“It is only through collaboration between education, innovation and business that we will be able to take our country forward and make Cape Town a global African city of inspiration and innovation.”
So said Chris Whelan, CEO of business think-tank Accelerate Cape Town, at Friday’s Accelerate Cape Town Members’ Meeting sponsored by Deloitte. Whelan, who heads up the business organisation that counts more than 45 of South Africa’s largest corporates among its members, added that it is critical that innovation is approached as a collaborative effort. “Whether we’re developing a new product or building a future society, the key to unlocking our success as a city and country is innovation and partnership.”
Whelan was joined by Dr Vincent Maphai, Executive Director of Corporate Affairs and Transformation at SAB Miller Limited and former Chairman of BHP Billiton Southern Africa. Maphai who also acts as the Education Commissioner on the National Planning Commission, detailed the key requirements for growing talent in the country in terms of what inspired the thinking of the NPC.
Capacity of the state
Maphai said that in democracies, the government is a reflection of its society. “If we are unhappy about our government’s actions, we must remember that we as civil society elected them to their positions of power. For us to succeed as a nation and be able to become the shapers of our future, we need to step up and start taking our role in the country very seriously.”
He added that active citizenry should be combined with strong leadership in order to create a government that is able to take decisions that they can also implement. “Madiba is a perfect example. His views were not based on scoring political points or promoting his own interests, but rather on what is best for the country as a whole.”
Challenge of Job Creation and Lack of Education
Maphai said that the NPC is faced with a massive dual challenge of creating jobs while also overcoming the struggling education system. He stated that while he’s in favour of the current Outcome Based Education system, the country is in dire need of well-trained, committed teachers.
“We don’t have enough skilled workers in the country, and the skills that are available come with a hefty price tag. Until we attend to the mess in education, we can forget about dealing with the issues of inequality that the unions keep talking about.”
According to Maphai, there are ways in which to bring positive change to the country. “If you’re a major company like SAB, you are fortunate enough to have a strong supply chain that enables you to train people and empower them to come and work for you. This is one contribution to addressing the disaster we are facing of a shrinking tax base and growing social grants handouts. But we should also look at requiring the individuals who receive social grants to run the gardens and bake bread in schools and then utilise the money allocated to school feeding on more important items.
“In this country, we don’t need more money or resources, of which we have more than enough. Instead, we need greater resourcefulness, especially in the form of political and social innovation.”
Innovation is critical to a vibrant and productive society
Maphai was joined by Dr Julius Akinyemi, head of the MIT Media Laboratory and chief adjudicator of the Innovation Prize for Africa. Akinyemi said that the mission for schools is to educate students and create new capabilities, but added that most schools fail woefully on the latter aspect. “Innovation is the enabler for creating new capabilities, allowing you to make a social impact by improving efficiencies in the environment or the lives of individuals. This focus on innovation creates an entrepreneurial environment that is very nurturing and empowering to people, leading the creation of businesses, jobs and an environment that enables us to move forward.”
Innovation in Africa
He said that, in terms of the state of innovation in Africa, the problem lies not with a lack of innovation but rather in creating a nurturing environment that allows innovators to be productive. “Businesses have an important role to play. Joint innovative development, for example, creates an opportunity for the research and development team to collaborate and work side by side with businesses, incubators and venture funds in a highly productive environment. A perfect example of this model in action is Workshop 17, the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business innovation hub based at the V&A Waterfront.”
Akinyemi added that innovation should not stop after the first positive result has been achieved. “Through constant innovation you are able to find out more about your company – what works and what doesn’t. This re-innovation process creates jobs as well as a nurturing environment and better profitability.”
In closing, Whelan said that determining the strategy, plan and call to action around fostering a culture of innovation in Cape Town will be a key point on his organisation’s agenda going forward. “We need an active citizenry and a strong government and business sector driven by innovation and partnership to further progress this city and truly achieve our objective of making Cape Town a world class destination for talented people to work and live in.”
Media release 13 May 2013 from Accelerate Cape Town.
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