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Developing Innovation Ecosystems in Africa – A new Approach to Economic Growth, Sustainability and Social Inclusion

In the last decades modern science has significantly accelerated the speed of technological change. Science and technology nowadays determine more than ever the competitiveness of countries and the welfare of peoples. However, it is not always fully appreciated how to stimulate and steer the complex processes from invention to innovation. Yet, as the countries at the top of the innovation or global competitiveness ranking show, governments and companies can create systemic conditions to stimulate innovation.

Innovation does not follow linear processes but combines predictable and unpredictable actions and re-actions among many actors. It must be seen like an ecosystem:  a complex of naturally interacting organisms, functioning with non-linear dynamics and feedbacks. An ecosystem of innovation aims to emulate these dynamics.

The key objective of an ecosystem of innovation is to create value for society, by enhancing the quality of life of its citizens and the competitiveness of its enterprises. This is achieved through the intelligent interaction between economic actors (large and small companies and other entities), public governance systems (AU, regional market organisations, and Member states), and universities and other centres of knowledge. To create demand-driven value, these actors are required to permanently scan the global context, scout for opportunities, and think outside the box.

A few African countries have made it to a medium level in international innovation and competitiveness rankings. Although there is still much effort and innovative thinking needed, this is an indication that an innovative African economy can be achieved.

If African governments want to stimulate innovation, they should focus on creating the adequate framework conditions. Although Africa is not lacking in capacities, certain challenges persist such as the absence of a system approach, organisational fragmentation, bureaucratisation, and the persistence of multiple barriers to innovation in markets.

Furthermore, innovation policy is often mixed up with research policy, which is in fact only one element of innovation policies. It will require a whole government approach, close collaboration with business and the exploitation of new sources of growth, such as emerging industries or the circular economy, to create an innovation environment.

The following steps should be considered to start building an innovation ecosystem which will have a better chance to succeed in delivering results.

  • Leadership 

Clear and consistent leadership will be needed to create the framework conditions to facilitate innovation. It can come from any public authority, urban or regional, national, regional or continental, but it requires an approach of collaborative governance. This demands a departure from a legalistic culture of power preservation towards a cooperative and result-oriented culture. Africa’s age old communal cultures should in fact be helpful to develop bottom-up innovation, instead of only relying on imported models of governance.   

  • Foresight and assessment of paradigm shifts

Correctly assessing change is a difficult task in business and government because of a tendency to compare to the past. It is therefore essential to develop a realistic cognitive map, based on an assessment of the interacting developments. This must be done externally, through a network of centres of knowledge. The resulting scan of innovation challenges in Africa should be formulated solution neutral.

  • Thinking the unthinkable

In any governance system, there is a risk that the established policy paradigms will dominate critical re-examination. Therefore, a new approach is needed to respond to the paradigm shifts, and to challenge conventional wisdom about who should proceed how in order to achieve results. In Africa this means not only to catch up in sectors of high innovation and rapid productivity growth, but also in traditional sectors, and obviously in public governance, where policies and accumulation of rules are the main cause of this lack of competitiveness. The covid-crisis has also brought new attention for high risk – low probability events, which require specific research, ideally from the AU, given that they are likely to be common to the continent.

  • Strategic capability development

In order to align the contrasting, open and hidden interests of stakeholders, it is necessary to develop a learning mind-set. Whereas leadership is often assumed in Europe, the complexity of ecosystem steering requires it to be developed first. It will be necessary to move beyond a culture of regulation and control and towards a culture of mentoring and coaching of all stakeholders. Stewardship tools are more suited to promote a culture of innovation and of change among various actors than traditional command and control approaches.

  • Ensuring coherence

Coherence is a key ingredient to bring cumulative effects in an innovation ecosystem and demands an overall perspective. In order to ensure a focus on the mega-issues, to avoid their absorption in policy-as-usual, to create serendipity, an experimental attitude and risk taking, innovation must be steered centrally. It must be an overarching objective to which all other must converge.

  • Ensuring stakeholder engagement

To properly assess the paradigm shifts, it is essential to involve the economic actors alongside the centres of knowledge, who often possess an understanding of market needs, second to none. This demands the development of a deliberation culture and requires consistent efforts from those in government, business and science, to promote a scientific approach in the education systems and through the media and to reform rules and accountability.

  • Implementation

The relationship between different administrative units within government, and between them in regional markets, the different interfaces between politicians and civil servants, and finally but not least, the capacity problems, need urgent addressing in order to facilitate the emergence and functioning of an innovation ecosystem. This requires equal capabilities throughout governance systems and a re-thinking of personnel policy to bring new qualities into public services.    

  • Evaluation

Regular peer review, scrutiny of process and evaluation of results by independent experts, is essential to ensure firmness of purpose and agility of methodologies. Experimentation with fundamentally new methods and a certain tolerance for failure are preconditions for constant learning under circumstances of uncertainty and for the creation of an innovation ecosystem.

Stefan Schepers