South Africa ranks number 30 out of 56 countries in regards to how its domestic policies support worldwide innovation.
This is according to an analysis released by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a global technology policy think tank. The findings come in a new report assessing 56 countries - which together comprise close to 90% of the world's economy - on the extent to which, on a per-capita basis, their economic and trade policies contribute to and detract from innovation globally.
Sitting on top of the list is Finland, followed by Sweden, the UK, Singapore, Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Ireland, Austria and the US respectively. At the bottom of the list is Argentina. SA, at number 30, is above its BRICS counterparts Brazil (41), Russia (42), India (54) and China (44).
Besides SA, Kenya is the only other African country on the list, sitting at number 51.
A World Economic Forum report in September last year noted SA's global competitiveness is on the rise thanks to improvements in ICT and innovation.
SA's National Development Plan (NDP) stresses the need for the national system of innovation to function in a coherent and co-ordinated manner, with broad objectives aligned with national priorities. It seeks to improve the governance of the innovation system, especially by ensuring the alignment of science and technology innovations activities across government and by co-ordinating public funding.
The Technology Innovation Agency, created in 2010, is a critical platform for facilitating increased commercialisation of research findings in SA.
ITIF says countries' economic and trade policies can either help or hurt global innovation. For example, it adds, policies such as robust investment in and tax incentives for scientific research and education support global innovation.
In contrast, policies such as export subsidies or forced localisation harm global innovation. If nations increased their supportive policies and reduced their harmful policies, the rate of innovation worldwide would significantly accelerate, the think tank notes.
"Robust innovation is essential for economic growth and progress," says co-author Stephen Ezell, ITIF's vice-president for global innovation. "As countries increasingly vie for leadership in the innovation economy, they can implement policies that try to benefit only themselves but harm the production of innovation in the rest of the world. Or they can implement 'win-win' policies that bolster their own innovation capacity while also generating positive spill-overs for the entire global economy. For innovation to flourish around the world, we need a system that is doing much more of the latter."
While previous research has ranked countries based on innovation capabilities or outcomes, this report is the first to assess the impact of countries' policies on the broader innovation system.
The authors examined 14 factors that not only support innovation domestically but have positive spill-over effects globally, such as supportive tax systems and investment in R&D and human capital, and another 13 factors that have negative spill-over effects, such as forced localisation and weak intellectual property protection.
The think tank says SA's 30th-place overall ranking reflected a combination of policies that the report found to be 33rd best in their positive contribution to the global innovation ecosystem and also the 28th least damaging.
The report also found a strong correlation between countries' contributions to global innovation and their levels of domestic innovation success, meaning that doing well domestically on innovation policy can also mean doing well for the world.
"While policymakers are primarily focused on the interests of their own citizens, they usually overlook the fact that adopting policies that also happen to be good for the global innovation ecosystem will compound the benefits for their citizens," says Robert D Atkinson, ITIF's president and a co-author of the report. "'Innovation altruism' really does pay."