Innovation is an imperative for developing countries that seek to balance economic growth with redistribution of wealth and effective provision of essential public goods, such as education, housing and health. Innovation can be defined as the production, diffusion and use of new and economically useful knowledge; this requires intentional effort and investment and is not restricted to radical innovation or activities at the technological frontier. The strategies used in the developing world involve capability building and technological upgrading for which learning processes are critical inputs.
Innovation strategies matter for development. Countries as diverse as Korea, Singapore, and Ireland have demonstrated that paying attention to these policies can make a difference. Innovation strategies help countries deal with structural changes in their economies, and enable them to better respond to external challenges, especially in the nature of international markets and trade regimes. The success of a countries’ response can be shown to rely on its ability to acquire and use new technology and to master new knowledge. This ability does not so much rely upon basic science but depends on the efficient unfolding of various learning processes. Innovation itself is not a smooth process but is full of uncertainty and must be managed. Effective innovation systems consist of a web of interacting and interconnected agents and institutions, including private sector firms, universities, research centres and policy institutions. There is an imperative to manage the technological and institutional change inherent in innovation in a way that promotes development. Africa presents specific challenges and opportunities, many of which differ from other developing country regions.
There is an urgent need to increase focus on innovation and to realign strategies so that science, technology and innovation align with a human development agenda. The contribution that this symposium will make is to explicitly connect the innovation studies agenda to development debates and to offer the specific context of Africa and South Africa as an empirical laboratory for investigating aspects of innovation studies practice at national and regional levels.