The oblique search for new industrial opportunities

Industrial policy is typically set at national level. It is often aspirational and attempting to “stretch” an economy into new kinds of production and value addition. Programmes are designed, targets are set such as doubling manufacturing contribution of x% within 7 years. Therefore it is sometimes disconnected from the present as it seeks a new Status Quo, a different structure of production.

Yet the natural process under which new production activities are created is complex. It is not as simple as finding a market opportunity, finding the right production process, securing funding and launching a business. The economic context, the political climate, the entrepreneurs with the right levels of experience, backing and confidence are all needed. And don’t forget individuals with a desire to expand, take risks and try new things.

Danni Rodrik argues that Industrial Policy should be a search and learning process. Many centrally planned industrial policies even cite Rodrik as they then commence with outlining with great certainty what must be done, by whom, with which resources and to which effect. This logic completely ignores the importance of what exists, and what is possible from here. It ignores that fact that the past matters, and that the current structures are the result of a series of evolutionary steps. Complexity science teach us that these plans ignore the fitness landscape, a landscape that is dynamic and constantly changing. Any attempt to extend the horison further than what is within reach should be treated with great caution. One of the greatest obstacles is the attide towards risk and the optimism of enterprises. I don’t think Rodrik meant the ministers officials must do the search, rather, industry must do the search or at least be actively involved in the search in partnership with government and institutions.

But the search is not about answering a simple question. A more oblique approach is called for (see John Kay, Obliquity). Which means we should set aside targets and indicators, and focus on creating small experiments to introduce more variety and options into the system. It means that finding out that something is not possible is as valueble as figuring out that something else is indeed possible. Taking Rodrik literally, it would mean also giving much more attention to what entrepreneurs are searching for and experimenting with in the background. It requires that we recognise that the current economy is creating what is viable under the current dynamic circumstances, and that only strategies that recognise where we are and what is certainly within reach from here is in fact viable. The challenge for developing economies is that what is possible is typically limited and further constrained by strong ideological bias as to what is possible or desirable. For instance, many South African business owners are trying to shift out of price sensitive markets competing on a basis of low cost skills. Entrepreneurs are moving into knowledge and capital intensive production, with more focus on service and integration. Government is searching for a way to employ people with low skills because its own social programmes and service delivery is not a viable fall back for people with insufficient skills.

The search is not about analysis
Complexity describes a situation where the patterns of what exactly is going on is unclear or shifting. We cannot entirely figure out what is leading to what and what is reinforcing what. Due to the dynamism, we cannot really understand the situation better through analysis. Another way of explaining this, is that a situation is complex when more than one competing hypothesis can with some probability explain what is going on. The only way to make sense of complexity is to try something, actually, try many things. And then see what seems to work better. It means that we start with what we have and who we know (and can trust), and then try a range of things with the simple purpose of seeing what is possible within the current constraints of the economic system. Steps must be taken to reduce risks (for instance by ensuring that the costs of failure are small, or that the experiments try different ways of solving the same problem), but then this whole approach in itself must be recognised to be politically risky.

This is where donors and development partners come in. By assisting developing countries to conduct low key experiments in order to create variety is essential, as development partners can reduce the political risks of their counterparts. This approach will furthermore require the abondenment of targets and indicators as an attempt to measure accountability and progress. A more subjective approach that sets indicators that monitors the overall health or dynamism is needed so that the experimentors can sense when they are indeed making progress. Thus the indicators does not measure success, nor input.

Perhaps then a skunkwork approach to a more complexity sensitive industrial policy approach is needed. Let the normal industrial policy targets and rigmarole be there. Politicions and bureacrats like this sense of certainty and purpose. But allow for some experimentation on the side under the heading “industrial policy research”. Allow this team to work with private sector partners to conduct small experiments to try new business models in an incremental way. For instance, do incubation to try new ways of mineral beneficiation, but without investing in large buildings or expensive equipment. Use what is existing as far as possible, even if it means having the manufacturing done on a contract basis elsewhere in order to test if local demand for the outputs exist.

One Response to “The oblique search for new industrial opportunities”

  1. janmivote Says:

    Dankie. Stem 100% saam.

    Die soekproses word te lank vir normale tydskale waar tyd gegee word vir ontwerp en dan tyd gegee word vir implementering van die nuwe beleid.

    Wanneer ons ontwerp/implementering sien as gelyktydige en kontinue aktiwiteite – gaan ons sukses behaal.


    Jan Jooste

    Acting Executive Director

    Technology Transfer and Innovation

    t +27 (0)16 930 5008

    f +27 (0)16 930 5007

    m +27 (0)83 626 7351 or

    Vanderbijlpark Campus

    Private Bag X021 – Vanderbijlpark – 1911 – Andries Potgieter Blvd – South Africa

    Tel: +27(0)16 950 9000 – Fax: +27(0)16 950 9999


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