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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).