South Africa looks to Silicon Valley for innovation inspiration

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
Johannesburg, 28 Apr 2022
Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.
Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.

Fresh on the heels of touting innovation as a key enabler of SA’s economic prospects, minister Dr Blade Nzimande is on an official week-long visit to Silicon Valley in the US.

Nzimande is accompanied by senior officials of the higher education and training, and science and innovation departments, leaders of some of the science councils and vice-chancellors of some South African universities, reveals the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI).

In a statement, the DSI indicates the visit to Silicon Valley, which is home to global tech companies like Google, Apple and Meta, is to gain insights into policy, funding and other interventions.

This will inform the implementation of SA’s new Decadal Plan for Science, Technology and Innovation.

The minister will also identify and conclude new partnership arrangements for the South African national system of innovation, with multinational companies, universities and other global research and development leaders in Silicon Valley.

Says Nzimande: “Building capabilities through education and research, development and innovation are a prerequisite for national economic competitiveness and is viewed as critical for poverty alleviation, addressing inequalities in society, and delivering on the inclusive and equitable vision, as outlined in the National Development Plan (NDP).”

The higher education, science and innovation minister further states that rapidly-evolving technologies have the potential to spur industrial development, attract investment, as well as create the conditions for inclusive growth.

As a result, he notes it’s crucial to visit global sites that have had “remarkable success” to actively learn, consider the application possibilities for SA and identify the critical success factors.

“Silicon Valley is home to many start-up and global technology companies that could serve as important case studies for our own context. This will be an important tool for understanding how we can leverage the 4IR to revitalise the economy,” Nzimande comments.

The Cabinet-approved Decadal Plan covers the period 2022-2031 and is the implementation plan of SA’s new White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation (STI).

This new roadmap identifies the fourth industrial revolution as a key focus, placing STI at the centre of the country's development agenda. Furthermore, it replaces the 1996 White Paper on Science and Technology, and aligns with the objectives of government's NDP.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), an entity of the DSI, notes that in terms of building a capable state, some of the identified goals of the decadal plan include the continuation and upscaling of several current initiatives on decision support for municipalities and government.

Other goals are programmes on innovation for service delivery through technology solutions and data, and decision support to improve access to quality basic services, it states.

Innovation intervention

South Africa has not been shy about its aspirations to be the innovation hub of the continent.

In January, president Cyril Ramaphosa lauded the opening of the NantSA vaccine manufacturing facility in Cape Town, saying it will aid SA’s quest to become a hub of scientific innovation, research and development.

The president further said government is pursuing several collaborative partnerships with the private sector and academia, to broaden the frontiers of science and innovation.

According to Nzimande, as of 2019, it was estimated there were around 440 innovation hubs and centres across the continent.

However, SA is not seeing the same impact on growth or job creation as other regions, he states, adding there are lessons here to be learnt from successful case studies.

Nzimande notes the 4IR is located at the centre of SA’s digital revolution. “In order to access a technocratic future, where AI [artificial intelligence] and neural networks play a significant role, government has to adopt an interventionist approach.”

Therefore, as part of the key engagements during his visit to Silicon Valley, the minister will visit the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, of which SA hosts an affiliate centre at the CSIR.

The minister believes to trigger the industrial and research applications of the 4IR, there is a need to bolster investment in human capital and identify key areas of the economy which require investment.

Noting the recent declines in the performance of the South African economy, he comments: “An approach has to be adopted in order to create competitive advantages. Unemployment in the country is now classified the highest in the world and our growth rate remains too low to meaningfully create opportunities.”