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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.