, for instance, create an engaging virtual reality experience that can easily be rolled out to thousands of people for a fraction of what it would ordinarily cost. Initial spend might appear large but when you do the full business case these solutions can yield massive savings over time.

Bold leadership

With such obvious benefits, how can South African institutions across all sectors go about rebuilding themselves for innovation?

Well, it starts at the top. In any organisation, leaders must embrace the need for change and drive its adoption. No matter how keen middle management might be, their ideas won’t get anywhere if they’re blocked by higher-ups.   KPIs will almost always kill innovation, unless the environment is properly enabling.

These leaders also need to be able to think beyond current pressures and bet that bold changes will pay off over time. We need to invest boldly, take a bigger view, and ensure that projects are adequately protected from bureaucracy and give sufficient resources for their development.

In an environment where many are just hoping to get by, that isn’t easy.

If leaders are to take their organisations in new directions, government also must allow them to.

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Company regulations, for instance, need to be massively simplified. If legislation is a hindrance to employment and growth, we should consider revising it.

Getting South Africa to that point might take hard work, but if we’re to start climbing the global innovation ladder, we must embrace radical new ways of doing things now.

Our challenges are immense. I wouldn’t want it said that on our watch we stood by and thought more of the same was acceptable.