My friend Duncan wanted to teach Quantum Mechanics in the township. To me this was the equivalent of the story of the Mexican boy throwing starfish back into the sea. I thought I would rather be in industry, make things and create value. Little did I know this would become a trip into innovation and entrepreneurship, which has become a lurching Frankenstein monster.

I am frequently shocked by the divide between C-level executives and their project teams. In South African companies it is the CEO who has has the dream. She must take risks (innovate) to keep her business competitive. It is the techies who need to execute the plan and this is a comedy of errors of miscommunication. While techies are self righteous and avoid responsibility, executive-speak is a language that only C-level executives can speak, and plans that are not executable are good as useless. However, the gap between government technology managers and the real world is even larger than that in companies.

We are in this country blessed with a DST and a credible Minister. But consider for a moment the decision making process of a SET manager in government: in contrast to the DTI, they need to produce a return on investment on long-term nebulous criteria. To help themselves, they can speak to academics and consultancies, but there are problems with these conversations. On the other hand they can speak to successful innovators, but the problem with successful people is that they are the exception and not the rule.

And so they hit upon the idea of hiding behind innovation and entrepreneurship, as have the thinkers in many other countries. The fundamental problem about this programme is that it is supply side only, along with punting universities, pumping up accelerators and pandering to metrics.

The theory around innovation is mathematically justified. Schumpeter started this program about 90 years ago and it has received many iterations.

But Schumpeter also argued the importance of large companies with capital to invest in research and development of new products and services. Modern theorists such as Mariana Mazzucato agree but are slanted towards government. In fact the GSM family of technologies comes from the European Union (government) getting companies to cooperate. Even that famed device of private enterprise, the iPhone, came largely from government labs.

It is from this structure and management that innovation comes. The company that was founded in a one-car garage in Palo Alto by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard is an anti-pattern.

I am running perilously close to agreeing with a recent headline “adequate support and access to funding will ensure SMMEs’ success”. It is not the funding that makes companies successful (although that is useful), it is the access to markets. It is paying clients that drive innovation.

What we need to do is create a culture of consuming our own innovation. Instead in South Africa we get SMME’s competing against each other. SMME’s are experts at filling in forms.  The much vaunted new tender system is just terrible.

Supply and Demand. Cause and Effect. This is what is lacking in the Innovation discussion.


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