Innovation thrives on producing and competing locally

What you need to know:

  • Our universities don't work well with the private sector and the government, and we don’t collaborate enough with global partners.
  • The problem is that we put too much emphasis on technical expertise, while forgetting that professionals also need a whole range of non-technical, transferable skills.
  • Forget the nonsense that entrepreneurs are born. Several research projects attribute entrepreneurial success to learning.

The other day, I watched a CNN news clip about the groundbreaking ceremony for Cornell Tech's campus on New York City's Roosevelt Island.

This is a new campus of Cornell University dedicated exclusively to the applied sciences, with programs being offered collaboratively with Israel’s Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.

This was not just mere posturing by an American Ivy League university. The event symbolises an emerging academic revolution globally, which we must emulate if Africa is to leapfrog in its development. 

Higher education is changing – across the globe.  Universities are building schools of applied sciences to leverage emerging big data that promises new knowledge and products that will deal with current and future problems.

This was a visionary project started by the former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg.  At the ground-breaking ceremony, Cornell Tech and their academic partners, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology (Israel’s MIT), the oldest and most prestigious university in Israel, announced a $100 million gift from Bloomberg Philanthropies to help fund construction of the campus.  

The two institutions had earlier won the bid to build an applied sciences institution to foster high-tech entrepreneurship in the city.

In Singapore, policy makers and universities are focusing on biotechnology at a critical moment in history. While pharmaceutical and biotechnology businesses around the world are grappling with declining R&D productivity, the country’s Economic Development Board has spearheaded the development of an integrated research ecosystem that enables companies to access multidisciplinary capabilities in a single location.

This in turn improves R&D decision-making and accelerates drug discovery and development. More than 30 of the world’s leading biomedical sciences companies, including GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Takeda, are leveraging Singapore as a key home base to drive innovation, growing the nation’s biopharmaceutical industry by more than 30 per cent in 2011.

Two reports profiled innature.compredict that China will outspend the United States in research by 2020. The OECD Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2014 and the 2014 Global R&D Funding Forecast jointly published by the Battelle Memorial Institute, and R&D Magazine concur that China is on track to overtake the United States in research and development (R&D) spending by the end of the decade.

Other developing and middle-income countries are also narrowing their gap with the United States, Europe and Japan, according to these reports. Most of these countries want to be the ones to create the next Google, Facebook or Apple.  They know that knowledge is the source of wealth.

The big question is, does Africa know this? It is difficult to tell if you look at where the continent puts its money.  What is clear, however, is that Africa today stands a good chance of leapfrogging other regions in research, development and innovation to unimaginable levels. 

There are several factors that could change our fortunes within a short period of time. First, we must foster collaboration if we are to succeed.

Our mind-set is such that we would rather own 100 per cent of a half-baked idea that is worth Sh10 than contribute collaboratively in order to own 10 per cent of a Sh100 billion idea.

INTERDISCIPLINARY LEARNING

Our universities do not work well with both the private sector and the government, and we don’t collaborate enough with global partners. This disconnect is the source of our failure. 

Some of the research output is scattered.  It is for this very reason that Singapore and New York City are striving to build ecosystems that would enable innovation to take place.

Second, just like other universities are doing globally, we must begin to encourage interdisciplinary programs where the students do not just focus narrowly on one field.  We are killing innovation by offering narrowly-tailored programs that regurgitate roughly the same content year in year out.

Like Mugo Kibati says, if you want to disrupt the insurance industry, you don’t ask an insurance expert. An outsider is best placed to give a groundbreaking solution.

The trend globally is to encourage interdisciplinary teaching, which research shows, advances cognitive ability as well as the ability to recognise bias, think critically, tolerate ambiguity and acknowledge and appreciate ethical concerns. 

Most leading universities ensure that each and every student has had a course in critical thinking, as well as writing-intensive, reading-intensive  liberal arts and sciences courses with public speaking before they can graduate in their respective fields.

GOVERNMENT MUST RISK

This is not to say that our curriculum is not adequate. The problem is that we put too much emphasis on technical expertise, while forgetting that professionals also need a whole range of non-technical, transferable skills.

It is a credit to many of our students that they go ahead and acquire such skills pretty much on their own. To prepare them adequately for the future, we must emulate what is happening elsewhere.

Third, the government must be willing to take the initial risk in areas that have promise, but where the private sector may not be inclined to take such risks.

The investment in the undersea high-capacity Internet cable where the government took the initial risk is perhaps the best example. Out of that risk we now have lower-cost broadband that is spurring inclusive innovation. There are several other areas where such risk can be underwritten by the government.

There will be no progress without taking risk. Investment in the energy sector in Kenya, where much output capacity is needed, is filled with uncertainties; the private sector is unwilling to build large energy output due to unfounded fears of market failure. 

The government must therefore take the risk of producing upwards of 5,000 megawatts, leveraging economies of scale in order to lower the price of energy. This is what will stimulate inclusive innovations at grassroots level. The absence of infrastructure – energy, roads, and communications - is the biggest hindrance of innovation.

INITIAL MOMENTUM

Fourth, we must develop a can-do-it mind-set.  We are our own worst enemies when it comes to local innovation. Sometimes, we fight it outright. Take for example, the locally designed, tested and developed Wi-Fi hotspot router, BRCK.

We have had no ceremonies to celebrate the breakthrough, but are instead doing everything that needs to be done to kill the innovation through high taxes for local assembly. 

In other parts of the world, they would leverage such capacity to develop and expand local production of not just the routers, but also other Information and Communications Technologies, including the much-needed laptops for schools.

We must make the manufacture of BRCK possible just like other countries do by giving incentives to scale up production.  Our appetite for foreign-manufactured goods over equally competitive local solutions will never take our country through the learning curve of local production.  It is such production that breeds innovation.

We have the greatest opportunity now to create a global brand but it must be the local market that gives the product the initial momentum. We have seen this in mobile money and Ushahidi. 

We can choose to focus on building unique inclusive innovations or build a much broader strategy of innovation. The Asian Tigers used a mixed approach where they leveraged reverse engineering to build capacity, and after sometime, began to innovate. They combined these skills with their own home-grown innovations, built institutions and invested heavily on R&D. 

THE SUCCESS OF MIGRANTS

In other words if you want to build something, you must be doing something.  Never will you wake up one day and make a plane, and compete with the planes we use today, which have undergone many innovations. Innovation therefore is a process that takes time. We must start this process in all industries. 

Innovation and entrepreneurship are inseparable. We must exploit every new idea that pops up in our mind.  Kenya has lost a great deal in failing to commercialise some of its best creations.

When Peter Drucker wrote his book, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 1985, he discussed innovation and entrepreneurship under three main headings: 1) the practice of innovation (the means by which entrepreneurs exploit change as an opportunity for a different business or service); 2) the practice of entrepreneurship; and 3) entrepreneurial strategies.

Each of these is an “aspect” of innovation and entrepreneurship, rather than a stage. He wrote that systematic innovation involves the purposive search for sources of innovation.

Drucker refers to these sources of innovation as “windows” of opportunity. For example, the mobile revolution has become Kenya’s “window” of opportunity where we now have several innovations that have propelled our country to the global stage. 

In order to inculcate the culture of innovation, we must teach entrepreneurship at all levels. Forget the nonsense that entrepreneurs are born. Several research projects attribute entrepreneurial success to learning.

Other research points to problems as the source of innovation, that if you are pushed into a corner, you will come out of it.

Many studies around migrants show that their success is driven to some extent by the difficulties they encounter in new lands. That is why I often say that our blessings are the many problems we have.

Any solution to any one of the problems would lead to a disruptive innovation. We have the greatest opportunity to innovate and change the world but we must begin to do something.

START WITH ONE PRODUCT

The University of Nairobi has organised an Innovation Week for this coming August. The objective of this annual exercise is to bring together technology entrepreneurs, business start-ups, investors, and innovators, and to create an environment for collaboration and co-creation. This has been a missing link in our quest to develop inclusive innovation. 

There will be opportunities to discuss ideas with experts and possibly partner to develop new products. Innovation Week will showcase research from all other universities with the hope that industry will translate such research into products.  Perhaps collaborations will lead to specialised centers for applied research within universities.

This initiative by the new Vice Chancellor, Prof. Peter Mbithi, is aimed at demystifying what we think the university is today and opening a new chapter where the university is part of the everyday discourse in changing the world. It is a small start, but as Lao Tsu said, “The journey of one thousand miles begins with one step.”

As we move closer to Innovation Week, we must reflect on how to start collaborations especially between universities and non-academic centers like I-Hub to start building products we need today as a strategy of building capacity and new brands for our country. The industrialisation journey too begins with one product.

The writer is an Associate Professor at the University of Nairobi’s Business School. Twitter @bantigito

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