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SA is not a stranger to innovation and technology development. In fact, some of the world’s most ground-breaking technologies and innovations — such as the computed tomography (CT) scan, heart transplant procedure, the speed gun, Sasol gas-to-liquids, hydrocarbon synthesis and the digital laser — originated in SA.
These technologies and processes were innovative and have significantly changed the world we live in, for the greater good of humankind. However, while we may have a good story to tell about our innovations, some have not achieved either local or international game-changing commercial success.
The technology story of SA is a tale of missed opportunities. Take for example Optimal Energy, the company behind the development of the Optimal Joule electric car. The Joule was designed and developed in SA and revealed at the Geneva Autoshow in 2010, winning the Best on Display award that year. But the company had to shut down in 2012 after failing to secure an estimated R9bn in funding to commercialise the Joule.
This was in addition to the R300m that had already been invested by the government through the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and the Technology Innovation Agency. At the time the electric vehicle market was still in its development phases and the required investment seemed out of reach.
The story of how Optimal Energy failed is sobering because it highlights the failure of the country through its various institutions to take a long-term view on the challenge of gaining a global competitive advantage. SA, through Optimal Energy, could have been a global leader in driving the green energy transition, in Africa and abroad. Furthermore, we have missed the opportunity to become a global technology centre in the areas of battery development, electric vehicle technology and so forth. Considering that SA is now playing catch-up in various areas of the carbon neutrality movement, this project, as well as other initiatives, could have been transformational.
In a country faced with an unemployment rate of almost 35% and with a significant portion of citizens living in poverty, industrialisation of breakthrough technology innovations should be at the forefront of addressing the issues that arise from low economic growth and joblessness.
A new style of thinking about the future is required when approaching the challenges and opportunities that are on the table to fix the country and move forward. Global trends such as environmental changes, decarbonisation, improvement in computer processing power, growing digital opportunities and others need to be investigated with consideration given to how SA can best position itself as a first mover and significant player.
The next big opportunity lies in the digital economy, hydrogen and the development of supporting technologies and networks. More support is needed to commercialise research & development breakthroughs and entrepreneurs venturing into the tech space.
Furthermore, SA needs to start thinking about a human capital development strategy that will ensure we have the right skills, capabilities and competencies to take advantage of these opportunities. Lessons can be learnt from India, which founded the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and developed a competitive advantage in IT capability. Today the IIT produces some of the top executives leading world-class organisations in Silicon Valley such as Alphabet (Google), Softbank and T-Mobile.
Human capital development is closely linked to economic growth, as shown in the case of India, and similarly in Brazil through the Lula da Silva government’s focus on human capital and early childhood development through social programmes. In the case of SA, developing human capital and simultaneously supporting the commercialisation of technological innovations and the development of industry through reduction of red tape and easier access to finance/venture capital can assist in absorbing unemployed people.
A strategic global view needs to be taken on the position and potential contribution SA can make to the global economy, over and above the traditional/primary industries that have historically kept us afloat.
As highlighted by the Indlulamithi SA Scenarios 2030 project, published in 2018, institutional and leadership capacity is one of three key driving forces that will shape the future of the country. Strategic and visionary leadership is required to capitalise on the opportunities that will emerge over the next decade.
We have a long way to go as a nation, but through consensus, collective action and a refreshed way of thinking about the future and our role in it, we may just have an opportunity to turn things around.
• Ngcobo, a bulk logistics professional, is a member of the steering committee of the Indlulamithi SA Scenarios 2030 project.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.