Wesley Diphoko, Online Editor,Business Report (02 June 2017)
THIS YEAR (2017) the South African Innovation Summit, which is a platform for nurturing, developing and showcasing African innovation, as well as facilitating innovation thought-leadership, celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Created to support and promote innovation and facilitate collaboration within its own eco-system, the initiative brings together corporates, thought leaders, inventors, entrepreneurs, academia and policy makers to amplify South Africa’s competitive edge and to inspire sustained economic growth across Africa.

Speaking at the summit, which was held in Cape Town this week, its founder Dr Audrey Verhaeghe called on more economic stakeholders to work together to enable innovation in South Africa.

The three elements that could shape South African innovation in the next 10 years were enablers, creators and implementers, she said.

One enabler would be the government and its policies.

Although the government has institutions that drive innovation, such as the Ministry of Science and Technology as well as its Technology Innovation Agency, this was not enough for the government itself to innovate.

As much as the government developed innovators through its initiatives, there was a need for the government to apply innovation in terms of how it functioned and how it served its people.

Innovation was often also viewed as the application of better solutions that met new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing ones. The government could do better by applying innovation.

Current major challenges could be alleviated if innovation was applied across the board within the government.

The Obama administration applied innovation in solving some of its challenges. Innovation became part of how Obama’s administration functioned and how it served the citizens.

Todd Park, who became a leading figure in innovating within Obama’s government, conducted a programme, which was known as the Presidential Innovation Fellows in 2012.

It brought together bright young technologists into the government for a 12-month period to innovate within.

Graduates of this programme were deployed into government agencies on a project basis.

The role of technology in Obama’s government moved up on the punch list in 2013 due to a new crisis: the Healthcare.gov fiasco.

When the president’s key legislative achievement was mortally threatened by a non-functioning website, as a health technology entrepreneur, Park was approached to recruit a team of technologists and innovators.

Before joining Obama’s government, Park had started two medical IT companies that at the time were valued at more than $1billion (R12.86bn) and that experience inspired his invitation to innovate within the government.

Park recruited Michael “Mikey” Dickerson from Google, as well as a half-dozen other engineers. This small team, working around the clock in Maryland, fixed the site in seven hectic weeks.

The efforts of this team saved the president’s health-care initiative and it also showed Obama’s administration the impact of just a handful of deeply talented technologists and innovators could have on the government’s functionality.

It also prompted the thinking of infusing a technology and innovation talent team within the country to become permanent. The purpose of this team was to remake the digital systems by which the government operated, to implement the kind of efficiency and agility and effectiveness that define Silicon Valley’s biggest successes, across everything from revenue management to immigration services.

Some South African government departments have done well in terms of implementing innovation within the government.

One government department that comes to mind is the Treasury with its eFiling system. Similar innovation approaches are required in other government departments as well. Institutions such as the State Information Technology Agency are not doing a great job in this regard.

Currently there are major challenges that require innovation intervention.

One such challenge is the water challenge.

Here’s an example of how water innovation can alleviate the challenge.

At Stellenbosch University Dr Thinus Booysen invented Geasy, which provides information about a household use of water. Experience of using the tool has shown that when householders know about their water consumption levels it improves their use of water.

Intervention

Imagine if every citizen was informed of their water usage daily.

An innovation intervention within the government can make such functionality possible. There’s no shortage of challenges that require innovation.

There’s also no shortage of young innovators to come up with solutions to these challenges.

What is missing is the innovation leadership within the government.

An Innovation Ministry can be one way of infusing innovation within the government through a team of innovation leaders, policy and strategy.

Such a ministry would have to bring together local innovators and technologists to work with people who understand government processes very well.

A government innovation policy would have to be outlined and strategy developed to be implemented by the innovation team.

The process of getting an Innovation Ministry up and running will take time or may never happen. But for now it is important to have a clear idea of innovators who have solutions for specific challenges and they will continue to be the focus of The Infonomist.

Wesley Diphoko is the head of Independent Media’s Digital Lab and founder of Kaya Labs.