Innovations: a lesson from South Africa

Adrianna Brzozowska and Emil Wojtaluk talk with South African Minister of Science and Technology, Mr Derek Hanekom at the European Innovation Convention 2014.

Emil Wojtaluk: What are the ways of encouraging young people to be more active and what do you think of EU policies for entrepreneurs? 

Derek Hanekom: Let me start from the second part of the question. I can’t really comment on European policy but I do know that one of their priorities is to encourage young entrepreneurs to come forward. I wouldn’t be able to speak with authority on what their instruments are and how they are trying to encourage it. I speak for my own country.

Derek Hanekom, South African Minister of Science and Technology ©EC/CE

Derek Hanekom, South African Minister of Science and Technology ©EC/CE

The short answer is that we are not doing enough in our own country, we need to do more but I’ll tell you some of the things that we’re starting to do. Firstly, doing it often with private sector is to create opportunity for good ideas to be brought to the table. So we have our big electricity supplier for example, we work with them and organize an annual event, and it’s an expanding annual event where schools across the country came with the school projects. They are giving awards in the variety of categories and they are able to show case of their project in Johannesburg but it’s all done regionally first. I must say it’s quite a lengthy process but at the end of the day interested people see their projects. So you may have a group of kids that designed energy efficient home or designed a solution to having affordable clean water in your house, better filtration unit or better waste management. They come up with the most amazing ideas!

What we can do institutionally and should be doing more of, is to create opportunities not to set schools but beyond schools, where you want to start a very developing entrepreneurship that people have the central point to take the ideas too. Those ideas, no matter crazy they might seem are being observed. If they are really nothing special, people will get back to them and say “this is why we think your idea is not gonna make it”- because not all ideas are good ideas. The principle of people generating ideas – that’s a good thing, doesn’t matter what. Amongst them, when you see some potential in an idea, we have state institution which we have recently put in place that will give the support that it needs to develop its next stage. It’s a fairly high risk. You get to the next stage where you might approach a venture capital provider, which could be a state-run institution or private sector venture capital provider. That’s very first stage when you are not likely to get anyone because the risk is very high – so we have an institution in South Africa called Technology Innovation Agency. It gets some annual budget, we’ve accepted that it goes in the early stage of innovation and is prepared to face risk. We are not going to take actions against entrepreneurs because there is a high failure of it. Because we know that out of 20 presented ideas 19 can go nowhere, but one can be the really winning idea.

Adrianna Brzozowska: So how this agency(Technology Innovation Agency) distinguish good project from other bad projects?

DH: At the end of the day a judgment should be made. People knowledgeable in the particular area have to make the judgment. The product may have to be tested so we do have a kind of a bureau of standards if it reaches that stage. The idea must contain some kind of scientific merit, if it’s something that is being tried and tested and there is kind of a doubt – all I’m trying to do is to put my name on it and then I say “you can do it but you have to do it on your own”. Because there is nothing novel and so on. You can’t put state money into anything and everything, you cannot. If there is genuinely different, more energy efficient housing design, for as an example. Or there is genuinely interesting idea on the development of a new application. There have to be some judgment and some research done. In fact there’s a surplus of such applications anyway. But the people looking at it will have to say “it’s very interesting”, we are very satisfied that there is a kind of market niche. It can give commuters an information in Cape Town when the next bus is going to arrive, after research we can find that there is no such application in that city. Then we say “excellent, we think that you have a good opportunity, we can fund you to take it to the next stage”.

EW: The last question is about innovation because this convention is about innovations and innovators. So what is your own definition of innovation, how could you describe it?

DH: I would agree with somebody because I keep reading definitions of innovation but I would say – the starting point is true but it goes beyond. Critical feature for innovation is underlying information and knowledge. But it’s taking existing knowledge and attaching to it creative thinking and creative ideas which will result in new, novel, useful product or service. I would like to go bit beyond that to say – innovation could be simply smarter ways of addressing problems, better ways of doing things, that’s innovation as well.

EW: Thank you very much.

DH: Thank you and good bye.

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