In the next few posts I will focus on building technological capability in developing countries. I am specifically thinking of Sub-Saharan Africa as I write these posts, but I am sure that some of the ideas will be relevant to my colleagues working in other parts of the world.
What do I mean with technological capability? We see technological capability as going beyond what firms can do, to what societies or parts of society can use or do with technology. It is a capability that is manifest in products and processes, but that arise from a capacity to match a problem or opportunity with technological systems, sub-systems or combinations of systems. This means that technological capability is not only about technological skills (for instance in knowing how to combine different technologies, or what the latest advances are), but also has business and networking skills to identify and recognize opportunities, discover what solutions can fit the context and constraints (like performance specifications, prices, volumes) and how to organize supply, delivery and maintenance. It thus combines all the elements of innovation including product knowledge (understanding components, sub-systems, architectures), process knowledge as well as business knowledge.
To build technological capability in a country or an industry is the result of an ongoing search process where networks of businesses, academia and government officials search for what is possible at reasonable value and margins, what can and what cannot be done within the local context. What can and cannot be done in the local context is a complex issue that is affected by four factors that I will briefly outline below. It is not only an engineering design problem, and it is not only about products and patents. It is not about a lack of knowledge or a lack of PhDs and engineering students. There are several things that must be worked on at the same time but a whole range of actors working towards different goals.
In many instances the public sector is more eager to develop domestic technological capability than the private sector itself. The private sector in Sub Saharan Africa is in most countries fragmented, and search costs as well as coordination costs at the level of products, processes and networks are very high. That is why those that can afford to take risks and that can afford to take a long term view will most certainly benefit disproportionately to those who are driven by short term profits. For instance, local manufacturers of components that invest very little to nothing in R&D cannot be expected to compete in the long run with international or regional competitors who are investing in R&D.
My late friend and business partner, Jorg Meyer-Stamer argued that there are four pillars  that technological capability is built on:
- The skill of the producers to imitate and innovate at product, process and business model levels. This is largely dependent on pressure to compete as well as pressure to collaborate with each other;
- The economic, political, administrative and legal framework conditions, which determine whether incentives to develop technological capability exist. In the past, it was often not recognised that these incentives do not exist in many developing countries, especially if an import substitution policy relieved companies of all pressure to be competitive or to innovate;
- Direct support by technology-oriented state institutions or specific types of knowledge intensive service companies – depending on the given development level, the competition situation and the characteristics of a technology branch in the given country. These organizations disseminate technical and expert knowledge between different actors, knowledge domains and industries and play a critical role in the use of and application of tacit and explicit knowledge;
- Indirect support by the public and private educational system; in addition to a sound basic education it is important that technical training of a suitable quantity and quality is available at the secondary-school level and also in the universities. The private sector often plays a role in short term training aimed at particular technology applications. Overall the responsiveness of the education sector in identifying and responding to changes in how technology is applied, developed or used in society.
The close interaction between these four pillars creates technological capability. Thus technological capability differs between countries and even within countries because the context differs. A single firm may in the short to medium term manage to get a sophisticated product into the market, but to sustain its position it will sooner or later need to tap into the education system, the knowledge networks of intermediaries and technology experts, or in supplier networks. Technological capability is not measured at the level of patents or products developed (this does not measure the system, it measures a single firm), but is best measured at the level of regional or international competitiveness of industries, entrance of new domestic and international competitors, and exports.
What developing countries fail to achieve is to crowd in many firms and industry networks by creating public goods that intensifies competition and that force firms to collaborate on critical issues like skills development, the development of industry specific infrastructure, etc. Despite being a big buyer in many countries, procurement patterns, priorities and performance criteria are not available to domestic producers (until it is too late). The education sector is mainly funded to provide basic and undergraduate education along strict disciplines, not to constantly upgrade the existing workforce to cope with technological shifts and the integration of different knowledge bases. Universities are funded to do research at a product or process level, not to do applied research that will modernize industries. The importance of various networks of technological intermediaries and knowledge providers are overlooked.
The private sector must also shoulder some blame. Industry bodies are often mainly focused on advocating for favorable conditions to protect existing investment or interests, not on increasing local supplier networks or building industries. Firms would often rather collude than collaborate. Industry associations are typically organized via traditional sub-sector structures, while global production is becoming more integrated, multi-disciplinary and application orientated.
In closing, technological capability is not only created through policy. It is not created through industrial or innovation policy, although it helps. It is not created by individual champion firms, although this certainly makes it easier. Technological capability is built as a result of an innovation system where the context matters. Firms able to manage their own internal technology and innovation are essential, but these typical arise out of public funded investment into technology intermediaries, management capability and the overall performance in the education sector. It is not possible to increase the technological capability of a group of firms in a particular industry without looking at the broader context where the four areas outlined earlier shape the outcomes in the medium to long term.
From my experience in assisting to promote technological capability in developing countries an ongoing facilitation effort funded by the public sector AND the private sector is needed to broker collaboration, but also to look at ways that local demand can be met by the broader system in the long term. In many countries and industries the best host for such a process is a technology intermediary attached to an university or a development programme, with a mandate to build networks around local opportunities that is not only about engineering, but also about reducing the costs of finding opportunities, suppliers and suitable technologies.
1 – These four pillars later became the foundation of the RALIS methodology that we use to diagnose and improve innovation systems.