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“Fear is the ultimate enemy of innovation and progress”

What’s going on globally?

“Size doesn’t always matter, sometimes quality is better” – a pattern of thinking, steadily replacing the ‘bigger is better’ philosophy.  Bigger is better is not only unsustainable but a fallacy. For example new Mega-malls, an established trend in South Africa, have been declining in the US, and even banned in some states, as they are shown to have negative socio-economic impacts (especially on town centres). “Gas guzzlers” are slowly being replaced by hybrid electric vehicles, as a sign of socio-technical shifts. Shifts in perceptions and attitudes about our direction of development is taking place now, all over the world, towards one of sustainable development through innovation. Stellenbosch is primly placed to lead this shift. In some cases we need to play catch-up, and in other cases, we are even in a position to create the trend!

Another major transformation in thinking in the USA, is the live, work, play concept that takes mobility and liveability very seriously. Cities such as Los Angeles have strongly adopted transport oriented development (known as TOD) which puts people, their liveability and their movement at the centre of development. The psychology behind this goes as deep as an understanding of how people feel when they walk past two city blocks, how pavements have been designed, and how green spaces influence psychological health and well-being (check out the TEDx Talk by Jeff Speck on The General Theory of Walkability). Although once famed slogans of an ‘unlimited USA’ is most probably still the majority thinking, it is shifting, it has learnt the hard way from its mistakes and the ‘bigger is better’ thinking is slowly waning. Americans realize it’s much more about clever planning, and human-centred design of its city spaces. There is a huge trend now to transform impersonal concrete jungles created for personal mobility freedom of the gas guzzlers of the 80’s and 90’s into cities that cater for people. Barcelona shifted its entire economic strategy, and did pretty well since, around the concept of the walkable and people-centred city. The point to be made here is that as thinking shifts, so does the design of our cities and spaces and what goes with it, is innovation, productivity and progress. A large scale societal shift in thinking is the ultimate driver of innovation. Fear of change and risk-taking, leads to institutional and cultural rigidity, uncreative stagnation, and this rigidity is the ultimate enemy of innovation!

The fabric of urban life is changing in the USA, and many other cities and towns across the world. Especially new, fast developing countries and urbanizing spaces are considering what Europe has known through trial and error over centuries. Cities and urban spaces are about people, they are about living in them, they are about being productive, and what tops the list is enjoying life together. The more people within a city or town interact through, song, dance, sharing experiences and life the more a common culture and identity is shaped. Design of infrastructure and city spaces, to live, work, play and move about in, are extremely important in making the place work for the various communities that develop within them. Communities within cities and towns are a natural phenomenon - be they cultural communities, lifestyle communities, gay communities, creative communities, business communities, entrepreneurial communities, sporting communities etc. (Read rise of the creative class by Richard Florida). The city itself, not only its infrastructure but also its governance should be able to emphasize and celebrate communities – this is in fact the key to developing innovation and entrepreneurial communities. Examples of this abound, in cities and towns of the world, and arise as co-working spaces, food gardens, parks, civic centres, smart libraries, public wifi hotspots, open-plan offices, shared and mixed-use street spaces, urban art spaces, collectively forming part of the new culture and urban fabric of live, work, play and now innovate. These latter more spatially ‘superficial’ trends are now also becoming more fundamental within the design and re-design of city and town economies.

Innovation cities and innovation districts are the new kid on the block in most major metro’s in the USA. A recent report by the Brookings institute entitled “Innovation Districts: The rise of the new urban Geography of America” shows how science is moving into city centres – known as innovation districts. Silicon Valley is the ultimate innovation district, but in terms of growth of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) workers, its growth rate is challenged by places like: Silicon Beach Innovation District in LA; Boston Innovation District and the research triangle on the East Coast; Austin in Texas and Seattle. In each of these regions and districts, the innovation economy is measure by the following factors: Assets, innovation processes, outcomes and prosperity. Assets include talent, capital, research and development, and universities, which are critical inputs for innovation. Innovation processes include, idea generation, commercialization, entrepreneurship and business innovation which is a process requiring system builders and knowledge exchange. Outcomes include improved business productivity and competitiveness, and expands the reach of business and influences ultimately driving the regional economy and creating more jobs. It has been estimated that one STEM job, creates another six supporting jobs such as lawyers, bankers, teachers or bus drivers. The latter enhances general prosperity including the region’s assets. (Reference: Silicon valley competitiveness and innovation project 2015. Silicon Valley Leadership Group.) What is also extremely important is lifestyle and work-life quality. This includes getting to and from work, cost of housing, living and transport all of which are very tangible factors in luring knowledge workers to a place. Hence destination, and branding of a place or district is so important as the concept or ‘banner’ begins to reify, or happen because it has been labelled as such. Thus marketing and urban-space branding plays a significant role in urban place-making, and is a science or art yet to be fully developed.

While the US is catching-on now, and is fast adopting the innovation district and systems of innovation approach, it remains isolated to a few innovation-oriented cities. The EU, however, has been adopting a union-wide approach for some time, albeit at a slower and more gradual pace. The European Union has dubbed itself the “Innovation Union” becoming the central development and economic growth ontology of Europe. It put innovation at the forefront to confront their structural weaknesses and promote: smart growth, based on knowledge and innovation; sustainable growth, promoting a more resource efficient, greener and competitive economy; inclusive growth, fostering a high employment economy delivering economic, social and territorial cohesion. (Reference: Guide to research and innovation strategies for smart specializations 2010. EU Commission.)

Its leaders figured the only way it can compete globally as a regional economic trade bloc, is to lead in innovation. The innovation union, is not only political speak it is backed up by tangible strategies and policies to enhance current science, research and development spending. But it goes further than that, countries in Europe have strongly adopted national innovation systems, and regional innovation systems in unison with a policy called “regional smart specialization”.  What this means is, there is an (innovation) plan for multiple (economic) plans that are integrated and complementary. The plan for development is all about how components of the economy fit together. Knowledge, and knowledge production is at the epicentre of this plan – also known as the ‘knowledge economy’ which leads to innovation at national levels. What Europe realized some time ago, is that globally the various industrial revolutions have come and gone. Where the planet is at now, is in creating and capturing the flow of knowledge, information and the ability to learn and adopt in our societies. This means it’s about developing places, spaces and infrastructures that are geared towards riding this new wave of the knowledge and information era. 

It is often argued that Europe and America are already developed, and hence can afford transformation towards the knowledge economy as they have already gone through their industrialization and development. True, in many a sense. But what is often misperceived is that in the background both USA and EU continue to promote an extremely strong manufacturing base for their economy. This strength lies not in its size, but in its quality, and ability to transform, learn and adopt new methods and techniques so as to innovate. What regional and smart specialization is about is not at all about replacing industrial development – quite the contrary. It is in fact precisely about enhancing the means of production, making it more efficient, creating new industries altogether, it’s about new technological knowledge, it’s essentially all about innovation and staying one step ahead of the game. The knowledge economies, and the innovation union is about building into the existing economy and production structures a means to improve, progress and enhance the existing production and manufacturing systems. Clustering, and finding ways in which science can support and improve the performance of industry clusters also forms a core part of the smart specialization strategy. In fact a major portion (about a quarter) of the EU’s GDP income is from manufacturing, which often go hand in hand with services making up the majority of income. Comparatively South Africa’s income from manufacturing is a lot lower than this quarter mark, accounting for around 15% of GDP (Statssa.org).

While the USA and EU are leading the way globally in adopting country, region and city innovation strategies, other nations of the world are fast catching up. Those nations that are able to keep up with the global trends and seek to position themselves uniquely within the global economy will most likely succeed. But this success is underpinned by bold and organized steps to shifting their economies economically, socially, environmentally through technological and institutional re-design, to support innovation and the knowledge economy. City-wide Innovation strategies have resulted in innovation districts that become the engines and catalysts for wider socio-economic change and advancement.

Organizing in this manner may seem like a simple task, but it is certainly not, especially in a complex and heterogeneous society like South Africa. It requires government, universities, business, NGO’s and societies to work in collaboration for the same goal, and to support each other in achieving it. What however, underpins success in those countries that are able to organize themselves economically through innovation strategies is a strong sense of imagining the future, planning for that, and putting in place a longer-term strategy trying to avoid political derailment. Governments and politicians should create the legislative frameworks, the political will, and provide leadership and finance in supporting the private sector and universities to achieve the goals collectively. Innovation should not be about politics, and politicians should stay out of it – their only role should be to support its success and ensure those with the skills and capabilities to achieve the collective goals are supported. This is something that South Africa has attempted, with some mixed results. Below I extrapolate on the difficulties and complexities of planning, leadership and creating the conditions for a collective vision to achieve modernization of South Africa’s economy. I use Stellenbosch and the attempts to develop it as the country’s first true innovation district as an example of these complexities and difficulties. After painting a picture of the problematic, I propose a solution as a process to achieve the desired goals of developing Stellenbosch as an innovation district. Lastly I describe what a successful innovation district could look like, how it may function and its benefit to the regional economy – and to South Africa for that matter.

A reflection on the development of an innovation district in Stellenbosch

A brief history of the South African National Innovation System

South Africa was one of the first countries in the world to adopt what is called a national innovation system. Which is primarily a national policy, and mechanism to understand and control how the science system, government and industry not only complement each other but work together to achieve a more competitive and innovative national economy. This all began in 1996 with a white paper on Science and Technology. This ushered in an era of various national innovation and research strategies including: the technology foresight strategy (1999); National biotech strategy (2001); National R&D strategy (2002); the creation of the Department of Science and Technology (2003); National Energy R&D strategy; Nanotech strategy (2006); and probably most importantly the 10 year innovation plan (2008) which for the first time stressed the transformation of the economy from a resources-based to a knowledge economy. The Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) was also created in 2008 to assist in early stage funding of technology. The functioning and governance of the South African national system of innovation or SANSI, was found to be weak, and it was not achieving its goals. A turning point in South Africa’s innovation system approach was due to involvement of the Finnish government in a strategic bilateral agreement to assist South Africa with its national innovation system. This was officially called the Co-operation framework on innovation systems between Finland and South Africa (COFISA). One of the core findings of this programme, was that regional innovation system strategies should be implemented, that in turn may enhance the national innovation system functioning. Several studies were conducted, with two studies focusing on the Western Cape.Reference: Please see publication “Enhancing Innovation in South Africa: The COFISA Experience – DST 2010” The one study in particular focused on understanding the feasibility of establishing Science and Technology park development in the Western Cape, and looked specifically at Technopark and Stellenbosch. (Reference: Please see “Report on the findings of Pre-feasibility study into establishing Science Park Activity  in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape Provinces – COFISA 2007”.)  The findings concluded that Stellenbosch was a very good candidate for the development of an innovation strategy, and that Technopark should develop further as an innovation hub.

TechnoPark (Photo by Pieter van Heyningen)

Brief background to Technopark

Technopark was originally conceived of as a Science Park in the late 1970’s when Prof Christo Viljoen, then dean of the engineering faculty at Stellenbosch University, went to Taiwan. There he visited Shinshu Science Park, one of the world’s revered successes. He brought over the concept to Stellenbosch, and managed to obtain buy-in from the local and national government. The park was established in 1985, and was supported by the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and housed an incubator and innovation lab. The park was managed by a committee and the local municipality. The entering of firms into the park was very slow for numerous reasons, including rigid control and a poor business community understanding of the concept and benefit of a science park. Other external factors such as an economic slowdown forced the management to allow it to become market-oriented in the 1990’s and the strict criteria of firms entering the park were relaxed. Today the park is well developed, albeit not as a traditional science park, and consists of a variety of businesses ranging from satellite manufacturers, engineering, banks and finance institutions to design academies. There are a number of Internet & Communications Technology, (ICT) businesses, technology engineering firms, financing firms and more.

The park consists of over two-hundred individual businesses, of which many are owners of their own properties and buildings in the park. Technopark remains zoned as a special zone-one, or science park – where each property divides the municipal land. Thus the municipal land, and open areas were meant for parks and recreation to be serviced by the municipality.

My experience in developing the Stellenbosch Innovation District Concept

The above background facts provided the basis and rationale for focusing my PhD research on Technopark and Stellenbosch, and understanding its role in the regional innovation system of the Western Cape. The aim was to further the work of COFISA, and to comprehend how Stellenbosch could achieve the status of becoming an innovation district in line with global best practice. My personal motivation for doing this research was the deep interest in creating a centre  of scientific and innovation excellence that could put South Africa on the map (one of several). I started this work in 2010, and worked closely with the then management of the park, called the Technopark Owners Association (TPOA). After initial engagement with the TPOA , the Municipality and University I began to recognize the social complexities that existed between these institutional organizations. The kind of research I did (Transdisciplinary and action research), was specifically to try and not only find a theoretical solutions, but to find practical ones together that could be implemented. I thus formed a public participation project called “Transforming Technopark” which was used to develop a future vision for Technopark i.e. to transform it back into a functional innovation hub. Many hours of individual meetings with the municipality, the university, and the TPOA were held; several public visioning workshops were held; and even a forum called the “Sustainable Innovation Stellenbosch Network” was launched and several breakfast meetings were held to discuss innovation in Stellenbosch. Finally, a public workshop was held in Technopark, on the 4th of June in 2010 to establish the future vision for Technopark. It was decided that Technopark would benefit from becoming a sustainability-oriented innovation hub. This vision was later refined over almost a two year engagement process, working with the TPOA more generally, allowing a strategy for Technopark to emerge. The vision for Technopark was finally established as: “To enable and create a sustainable, vibrant and active innovation community”, with the aim of it becoming a fully functional, and sustainability-oriented innovation hub.

In terms of my research the focus on Technopark was not yet over, as I had gained considerable insights into global best practice and read (as is expected from a PhD candidate) very deeply into innovation, innovation systems and sustainable development theory. I also was lead to studying the successes and failures of technology parks in South Africa, and globally – which allowed for rich and valuable insights of how to solve and develop a solution and strategy for Stellenbosch as an innovation district. The core of this understanding was that Science and Technology parks were an outdated concept, and primarily failed in South Africa due to the neglect of managing the innovation eco-system they were meant to host. Time and time again, we see the same mistake being made in other parts of the country, where Technology parks are being developed as real-estate developments without putting equal focus on developing the local innovation eco-system. Out of this knowledge, the Stellenbosch Innovation District concept was born, which now reflects back to the national and regional innovation system strategies of the Department of Science and Technology (DST). The DST, requested me to provide them with a proposal for developing the concept of the Stellenbosch Innovation District – and some money was granted to do this. The official launch of SID took place on the 26th of October in 2012 – with the primary aim of developing the local innovation system and developing a concept for the future of Stellenbosch as an innovation district.

Considerable progress was made for this initiative between 2012 and 2014, with two major international conferences (over 400 delegates) that were aimed at introducing the concept of innovation to the Stellenbosch community. In between this, several smaller workshops and events were also held focusing on aspects such as Smart Cities, waste, ICT and the future of Technopark. They were regarded as very successful, especially in highlighting the challenges various communities in Stellenbosch faced. In addition, deliverables for the DST, whom had contracted the University, included developing a master concept document, business case and feasibility study into developing Stellenbosch as an innovation district. Out of this spawned a website, a full communications and marketing plan and several other strategy documents to enhance and begin to build the local innovation system of Stellenbosch. The concept and strategy, was all about inclusion, and recognized the need to build connections between different communities in Stellenbosch. This included the wealthy and poorer communities, the research and business and local government. The slogan of SID became, “Turning Challenges into Opportunities” through “Connecting, Innovating and Sustaining”. The idea was for SID to become an exchange platform whereby local challenges could be matched with local and global (or external) solutions and resources. The idea behind and vision for SID is to build and develop an inclusive and sustainability-oriented local innovation system for Stellenbosch. In practical terms what this means, is that society, researchers, entrepreneurs and innovators, small and big business and the Municipality should work collectively on identifying challenges and solving them together. The role of SID, would then be to provide platforms and tools to facilitate this process, and highlight successes. This idea was called the innovation exchange, a platform to enhance the processes of collaboration and assist in the matching process. This does not just happen, it requires various drivers, and a platform to facilitate exchange. This platform was envisioned to be continuous building of community engagements, events, workshops, challenge competitions and pitches, and an online system tool.

Getting to this point was not easy, and involved hours and hours of time and effort from several different stakeholders. You may then be wondering, why is SID not flourishing as the concept, strategy and effort was completely in line with what COFISA had recommended. The reality is that some mistakes were made, in trying to achieve the SID concept and build the local innovation system. But as they say in Silicon Valley, “fail forward!” The idea was launched with a bang, and may have caught the University and Municipality off-guard. And here comes the lesson, the concept and culture did not match. Stellenbosch was not yet ready, and was not mature enough institutionally to play along, and support the initiative – instead both the University and Municipality played a wait and see game. They were fixated on bureaucratic processes and questions of mandate, proper stakeholder engagement plans etc. More perplexing, however, was the radical and unfounded politicization and ego-politics that ensued, which hampered and scuppered the real progress that was in fact being made. Certain politicians, decided that utilizing the idea of Stellenbosch becoming an innovation district was a grand idea for political grandstanding. What took place was a duplication of efforts, and the Stellenbosch Innovation Capital was born, as a competing concept – with essentially the same ideals! The latter unfortunately amounted to none, and has since, after the elections not surprisingly evaporated. The innovation capital, launched by the Municipality was unfortunate, in the sense that it positioned itself as a competing ideal and vision for Stellenbosch. It could have been (and can still be) exactly what the SID initiative and efforts require(d) to propel it to success. Instead it was rooted in blatant ego politics, without any strategy and without any sound research basis, substance or operational plan. What is worse is, it created divisions in society, and in the municipality and an unwillingness of large organizations and institutions to support either initiative. The primary political personality has now since left the Stellenbosch municipality which allows for the next lesson in achieving innovation for success – perseverance.

Above an advertisement of collaboration with the Municipality on Waste.

SID event on Smart Cities for Africa, the Crowd.

Western Cape Minister of Economic Development and Tourism Alan Winde, and Deputy Executive Mayor Martin Smuts, as guest speakers in support of the notion of developing Stellenbosch as an Innovation District.

Here is a depiction of the social connections, and different communities of the innovation district. Those of business, academia, and developing communities (please note this is only a conceptual representation).

Above is a graphic harvest of the visioning workshop that was produced by over 200 participants from the Stellenbosch Business communities, the Municipality, the University and Stellenbosch community.

The Stellenbosch Innovation District opportunity 2.0

While the political side-lining of SID, by the former “regime” took place, SID was essentially driven underground, and much work was done by a small team to ensure the correct institutional buy-in for SID to succeed. Work was done to set up a steering committee, involving a wider set of institutional stakeholders, and innovation experts including the Economic Development Partnership (Western Cape Government), the Cape Higher Education Consortium (CHEC), the University of Stellenbosch, a municipal representative, and other experts. The formation of a legal entity to drive SID, was also a request from the Department of Science and Technology to channel any future funding. This process took over a year to complete. 

A mature approach to SID 2.0 would of course be to ensure that a more stable and solid institutional support is in place. The vision of transitioning Stellenbosch into an innovation district should not be lost since it has a long trajectory of development starting with the COFISA report a decade ago. The opportunity now, is to consolidate lessons learnt, of both failures and successes in developing Stellenbosch as an innovation district. The innovation capital should remain a programme of support from the Municipality, and the opportunity exists to develop the municipality into a model local government institution that runs professionally and is willing to support change.

The vision of SID, which was politically rebranded by the Municipality as the Stellenbosch Innovation Capital, should thus not be seen as entirely unfortunate. The positive must be extracted in this learning process. The “Innovation Capital Initiative” served the purpose of awakening the local municipal authorities into exploring ways in which it could be more innovative as a municipality. The wise approach now, would be for the new leadership (and that is a direct friendly challenge to the new Mayor) to assess what has been done, and develop a solid stance on how it can further support the SID initiative as a municipality (and if it so wishes continue the innovation capital, as its brand). The key here is about putting in place agreements for collaboration, both informally and formally. This will require strong leadership in facilitation from the Municipality, the new Mayor and her newly elected councillors, to ensure the University and business communities, including Technopark and their visions are aligned. The implications and opportunity of its success is greater than most may imagine.

The opportunity for the University of Stellenbosch, to support SID more boldly also now exists. SID is after all an initiative that was birthed out of one of its departments. The opportunity should be seen to align SID to the developing administrative goals for transformation of the University itself.  There now is an opportunity for Stellenbosch University to ramp up its efforts to become an innovation focused university, through developing better University-Industry partnerships for innovation on its own doorstep. This is in progress, but it is far from what it could be, especially in terms of firms co-locating to the town itself because they want to partner in R&D. Stellenbosch could be the MIT of Africa – and it only needs to take seriously the potential of getting involved in Technopark and spreading the innovative culture from its rapidly developing LaunchLab. While Stellenbosch University is leading the way in University entrepreneurial activities, it still has a long way to go in truly developing university-industry collaboration, joint R&D and innovation on its doorstep. Take for example the Cambridge model, that transformed the town, through university-industry collaboration in close proximity. The platform and opportunity to do so, is for the University to promote and take part ownership in the development of the Stellenbosch Innovation District. The other stakeholders are no doubt the businesses themselves. There seems to be a general willingness for this to happen. It must now only follow a specific direction and logic, informed by the trend in innovation district development globally.

Doing this and creating a successful innovation district in Stellenbosch is an opportunity to become a model for innovation district development in South Africa. It is an opportunity to get the institutional relationships and collaboration between business, government and academia (and civil society, including NGO’s) to function – which is a critical factor for building a local innovation system.


How will SID 2.0 be different?

The SID 1.0’s primary aim was to introduce the concept of innovation, and the idea of transforming Stellenbosch (or parts thereof) into an innovation district to the public. In many respects it succeeded in this, and considerable learning and input took place, most notably in a workshop that included several municipal staff, and councillors, as well as university personnel, researchers and business persons. SID was however, criticized by some for not taking into consideration a wider set of stakeholders and for failing to secure proper institutional buy-in. This task was subsequently addressed and effort has been made to ensure that a more inclusive approach and institutional buy-in takes place.

Now that the concept has been well understood and learning about it has taken place, within society and by the different institutions, the next steps to ensure further buy-in needs to be practical. It is for this reason that SID now plans to focus on several small and achievable projects – making sure to work in partnership with other organizations, the municipality and university. SID as a non-profit organization is currently being incubated in the University’s Incubator the LaunchLab. Its primary strategy is to assist in identifying challenges in Stellenbosch, which can be solved through a challenge driven innovation approach. A core focus will also be on how the focus on innovation, is not only technological but also social. Eventually, the SID as an organization, may be in a position to enhance its position to facilitate knowledge and innovation exchange between industry and the university on a wider, or even global scale. A fully functional SID, however, requires a sustainable source of funding, and therefore the best model for ensuring this sustainability should be explored and tested.


The impacts and implications of a fully-functional innovation district in Stellenbosch

The impacts and implications of a fully-functional innovation district in Stellenbosch are considerable. First and foremost the SID as a concept and strategy could represent a model for future development of the South African economy. Getting it right in Stellenbosch, which in many ways represents a microcosm of South Africa, means it becomes a model that can be transferred to other towns and cities across South Africa. It’s success would signal to the international community, that South Africa is serious about innovation, and is following global best practice as described in the first chapter.

Before considering the implications of replicating the innovation district model in other parts of South Africa, its significance should be seen in light of the potential for organizing the Western Cape regional economy according to the principles of Smart Specialization. Before the critics suggest, that this would amount to another cookie cutter solution, transferred from “imperialist” Europe. The merits of this logic should be assessed non-politically, the approach should be about gaining understanding in how organizing the economy according to a new economic logic can create enormous efficiencies and improve the production system. This is what is going to assist in creating jobs, transferring skills, thereby helping to progress our nation. What South Africa so desperately needs, is an improved innovation system that is inclusive, sustainability-oriented and supports the ailing manufacturing and production systems. Innovation does not just happen it needs to be organized according to a plan like smart specialization, as done in the EU. The key question here is, how does South Africa invent its own organized approach to economic development as its own brand of Smart Specialization. There certainly needs to be a balance between the archaic thinking of the ‘free market’ (which does not consider market failures and social inclusion adequately); and the very radical leftist thinking that plans to nationalize and communize the economy (which has been proven to fail time and time again). The middle ground is about planning in such a way that leading (economic and social) systems, take into consideration the disparities that exist in our country and consider ways to bolster lagging economic systems and the people who live in them. This is not about politics, or redistribution of wealth, it’s about being clever about the future of the economy and seeing the challenges that exist in our societies as opportunities for innovation, and new business. This is what the knowledge economy in developing countries like South Africa should be about. But then, the leading systems should lead in developing the innovative capacities to do this. Innovation districts, the South African way, should therefore understand our weakness of underdevelopment as its strength. Solving local problems on our doorstep, by organizing the incredible resources and capacities that do exist in the leading systems is in fact our unique selling proposition – something that the rest of the world would not in fact be able to do. But if there are innovation districts in South Africa, geared to international partnerships in solving developmental problems it’s a win-win-win situation. 

This is what the Stellenbosch innovation district could represent as a movement and a project of modernization. Stellenbosch could be the amazing story of the future, whereby transformation took place from the pre-liberation home of apartheid intelligentsia, to the cultural innovation epi-centre of the South African Innovation Republic. But for that to happen, some serious shifts will need to take place not only in our thinking, but in our lackadaisical and half-hearted approach to real collaboration. We should not let fear of change get the better of us. As soon as we ‘go with the flow of change’ and channel that energy into positive economic potentials this country will thrive. Stellenbosch is a good place to start, and the story would be great. The only ingredient for this is humility, and to allow those with a plan that makes sense to lead it into existence. Otherwise it will be replaced with a plan that is very possibly less favourable. A good vision, that is shared, is sure to bring along those that need to be brought along for its success – and this also requires professional programme management. This should not be individual leadership, but a collective leadership. Let’s get started and develop the first truly South African innovation district that produces so much more than innovation – but a new social fabric and South African identity whereby the only language is innovation for a new South Africa! There is no other time like now. Let’s do it.


Dr. Pieter van HeyningenDr. Pieter van Heyningen has a bachelor’s degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics; an honours degree in Philosophy (including complexity theory), and began studying an MPhil at the Sustainability Institute all from Stellenbosch University. Some years later, after an extensive period in South East Asia and Taiwan, Pieter obtained a Masters/ MBA from a Swedish University on Ecological Economics, focusing on firm strategies for sustainability. Thereafter he returned to South Africa, completing his PhD in “Innovation Systems for Sustainability Transitions.

More recently, Pieter joined the Bertha team at the Graduate School of Business, at UCT for a year to explore the world of social and inclusive innovation. Pieter acted as project manager of the GSB’s project at Philippi village (a low resourced social entrepreneurship hub), and helped them to develop the high level strategy framework for GSB’s involvement in the project.

Pieter was also project manager of the South African chapter, of the global UNEP ‘eco-innovation’ project.

Pieter is founder and partner in SustNet, which is a private sector initiative to build sustainable innovation systems in South Africa, and beyond.

The South African environment is blessed with inter alia a relatively sophisticated economy, a strong and thriving financial sector, good universities and a large number of local and multinational corporations. This however co-exists in an environment with a majority that is largely excluded from economic activity, living in poverty with often little opportunity to find a way out of such a situation through education opportunities.

Although at first this may seem like a somewhat “abstract” concept – this opinion piece will propose a concept that may have far reaching consequences for how we approach development in our town and by extension our country and even continent. What the concept entails is that we need to embark on a “Grand Societal Experiment” [This was originally conceptualised by Professor Arie Rip with whom I had the pleasure of interacting and discussing this concept and what that may mean for the South African environment.] which means a “new regime of innovation” that is driven by setting challenges towards achieving certain societal goals. What this practically means is that we need to think about innovation not as a process where we “push” technology or other solutions into communities BUT we need to arrange our efforts around a “pull factor” which should be societies’ greatest challenges.

Although this may seem obvious at first – it certainly is easier said than done. Immediately many questions arise: How do we agree on these issues or our greatest societal challenges (on a local level)? Who will decide on these? Who will coordinate such an effort? How will we and who will fund innovation projects? How will the university, industry, the municipality and communities engage with each other in a sustainable way? How do we treat issues around ethics? For that matter - Where do we even start?

The truth is that none of these question have readily available answers, the whole idea with the concept of a “Grand Societal Experiment” is that we need to learn how to do these things. In fact, there are already many initiatives that do exist where instances of this take place. The question is – how can we stimulate this on a larger scale and create initiatives that are sustainable?

Recently through our research work we have engaged in two projects that may provide some answers to how to approach this “experiment” and guide us through a learning process. Let’s now explore what this may mean practically for the University of Stellenbosch to help facilitate such “Grand Societal Experiment”.

Project 1: University-Driven Inclusive Technological Innovations (UDITI) [This is based on a research paper: Grobbelaar, S., Tijssen, R., Dijksterhuis, M., 2016. Towards a research agenda for university-driven inclusive innovations: A review of universities in the Western Cape of South Africa. Accepted for publication in African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation and Development.]

As part of an ongoing project between Leiden University and Stellenbosch [Funded through the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa (an initiative involving Leiden, Delft and Erasmus Universities and also the DST-NRF CoE in Scientometrics and Science, Technology and Innovation Policy (sciSTIP).] we have embarked on research to consider and explore the role of African universities as a contributing factor to development processes. More specifically, we examined the general nature of university-driven or university-supported activities with regard to University-Driven Inclusive Technological Innovations (UDITI). A first phase of this project has yielded some important insights regarding how university staff and students engage with communities towards innovation for inclusive development. The project involved 15 case studies from four Universities in the Western Cape Province namely UCT, Stellenbosch, CPUT and UWC.

I present a few top-level findings in the form of principles towards how universities may approach playing a facilitating role towards the “Grand Societal Experiment”. These principles are not mutually exclusive or stand on their own – they are some suggestions on an overall approach to be followed.

Principle 1: There needs to be mutual benefit for engagements to last: The process of embedding engagement in the teaching, research and service missions of the university is important. It is a well-established concept that engagement projects only continue in existence if there is mutual benefit for all stages of the programme and activity cycles.

Principle 2: Processes are important to guide the evolution from a superficial form to deeper and possibly more institutionalised approaches to drive UDITI – here the insight regarding sustainable forms of these types of projects is really important. The concept of establishing innovation platforms and engagement platforms over time with more permanent linkages between partners is an important goal. The challenge remains to create such programmes where engagement increases in depth and meaning over time – something that proves to be difficult to sustain.

Principle 3: Partnership is key.  It is important to acknowledge that the engagement process is a dynamic process, highly dependent on partnership and it takes place at various levels of the university. All UDITI projects in our study involved formal or informal institutional partnerships between the university and partner organisations: with other universities (local or international), communities, government institutions, NGOs, or for-profit business companies. It was interesting also that partnerships are also a way to access expertise – where interactive learning opportunities play an important role in the process taking place in formal and informal settings. 

Principle 4: Initiatives require deep contextual knowledgeIt was also evident that for these engagements to be sustainable it needs deep knowledge of contexts where local partnerships play a very important role.

Principle 5: Networkers and boundary spanners have an important role.  The role of university faculty was often a brokerage role within their UDITI project(s). There are several examples in our UDITI projects of different students or student groups working on parts of the project over time, with a university faculty member ensuring continuity by transferring knowledge between consecutive project members. The projects’ long-term success often depended on a project champion and if and when such a person stepped away the project or programme’s continuation would be very unlikely.

Principle 6: Infrastructure helps to create institutionalised and more permanent structures of engagement: A final observation with regards to networks of learning involves the role of incubators and other innovation platforms at universities, such as incubators, or ICT platforms and electronic databases with projects.  The existence of such shared physical and/or virtual infrastructures creates ties between projects, facilitating the diffusion of knowledge.  Infrastructures also help to create initiatives to be more institutionalised which means that it becomes a way of doing things and not an ad hoc activity only pursued by some.

This issue around the development of innovation infrastructures to sustain project and programmes brings us to some learnings from a second research project…

Project 2: The role of the university and the facilitation of inclusive innovation

Returning to Rip’s idea of the “Grand Societal Experiment” an important part of bringing this to action is to develop a new “constellation of actors” where traditional actors such as universities, NGOs and companies engage also with some non-traditional actors such as local communities. The engagement process must develop “collaborative learning” through which innovation can be developed and introduced.

So what this practically means is that we need to engage with new groups of individuals that have not been traditionally included in the process. An example is that if one would aim to develop lest say a mobile App for an mHealth solution an engagement process needs to include the users of the technology at various points in the development process. The focus is not to develop a solution and then present it to intended beneficiaries but to include the beneficiaries throughout – it is a very important part of ensuring the any intervention is successful and appropriate for addressing actual needs. In order to do that – it requires ways and means for various actors to interact and this is then where innovation platforms come into play.

Through the Innovation Platforms Programme we are exploring the setup and functioning of these structures. These platforms usually involve a group of individuals from different backgrounds and interest which may include producers, input suppliers, processors, environmentalists, researchers and public sector players. The goal is to bring these diverse stakeholders together so that they can address challenges and opportunities at various levels. The inclusion of these actors are usually with reference to the specific value chains that they operate in.

There exists a wide range of types of innovation platforms, these may include living labs, business incubators, open innovation platforms, rapid prototyping platforms, agricultural or health innovation platforms and university-driven research or innovation platforms.

Some ready examples exist here in Stellenbosch, for instance, the Rapid Product Development Laboratory (RPDLab) that resides in the Department of Industrial Engineering. It is a permanent initiative where skills- and local supplier development for the tooling industry is supported. The benefit here is that there can be coordinated engagement with the tooling sector to anchor and build relationships, it creates an obvious contact point for industry to reach into the university and it allows for development of skills at various levels.

Another example is the much publicised iShack project which has resulted from a trans-disciplinary research programme around how to address the Ekanini informal settlements’ greatest needs around basic service delivery. A partnership has developed from this project between the municipality, University and community and has led to an impressive range of proof of concept projects. Through this engagement which started with research projects there was enormous mutual learning and discovery of how social enterprise could be developed – a great example of collaborative learning and knowledge development. And also a fantastic case study of how such platforms can be developed by starting small and creating a collaborative problem solving environment for stimulating innovation for inclusive development.

What is clear is that only based on these two examples above it can be deduced that innovation platforms present themselves in different shapes and forms with often very specific goals towards ensuring continued involvement. The development pathways of these platforms also follow unique trajectories. A major pathway for university-driven innovation platforms seems to be based on engaged scholarship where academics are actively engaged with research projects and teaching projects that are relevant to local development priorities. However a main issue is the sustainability of these platforms which depends on various factors such as continued funding, appropriate programme goals and remains to be one of the major areas of learning and focus.

In conclusion

If Stellenbosch is serious about carving out its place as the Innovation Capital of Africa - we need to realise that this can only be done through partnership and working together.  In the spirit of the “Grand Societal Experiment” it is then necessary to create spaces and places where people from different spheres engage and learn how to develop solutions to our greatest challenges together.  Through developing such solutions locally this may open up opportunities to export ideas and programmes through extended engagement activities.

Although the development of solutions is certainly a task of the many, the environment must be created to facilitate a large scale process of bottom-up activity so that these activities can develop organically – and crucially - to scale and be sustainable. Therefore, some level of coordination and infrastructure development needs to be created where such interactions and such discussion and engagements can take place in a friendly learning environment – accepting that some mistakes may be made as this is a learning journey we need to undertake.

A range of innovation platforms models can be identified and some more thinking and exploring needs to be done on how to expand existing infrastructure and where new platforms are required.  Alternatively, how it is a matter of bringing different parts of infrastructure together so that we can engage in a meaningful way how best to approach inclusive development and wealth creation for all.


Sara GrobbelaarSara Grobbelaar is employed as a Senior Lecturer in Industrial Engineering at Stellenbosch University and through her work in the area of Innovation for Inclusive Development, she is hoping to contribute to inclusive development for the African continent.  Her research interests and passions are inclusive innovation systems, ICTs for development with the intended outcome to improving access to healthcare, education, financial services and to support food security.

Sara is a seasoned consultant and has completed in excess of 35 consulting engagement with clients including the IAEA, UN-Habitat, the World Bank, the NACI and various Universities and Multi-national corporations  with projects completed in various sectors including ICT, Energy and Power supply, Chemicals, Materials and Food, Pharmaceutical, Industrial, Mining, Tourism, Private Equity, Aviation and Automotive.  Furthermore Sara’s academic background uniquely positions her to contribute to debates on how innovation for inclusive development may be realised in the African context.

She holds an MPhil in Technology Policy (with distinction) from the University of Cambridge, B.Eng (electronic) (with distinction) (University of Pretoria), M.Eng (computer)(with distinction) (University of Pretoria), PhD in (Engineering) (University of Pretoria) and a Post Graduate Diploma in M&E methods (with distinction) (Stellenbosch University).

What is innovation?  Is innovation the use of SnapChat as your latest marketing channel for your business or is innovation what you actually sell, your product offering?
According to www.businessdictionary.com Innovation is the process of translating an idea or invention into a goods or service that creates value or for which a customer will pay.

When discussing innovation too often a marketing channel becomes the idea.  How often has someone told you that you must have a QR code or you must have a Facebook page?  These are all important marketing channels for your business or town, but they are hardly what your customer is willing to pay for.  All your competitors are also using these channels.  It is what you sell (your product offering) that will differentiate you and where you as a business or town can innovate.

Technology companies are often seen as the darlings of innovation, but according to Forbes.com it is the car manufacturer Tesla that it saw as the most innovative company in the world in 2015. It’s South-African born CEO Elon Musk focuses on one thing only – building the world’s best car.  The fact that it is beautifully designed, you can order it online and have it delivered to your door, get software updates wirelessly is all part of the innovative product offering – ensuring that he will build the best car in the world. A car people will willingly pay for.


How does one then innovate in tourism?  Does one try and understand the megatrends in travel, what you as a town has to offer, identify the gaps and fill those with new innovations? Or do you need to re-think tourism as a whole, try turn it on its head? Or do look at companies outside the tourism sector, such as Tesla to learn? Or do you take a hard stocktake of what we are selling?

According to FastCompany, one of America’s leading digital and print publications that focus on innovation and thought leaders who actively invent the future of business, the top 10 innovative travel companies globally are:

1.      Uber – for driving into the heart of corporate America

2.      Airbnb – for curating trips to let travellers live like locals

3.      Generator – for hipping up hostelling

4.      BeMyGuest – for bringing experiential travel to Asia

5.      Vail Resorts – for creating the ultimate travel loyalty program

6.      OTG Management – for making even Newark Airport a pre-flight oasis

7.      AJ Capital Partners – for building the Graduate, a hotel brand that captures the cool college-town vibe

8.      Marriott – for marketing its lodging empire with short films and Snapchat

9.      The Priceline Group – for digitizing the hotel stay via bookings.com

10.    Travel Noire – for tapping into a network of African-American globe-trotters

There are five characteristics that each of these companies have in common:
  • They have the desire to be the best in what they do
  • Their product offers their clients the opportunity to choose bespoke experiences suited to their needs
  • They understand the importance of sociability around travel
  • They use technology to support their business
  • They keep the heart of the traveller at their core
At the heart of each of these companies is a true understanding of who their customer is and the promise of the most memorable experience possible.  It’s not about the videos, or social media posts, or tags – it’s about giving them the best their budget can afford and making them feel like the most important person in the room.

How can “good manners” be seen as innovation in tourism?  Because tourism is about people. These are our clients, these are the people that will willingly spend money with you if you offer them a service they want, these are the people who can become your best sales people if you give them something memorable to talk about.

As a town, a living entity made up of many businesses that traditionally don’t see themselves as tourism businesses – how does one then innovate in tourism when the citizen has such an effect on the brand of your town?

How about taking a learning from Elon Musk? Strive to be the best town in the world for citizens and visitors.  A town that people flock to live in, not just because of good schools but because it is holistically the best place to live. The streets are clean, the water and electricity runs, a trip to the municipality is seen as a good day out and all citizens are treated equally. 

Business will thrive, jobs will be created, municipal taxes will flow. This feeling of goodwill will naturally translate into how the citizens treat visitors and how all businesses in your town from the service station, guesthouse to coffee shop will engage with the visitors.

It is these one-on-one experiences that travellers thrive on.  As much as travel is about a new destination, it is the people in the destination that make the experience memorable.  Travellers are looking for places where they get to live with the locals, eat with the locals, go to local hang-outs, they want to feel like a local.  If your town opens their hearts and arms to every single visitor, making them feel like they are part of the family… the word-of-mouth is priceless.

You also become known as the best town to visit, which will probably get shared on Snapchat!

Could innovation for Stellenbosch in tourism be an idea as simple as BEING THE BEST TOWN TO LIVE IN?
The World Design Capital project of 2014 made visible a very rich context of local inventors, tinkerers and innovators.  The spectrum spans everything from the lowest-tech repurposing of materials and parts, very often in the poorest communities; to the manufacturing of very sophisticated high-tech satellite parts and components, very often the output of post-graduate science and technology departments.

What both ends of the spectrum have in common, is the willingness and ability to engage with challenges and problems, and come up with extraordinary responses. The Sustainability Institute at Spier is an example.  Their innovations start in the soil, but then expand to a vision of the health and vitality of the local communities.  So innovation in our setting is not only around productivity of the agricultural sector, but also about the health of the community that lives in such close proximity to it.

Skills development is a key success factor in all of this – and very often the skills that are overlooked are in effect artisan skills: the fitters, turners, electrician and plumbers.  These skills are the building blocks for increasingly more complex problem solving. In early childhood development, the value of play-as-learning is critical.  Formal skills development is a national priority, but there are ways to do it informally and locally.

In the United States and Europe there has been a resurgence of interest and participation in DIY – getting your hands dirty to repair, repurpose and restore things, without going shopping to replace an item.  The resulting small-scale urban manufacturing sector has been credited for restoring the US’s manufacturing base, and sits under its economic recover.

Africa has always been good at this, and we all marveled at images like these:

So, enter the phenomenon of the of the “Maker Faire”: a Maker Faire is the Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth—a family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness, and a celebration of the Maker movement. Part science show, part agricultural show, and part something entirely new, Maker Faire is an all-ages gathering of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science clubs, artists, students, and commercial exhibitors.  All of these “makers” come to Maker Faire to show what they have made and to share what they have learned.  Making is evidence of learning!

The launch of Maker Faire in San Francisco in 2006 demonstrated the popularity of making and interest among legions of aspiring makers to participate in hands-on activities and learn new skills at the event.  A record 215,000 people attended the two flagship Maker Faires in San Francisco and New York in 2014.  155 Maker Faires were produced around the world in 2015, including in Cape Town.  This year it will take place again, at the Cape Town Science Centre (26 – 28 August. http://capetown.makerfaire.com)

A municipal government’s key innovation role is to create support for the spaces that enable this kind of early-innovation, as I call it.  A municipality has the unique ability to convene people around new ways of thinking about the quality of life in village.  The space may be like the LaunchLab at the University of Stellenbosch, or presenting accessible, informative events like Maker Faires.  Shared working spaces are producing results elsewhere – it is time more of these are created in Stellenbosch.

Alayne ReesbergAlayne Reesberg
is Former CEO of World Design Capital Cape Town 2014, Bill Gates’ former producer, corporate refugee and tech enthusiast.

Ever since the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, the sight of Table Mountain, flanked by Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head with Signal Hill and the eye-catching Cape Town Stadium resting at their feet, metres from the ocean, has become a quintessential image of the Mother City. Used around the world to illustrate or identify stories of Cape Town, this image has become iconic within a relatively short time. And while it does make a pretty picture, this beauty is only half of the tale.

Indeed, it is a view from which many Capetonians remain excluded – due to entrenched inequality and access. Perceptions of race and exclusion with regards to Cape Town are still grave. I have personally grown tired of breathlessly defending the city to disillusioned ex-Capetonians or professionals of colour who have relocated to the city and have had a hard time acclimatising. Even after twelve years of living here, people constantly assume that I must be from Johannesburg, as how else can a black woman be shopping where I shop, eating where I eat and frequenting the places I do?

Painting pictures
Recently, I was taken to task by a young woman, another ex-Capetonian, who challenged the images I presented of people from various backgrounds socialising together in the public and private spaces of the Cape Town CBD. “Are they posed?” this woman asked, and although this was question was couched as a joke, I don’t think that she was joking.

Since our conversation in March, my interlocutor’s wry comments have come to me from time to time. It is one thing for me to talk about “an inclusive city” but at the same time, I’m aware that this is a goal in many instances rather a reality, and that the posts are constantly shifting. Never before in recent years has the divisions in our country been brought home to me than in 2016. And these divisions are growing as more and more names are added to the rogue’s gallery of racists and their ilk.

Drawing maps
With these realities in mind, I recently came across a series of maps created by Statistics South Africa. Based on occupancy details from the 2011 census, the maps detail racial segregation, and in some cases integration, in the country’s largest municipalities. The maps show that although the six major municipalities have become more integrated, the trenches between them are incredibly hard to cross. According to Statistics South Africa, the maps show that “the legacy of apartheid still has a hold on the social structure of South African urban space.”

From these maps, what stands out for me is how integrated Cape Town’s city centre is, which is testament to the work that the Cape Town Partnership has been doing over the last 16 years. This is also a motivation for the organisation to expand our reach to other parts of the metropole, beyond the CBD. The biggest challenges remain affordability of housing and transport, and also access, in the form of safe and reliable public transport.

Lessons learned
We’ve learned several lessons during the course of our 16-year history. As the CBD recovered, property prices increased, the area received billions of rands of investment but it was becoming very apparent that an island of prosperity was surfacing in a sea of need. While many parts of Cape Town have transformed over the last few years, others are still living in apartheid era realities; divided and disconnected from this evolution.

Thinking of a city as an economic engine or an interconnected system helped us to get the city functioning and to spur investment in the area. Under this paradigm, people were regarded more as users or consumers, than the creators of the city. Today, we regard cities as places of “concentrated humanity”. A city is more than just its streets and buildings: it is defined by the interactions that occur in the spaces and places between them. People bring vibrancy, life and personality to a city. As such, our current work revolves around putting people first, allowing opportunities for dialogue as we work towards making the city an inclusive space for all, through participation and people-based placemaking.

Tabulating benefits
We are constantly tailoring placemaking programmes to make Cape Town a people-friendly city. Over the years, we’ve introduced several interventions: established in 2006 to unlock the potential of the creative and knowledge economies, Creative Cape Town is our longest-standing programme. Initially focused on networking and knowledge-sharing events, Creative Cape Town has now grown into a 90,000-strong virtual community. City Walk is a newer programme, but one that takes it role as a storytelling route very seriously. The March 2016 installation of Cape Town’s first solar-powered Isabelo Smart bench that allows passersby to share Internet access, USB charging points and offers a space to sit and more. Since its 15 March installation, to date, the Isabelo bench has connected more than 4,400 users, with an average of just under 800 unique users per month.

However, as much as we tout the social cohesion benefits of placemaking and the greater good for society as a whole, there are concrete economic benefits too. Placemaking drives an area’s development, it builds equity in property values, increases the tax base, helps with talent attraction and retention, promotes entrepreneurship and small business development, supports local communities and enables transit and transit-oriented development.

It’s important to note that the lessons we’ve learned as an organisation are replicable. Stellenbosch has long been a town that fascinates me. The municipality is comprised of different towns and villages and the university is an interesting anchor too. The history and memory of Stellenbosch is interesting, but during the past year or so, I’ve been reminded that this history is fraught and in some ways remains so. However, I believe the municipality is ripe for change, there is so much potential for placemaking activities in the CBD in particular, and meeting each other in public spaces is always a good formula for bringing people together.


Bulelwa Makalima-NgewanaBulelwa Makalima-Ngewana
CEO of the Cape Town Partnership, an organisation tasked with managing, developing and promoting Cape Town’s broader city centre, Bulelwa Makalima-Ngewana is a qualified town planner with extensive experience in managing and coordinating public-private partnerships. Prior to her appointment to the CEO position in 2012, Bulelwa worked in a number of senior roles since joining the Partnership in 2004.

Bulelwa regards herself as a collaborative urbanist who strongly believes that cities are for people. She campaigns for city development strategies that put people first. A sought-after public speaker, Bulelwa serves on the board of several local and international boards.