Innovation is an evergreen topic on the South African national agenda. But how serious are we about it?

Where there’s an industry conference, government policy document or business boardroom, innovation is likely to be offered as the solution to any number of issues – whether unemployment, crime, or selling more widgets.

Accenture has gone as far as drawing a causal link between innovation and growth. By all appearances, then, we’re pretty serious about innovation. But exactly how serious?

Pretty serious, but…

Google reveals that South Africa ranks ninth globally for innovation searches, behind such forward-thinking nations as Singapore (2nd), Denmark (4th) and the United Arab Emirates (8th) – but ahead of the UK (15th) and US (23rd).

Interestingly, Kenya (1st), Uganda (3rd), Ghana (5th) and Tanzania (7th) all outrank us. But all that is as it should be. If necessity is the mother of invention, South Africa should be interested in innovation, as should the rest of Africa, if not more so.

Curiously, though, our interest in innovation is strikingly seasonal. Fortunately, we’re in good company worldwide. Rather more worryingly, it is waning over time. But again, this is not out of kilter with the rest of the world.

Innovation, SA style

In fact, the only difference between us and the rest of the world is the spikiness of our interest. Compared to much smoother world graphs, South Africans vacillate between short-term peaks and troughs of interest that belie the calmer underlying trend of waning seasonality.

Why is this? Without the necessary data, any reasons we can give would be speculation. Innovation is a vast topic straddling all industries – from marketing to the usual suspects of science and technology. It can take multiple forms and may happen by accident, chance convergence of technologies, lab experimentation, flash of inspiration, collaboration or in-the-field workaround.

Following the innovation trail

In future innovation articles, we will look for more clues of our country’s relationship with innovation, touching as we do on the legacies left by Elon Musk, Mark Shuttleworth, Ludwick Marishane and others following in their footsteps.

Some may surprise you. Who knew, for example, that next to Tellumat’s own Tellurometer stood other proud South African inventions like the Kreepy Krawly, CAT scan, Pratley Putty, deadlock syringe, thin solar cells, cyber tracker (used for animals), retinal cryoprobe, speed gun (tennis and cricket), Q20 and computerised ticketing?

Along the way, we’ll consider the bigger picture – the state of South African innovation and the initiatives seeking to harness our dormant potential and existing pockets of excellence.

And of course, we’ll touch on the financial impact and cost of innovation, its implications for entrepreneurship, and its contributions towards growth and upliftment, in keeping with the South African development, transformation and competitiveness agenda.

It’s a big topic, and we welcome any additional suggestions!