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Innovation must be a national priority

SA needs a national commitment from president Thabo Mbeki to make innovation everyone's priority.
Read time 3min 50sec

Innovation is the global business mantra and South African business is up there with the best. Many examples of innovation have emerged from the Technology Top 100 (TT100) Business Awards programmes over its 16-year history. Most recent examples are the personal video recorder from the Altech stable, launched this year by MultiChoice; the speed measurement system from EDH used at Wimbledon; and incuBeta, a Cape Town Internet marketing platform turning over hundreds of millions of dollars for its clients.

The Department of Science and Technology, custodian of R&D in SA, has defined a national system of innovation in its R&D strategy detailing the roadmap for transforming the economy from resource-dependent, to knowledge-driven.

Science and technology, through our national R&D output, is central to achieving the ASGISA target of 6% GDP growth by 2008. It is the determining factor in accessing services and quality of life for every South African, the underlying factor that shapes the destiny of the entire African continent.

But most manufacturing in SA is still done under international licence. Software licensing by international vendors tops billions of rands annually, far exceeding our own development.

Recent statistics released by the Companies and Intellectual Property Registration Office in Pretoria indicate SA patent filings in 2005 decreased sharply while registrations from international firms for their intellectual property rights in SA have increased substantially. Leading up to 2010, foreign trademark filings have mushroomed by 35% from 2004.

We are actually moving backwards in our efforts to establish a knowledge society! SA today is, on certain levels, more dependent on international technology than ever before.

The role-models in this year's qualifying enterprises in the TT100 show the ability and capacity to generate leading technologies and competitive businesses, in spite of challenges like access to skills, distance to market, shortage of funding and even adopting BEE, which are not part of the business environment of our competitors.

Why then don't more enterprises opt for innovation and establish a local culture of research and development? Because there is short-term focus on immediate financial returns on investment and a lack of understanding of the long-term benefits of looking after our own needs. Everyone wants a better SA. Few are willing to take on the challenge of forfeiting short-term gains for long-term growth.

Few are willing to take on the challenge of forfeiting short-term gains for long-term growth.

Stephan Lamprecht, GM of Technology Top 100, a brand of Da Vinci.

For instance, a listed ICT operator uses its Proudly South African status to lure clients away from its less-Proudly South African perceived competitors, and then chooses to buy cheap Chinese components when local competitive and cost-efficient alternatives are available, in the process happily discarding its commitments to SA.

Koreans and Japanese use local products because there is a national awareness of the need to develop, support and grow their own capabilities. You will never see a Finn using any phone other than a Nokia.

Establishing a national urgency to adopt innovation is not the business of politicians or even engineers and scientists; it is the business of every citizen of this country. SA needs a national commitment from president Thabo Mbeki to make innovation everyone's priority.

The Department of Science and Technology, especially through the work of the Human Sciences Research Council in its annual R&D and innovation surveys, is increasingly sophisticated in its measurement of the impact of national innovation policies and incentives, such as the 150% tax rebate for R&D announced earlier in this year by finance minister Trevor Manuel. Better data and measurements are enabling policy writers and implementing agencies to target their initiatives and funding to those mechanisms and programmes best able to deliver return on investment.

Through this, the benefits of innovation and our national commitment to science and technology is becoming more tangible, easier to analyse, and, importantly, clearer to the politicians who need to drive the transformation to a knowledge economy, leveraging their voting platforms.

Innovation is alive in SA. The country has adequate competitive advantages to foster a culture of leading thinkers, successful business leaders and world-class researchers.

What we need now is to grow the number of firms running their own innovation strategies, perform local R&D, and thereby making innovation everyone's priority. We need more success stories to make us all proudly South African.

Stephan Lamprecht

GM of Technology Top 100, a brand of Da Vinci.

Stephan Lamprecht is an industrial engineer. He started his career as a consultant in the management of technology and innovation with the consultancy Venture Solutions, before joining Da Vinci to head Technology Top 100. He is vice-president of the Licensing Executives Society of South Africa, a professional society for people with an interest in the business of licensing and technology transfer, having 11 000 members in 93 countries.

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