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Research & Innovation

Discourse on innovation sparks lively debate

Making sense of innovation, from left: Mr Simphiwe Duma (Technology Innovation Agency), Prof Peter Vale (University of Johannesburg), Prof Mamokgethi Setati (session chairperson) and Prof Jan Eloff (SAP Meraka Unit for Technology Development)
Making sense of innovation, from left: Mr Simphiwe Duma (Technology Innovation Agency), Prof Peter Vale (University of Johannesburg), Prof Mamokgethi Setati (session chairperson) and Prof Jan Eloff (SAP Meraka Unit for Technology Development)

The first panel discussion at Unisa’s Research & Innovation Week took place in the Senate Hall on Monday 12 March 2012. The well-attended session was entitled “What is innovation? Does it mean different things to different people? Is something innovation only because it is patentable? Should all innovations be commercialised?”

Session chairperson, Prof Mamokgethi Setati (Vice-Principal: Research &  Innovation) introduced the topic by saying that the words “innovation”, “invention”, “creativity” and “entrepreneurship” are often used interchangeably and are invariably viewed in a positive light. This is because many of us associate innovation with new ideas and technologies that bring major benefits – light in darkened homes, cures for diseases, employment, wealth, and so on. But, she said, it is also well worth considering whether there is an undesirable side to innovation. Prof Setati expressed the hope that the panel discussion would serve to illuminate this aspect.

The panellists then delivered their presentations. Mr Simphiwe Duma, Chief Executive Officer of government’s Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), spoke about policy choices in the South African innovation landscape and said that many of the problems experienced with innovation lie in policy.

He explained that the TIA had been formed in response to a need for a long-term planning framework for innovation. The agency essentially endeavours to bridge the innovation “chasm” that separates research (ideas) and manufacturing (the market) through a number of interventions, thus enhancing the country’s global competitiveness with regard to innovation.

Prof Jan Eloff, Director of Research at the SAP Meraka Unit for Technology Development (UTD), defined an innovation as an invention that has entered the economic system. He went on to describe different types of innovation (product, process, radical and incremental innovation), and concluded that innovation does not have a dark side since it makes research relevant.

Peter Vale, Professor of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg, explained author Don Watson’s concept “weasel words”, essentially words from which all meaning have been sucked due to overuse. Unfortunately, he said, “innovation” is one such word (others include “governance”, “transparency” and “accountability”). Prof Vale disagreed with the view held by the other two panellists that innovation is of necessity linked to commercially viable applications, and said that innovation (which he equated with imagination) must also address major social issues such as infant mortality and education even if there is no money to be made from such innovation solutions.

The question-and-answer segment at the end of the session provided further interesting (and often opposing) views, and this panel discussion certainly set the tone for what promises to be a very interesting week.

*Written by Philip van der Merwe