INNOVATION IS NOT FOR THE LINE WOLF. MORE CAN BE ACCOMPLISHED BY OPENING UP THE CONVERSATION TO THE CROWD

 
THESE DAYS, AFRICA is in the news for all the right reasons. One of the well-worn refrains about the continent at the moment is that its economy is bucking world trends and offering investors exhilarating opportunities in the face of flagging global growth. A second is that innovation is playing a key role in this renaissance. 
 
Open any global newspaper and you are likely to find a report on how innovation, from the high- to the low-tech, is shaking up lives and solving African challenges. As a latecomer to the innovation game, Africa has the benefit of tapping into vast quantities of technological knowledge, leapfrogging others to find new ways to use this to impact on everything from health and education to agriculture. In some cases, such as mobile banking, this has enabled it to lead the world. But ingenious as many of these innovations are, they don’t happen in a vacuum. While it is often the founders of the companies who get all the credit as innovation superheroes, there is a vast infrastructure needed to support innovators. 
 
In the recent African Union report, “On the Wings of Innovation: Africa 2024”, the authors recognise the crucial role that innovation is playing—and must play— in Africa’s future, and make key recommendations to ensure it continues to do so. These include: harnessing emerging technologies, constructing basic infrastructure, investing in higher technical training, and promoting entrepreneurship. The report further states that continental, regional and national programmes “will be designed and implemented in sync to ensure that their strategic orientations and pillars achieve the right developmental impact”. The latter is crucial. The exchange of ideas and the pooling of experiences and skills are core to building up an innovation ecosystem on the continent. As Sarah-Anne Arnold, who heads up the MTN Solution Space at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, has commented: “If we want to build our continent, then we need to invest in building networks that are broader than any one single institution. The fuel to innovate is created when people with different experiences, realities, passions and ideas come together with the mandate and support structures to develop new possibilities.” One organisation that has demonstrated this conclusively is NASA. Following a series of budget cuts that threatened his team’s research and development capacity, Jeffrey Davis, head of the Human Health and Performance Directorate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, made the call to use crowd-sourcing platforms to boost innovation. Over the past six years, he has opened up the problem-solving conversation at NASA to include ‘outsiders’. And, they have been getting back some novel ideas—proving, he says, that “sometimes the answers to the space agency’s toughest problems can come from people who have no experience with space travel at all”. 
 
But while scholars and practitioners are increasingly realising that innovation cannot come without partnerships, many struggle to embrace true collaboration because it goes somewhat against conventional ways of thinking about business, notably the competition paradigm.

WHAT ELSE IS COLLABORATION BUT AN ACKNOWLEDGEMENT THAT WE WILL ALL BENEFIT FROM FINDING INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS TO OUR SHARED CHALLENGES?

In Africa, there are some examples of radical collaboration starting to emerge. The newly launched Academic Association on African Entrepreneurship seeks to link top business schools across the continent to ensure knowledge and skills at each participating institution are shared to create a wider impact. And AfriLabs, a pan- African network of technology and innovation hubs founded in 2011, continues to make progress in building an innovation infrastructure that encourages the growth of Africa’s knowledge economy by supporting the development of startups, technology and innovation. I have heard it argued that the spirit of ubuntu could give the continent an advantage when it comes to collaboration for innovation. For what else is collaboration but an acknowledgement that we are all in the same boat and that we will all benefit from finding innovative solutions to our shared challenges so that we can go further together? In the same way that Africa leapfrogged into the mobile era, perhaps there is another opportunity here for us to lead in establishing collaborative frameworks that recognise our shared destinies and are the envy of the rest of the world. 
Walter Baets is the director of the UCT Graduate School of Business and holds the Allan Gray Chair in Values-Based Leadership at the school. Formerly a professor of Complexity, Knowledge and Innovation and associate dean for Innovation and Social Responsibility at Euromed Management—School of Management and Business, he is passionate about building a business school for ‘business that matters’.

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