Innovation systems in Metropolitan Regions of developing countries

During 2015 Frank Waeltring and I were commissioned by the GIZ Sector Project “Sustainable Development of Metropolitan Regions” (on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), Division 312 – Water, Urban Development, Transport) to write a discussion paper about a hands-on approach to innovation systems promotion in metropolitan regions in developing countries. The discussion paper can be found here.

Frank (left) and Shawn (right) in front of the Berlin Wall Memorial

This assignment was a great opportunity for us to reflect on Frank’s experience on structural change in territorial economic development and my experience on industrialization and innovation systems in developing countries. We also had to think hard about some of the challenges of using a bottom up innovation systems logic in developing countries, as such an approach would rely heavily on the ability of local public management to coordinate strategic activities aimed to improve the dynamics between various public and private stakeholders. It was great to reflect on our past Local Economic Development experience and our more recent work on innovation systems, industrial upgrading and complexity thinking.

A key aspect of this discussion document was to think long and hard about where to start. We know many economic development practitioners in cities are often overrun by demands from both politicians and industries for support. We also know that by selecting promising sectors based on past data and assumptions about job and wealth creation often end in little impact and much frustration. We agreed that an innovation systems approach must be aimed at stimulating the innovative use of knowledge, so we decided to not start with a demand focus (assuming the officials are already responding to some of the demand) or with statistics but a knowledge application focus. The use, generation and recombination of knowledge is central to the technological upgrading of regions, industries, institutions and societies. From our experience in promoting innovation systems and our recent research into non-consensus based decision making (this is where you do not select target sectors based on consensus or assumptions about growth potential, but you look at emergent properties in the system) we decided to start with three questions to understand the dynamics of knowledge flows in the region:

  1. Which enterprises, organisations and even individuals are using knowledge in an innovative way? Obviously this question is not simple and can only be answered by reaching out in the local economy to institutions, firms and individuals.
  2. Which stakeholders are actively accumulating knowledge from local or external sources? Again, this is an exploration.
  3. Who are individuals or organisations that know something about unique problems (challenges, demands, constraints) in the region? These could be buyers, supply chain development officials, public officials, engineers or even politicians that are willing to articulate unique demands on the regional economy that might not have been responded on by local (or external) enterprises.

These three questions are treated as an exploration that will most likely be most intensive at the start. In our experience economic development practitioners should constantly be asking themselves these questions when working on any form of private sector upgrading.

A second dimension is about assessing the interplay between institutions and industries and its effect on innovative behavior within regions. Who is working with whom on what? Why? What are the characteristics of the life cycles or maturity of various kinds of stakeholders in the region? Thus we are trying to understand how knowledge “flows” or is disseminated in the region. While some knowledge flows are obvious, perhaps even formal, some knowledge flows could be more tacit and informal. For instance, while knowledge flows from education is quite formal, the informal knowledge exchange that takes place at social events is much more informal, yet very important.

Apart from the identification of the dynamics and interrelations between the industries and the different locations, one other key factor is to identify the drivers of change who want to develop the competitive advantages of the region.

We also present our technological capability upgrading approach as six lines of inquiry, some of which have been covered in earlier posts on this weblog:

  1. The company-level innovation capability and the incentives of firms to innovate, compete, collaborate and improve, in other words the firm-level factors affecting the performance of firms and their net-works of customers and suppliers. These include attempts within firms to become more competitive and also attempts between firms to cooperate on issues such as skills development, R&D, etc.
  2. The macroeconomic, regulatory, political and other framework conditions that shape the incentives of enterprises and institutions to develop technological capability and to be innovative.
  3. Investigation of the technological institutions that disseminate knowledge.
  4. The responsiveness and contribution of training and education organisations in building the capacity of industry, employees and society at large.
  5. Investigation not only of the interaction and dynamics between individual elements in the system, but of the whole system.
  6. Exploring poorly articulated needs or unmet demands that are not visibly pursued by the innovation system.

We, and of course our GIZ colleagues of the Sector Project Sustainable Development of Metropolitan Regions, are very keen to engage with the readers on these ideas? Please post your comments, questions to this weblog so that we can have a discussion.

Best wishes, Shawn and Frank (Mesopartner)



For bottom up development to work, you must go up

For about 6 years I was intensely involved in establishing, promoting and cheer leading Local Economic Development in South Africa and elsewhere. In a country where so much planning, allocation and overall coordination came from the top, these were exciting years. I was always amazed and delighted to find hard working champions in the public and the private sector in every town, city or community where we worked. Our GIZ programme identified private sector and governance experts; and we trained, developed methods, and supported these experts to provide hands on services to local communities, the private sector and the local governments over several years. A small group of experts emerged out of this that are still actively involved in Local Economic Development in South Africa and in many other countries.

While Local Economic Development is something NGOs, Business Associations and donors understand and value, it was often a hard sell to local government, provincial government and even national government. In many parts of the world where societies are more homogenous and where social trust is high, many important economic decisions are in fact made at the local level – this is even thought of as common sense. But not here in South Africa, and also not in many of the other countries in Africa where we worked (our communities is not homogenous and is often divided along ethnic and political lines, our social trust is low even within these ethnic and political groups). This is because the ideas generated by local communities and priorities expressed by business did not always tie in so well with what planners or public sector managers had in mind (I call this top down development as it is rooted in someones authority to decide on behalf of communities).

Everybody who appreciated local ownership, local self determination and participatory approaches liked our logic and could integrate our concepts into their activities, but for many public sector managers our ideas created tension. I must add, on a few occasions we also faced resistance from business, especially as participatory approaches often challenge those in powerful positions.

But the experts, many local government champions, and industry often felt frustrated (see the irony of bottom up development). A group of people actively engage in diagnosing the local economy, and lots of energy would be unleashed. Often, the disconnect between government plans and the real issues confronting business would sometimes become visible. Or the power plays between different politicians and even between different business interests would be revealed. The same patterns emerged in different places, and we could not address these at local level. Unfortunately, many funders of these local processes did not have a mandate nor an interest to go beyond their pilot or designated areas. For instance, an international donor funding an Local Economic Development process in a particular town wanted to see local action that would result in jobs, gender equality, etc. They did not want to rock the boat by questioning local, provincial or national policies and programmes that often made their primary objective unreachable. Even in cases where local government was strongly in support of local action, their funding for economic development often came from national or provincial funding programmes that had different priorities, resulting in good ideas not being implemented because of a lack of funds or too much bureaucracy.

In 2008 I decided to switch my attention to innovation systems, private sector promotion and applying science to industry. I remained committed to bottom up development and decentralized decision making, but felt that I had to get away from depending on local government. However, here too the same challenge emerged, but this time it was not the fault of local government. Reflecting on the last few years and relating it back to my years in Local Economic Development I realize that there is an important lesson in all this for me. The same patterns emerge when I work with universities, a small local chamber of business or a city.

For bottom up development to work, you must go “up”. Sounds simple. But think about it. You cannot just focus on working in a local community as if it is an eco system on its own. Many policies that are undermining local development, trust building, etc. are coming from outside the designated area. The same applies to value chain promotion, cluster promotion and any other flavor of development. Creating a little isolated area where things are working for a particular designated group while the greater system is not working (or creating incentives for contrasting behavior) is wasting resources – when you withdraw your external resources things go back to how they were (see my post here about how we draw boundaries). While I would never regret empowering more local champions to do their advocacy and development work better, I must wonder what would have happened if we could have taken more of our insights to higher levels BOTH within the countries where we work, BUT ALSO to the international agencies that often funded these programmes. Not that we did not try, but often our efforts to communicate what was wrong was challenged on the basis of a lack of data supporting our arguments.

We do not want “bottom development” only. While this may suit the priorities of an NGO to equip a small group of designated people, we should strive to identify patterns, find new paths, and then communicate and use this insight elsewhere in the economy to reinforce what is working and address what is undermining local development. One of the reasons why we as Mesopartner dived into complexity thinking is because we realized that much of the answers to the questions that effect local stakeholders and economic systems are not to be found in the traditional, silo based (also called focused development) that are increasingly becoming “evidence based”.

Bottom up development remains important as we recognize that economies are complex adaptive systems and that the way to make an economy healthier is to equip its agents (business people, local government officials, communities) to make better decisions based on the signals they receive and the factors that affect them locally (local here means close to a particular context).  Our task in development is to try and identify patterns that can be amplified, or to assist agents to probe and try low risk experiments to create new paths for upgrading, decision making and wealth creation. This will require that we challenge how development programmes decide where to work, what to do and what outcomes to expect. Mesopartner is actively involved in the international discussion about how this complexity insight will challenge our development paradigms.

A final reflection. Perhaps our objective in Local Economic Development was wrong to start with. It is not (just) about empowering local stakeholders. Our objective should have been to use the insight from what is possible and what is not possible at the local level to try and affect top down strategy. Or maybe it was about holding up a mirror for top down and bottom up champions to see their effect and role in the system. These questions are at the heart of our new thematic area in Mesopartner looking into bottom up industrial policy, and will be a theme in our 2014 Summer Academy event in Berlin. Remember to apply soon as the early bird discount deadline expires at the end of March.

My activities in the last months

So what have I been up to in the last few months?

At the moment I am working with several industry organizations and development institutions in South Africa on topics that are all interrelated around the topic of upgrading of our manufacturing sector. This involves working both on the softer issues such as facilitation of processes, building trust, identifying patterns, mobilizing stakeholders and lobbying for change to both government and the private sector. Another dimension of this work is to assist meso level organizations created to stimulate upgrading and competitiveness of industries to design better and more relevant programmes, developed organizational plans, and diagnosing industries to find systemic intervention points. I am involved in several cluster development programmes, and I am also working quite a bit with universities to better respond to the (often unarticulated) needs of industries. Lastly, I am assisting several large international and national buyers to develop their South African supply chains. This work is partly fueled by the public sectors increased emphasis on localisation.

For me all of this can be summarized under the heading of upgrading innovation systems, and building new industrial competencies. Sometimes I describe it as modernizing industries, or to stimulate technological upgrading of industries and regions. My customers do not often use these words.I thought it would be interesting to perhaps share with you how some of my current customers describe the work I am doing. I will not share their details due to the sensitivity of the work I am sometimes involved in.

The universities I work with describe my work as :

  • stimulating industry- academia relations around upgrading and regional innovation,
  • facilitating the improvement of technology transfer,
  • developing industry partnerships, research strategies and applied research programmes. This involves improving innovation within the academia
  • improving innovation systems that the university forms part of by designing appropriate support programmes

The industry development organizations I work with describe my work as:

  • facilitating the improved competitiveness of industries,
  • facilitating change processes in industry in order to unlock new markets and improve competitiveness,
  • developing public sector programmes that are responsive to the needs of industries.
  • High level policy advocacy and industry partnerships

For the government officials that I work with my work is:

  • developing industry – government partnerships,
  • supporting the development of local industries,
  • brokering partnerships,
  • shaping policy based on industry insight and
  • developing practical development programmes.

Why do I share this with you? The insight for me is that I am using a limited number of tools (mainly facilitation skills, some insight into manufacturing and technology transfer, insights into innovation systems, organizational development and a fearless approach to engaging with industry leaders) to work with a largely overlapping set of stakeholders.

Although I think that I am basically doing the same kind of work, my customers describes my work in completely different ways, even if ALL my current customers have the same objectives (they all want to improve manufacturing competitiveness and grow the local industries).

This work is all based on process consulting and I am very happy that I have a complementary set of customers that are all eager to work together to achieve our common goals. The work is very intensive and I am also grateful that I have contracts that have sufficient time and sufficient flexibility in so that my work can be supportive and responsive to the people I work with.


Note 1: Right at the moment I hardly work for any donors agencies in South Africa, mainly because private sector development and especially innovation system promotion in South Africa is not very high on their agendas. I do however assist with capacity building, coaching and programme design work occasionally.

Note 2: One important contract is with GFA on behalf of GIZ where I am supporting several technology stations at universities to improve their technological services to the industries they work with. This work is included in the descriptions above about the work I do for universities.

Note 3: The work I am currently doing is all possible due to the experience I have gained by working for organizations such as the GIZ (then GTZ) on issues such as innovation systems, university industry relations and local/regional economic development.

Starting the innovation system series

The next few posts will be focused on my work in the last 18 months. I have dedicated a large part of my work into diagnosing and improving innovation systems in South Africa.

My perspective is quite unique, as I did not conduct these studies to develop national policy, but rather to assist intermediary organizations to take steps to improve the innovation systems that we diagnosed. What further differentiates my view is that we start our diagnosis with the private sector, and then work our way back to universities, technology intermediaries and other public sector organizations.

When I went down this road I thought that I had parted with my previous work on local economic development (which has been ruined in South Africa due to petty politics and misguided local government interventions). Little did I know that my previous experience in mobilising local stakeholders, trying to access national public sector programmes, and begging for a more responsive national stakeholders would remain so relevant in this exercise.

Many people ask me why I switched into a topic like Innovation Systems. It sounds so IT’ish. Well, it is far from that. My concern is with finding ways to build manufacturing industries and their supporting sectors from the bottom up (can we panic about the de-industrialisation in Africa, please?). My obsession is to figure out what can be done to get whole parts of an economy to upgrade technologically, without industry expecting governments to pay for everything. So basically, I am trying stimulate reflection and adjustment in  the manufacturing sector which includes their public and private supporters in the system around them. Also important is to equip the stakeholders in the system to reflect on the patterns around them, and to understand how they can change their own behaviour and how to actively shape the supporting environment around them.

I will close by saying that diagnosing a system around an industry is never a once off exercise. This is perhaps why so many development interventions don’t set change processes in motion that is re-inforcing and ongoing. Our biggest challenge is not to convince industries that they have to change, but to assist them to frequently reflect on their patterns of behaviour (even after we have left). We have to help industries to develop new habits of interaction (that adds value and this makes business sense), we have to strengthen local institutions to assist with strengthening signals of change and improvement (so that firms know that if they stop trying to improve they will fall behind). In the end it does not help that we understand their system, but that they understand their own systems.

The best part is that I get to work with real entrepreneurs, real scientists, real social change agents, and often really committed public officials. Real change without logframes and impact chains. Unfortunately we often also have to achieve this change with small budgets.

The irony of bottom-up development

From the participants of our trainings on local and regional economic development it seems evident that many national governments are paying lip service to bottom-up development. Often Local Economic Development (LED) is related to attempts to decentralise certain decision-making to lower tiers of governments. However, this is done in an uneven way where powers to make decisions about financial allocations, education, health investments are centralised. Even is places where local economic development decisions are decentralised to the local level, other national policies counteracts the power of local stakeholders. For instance, LED is decentralised by law in many Southern African countries, however, skills development, university programmes and even small enterprise development programmes are all designed and run from a national level. I do not count a local office of a national or provincial programme as “localisation”, as local representatives have no power over funding allocation and programme development. Other national programmes such as tender regulations, public procurement rules, and public finance legislation were all implemented to contain corrupt or incompetent public officials (thanks for that), but it also inadvertently reduces the ability of local government to drive their own development agenda. My late business partner liked to refer to that as “unintended consequences”.

Despite these obstacles to local development there are several brave souls that are trying to do local economic development from the bottom-up. They may be constrained in many ways, but they continue to try and mobilise local stakeholders.

Often bottom-up development activities in countries and specifically at the local level are driven by external development organizations (ranging from donors to charities). From my experience in Africa I can say that international development cooperation is often more serious about bottom-up development than most governments. While I know from my previous experience (I worked for GTZ on LED) that many national government officials think this is western ideology of democracy that is being forced down the throats of developing countries, I also know from experience that imperfect solutions that are developed by locals often have critical momentum that simply outperforms even smart initiative coming from the national level. But these development organisations are Macro level actors from outside of the country, so on a hierarchy they would be above the top!

Ok, I understand. For many national governments in Africa, their biggest obstacle to programme implementation is often the lower ranking officials in local governments. But this is not the cause of their problems, it is simply a symptom of other problems. A symptom that is further re-enforced by a lack of an ability to respond to the local context. Perhaps this is why local governments accross Africa are struggling more and more, despite evidence that national governments in Africa are improving their performance. But more about that in another post.

So the irony of bottom-up development is this: bottom-up development is often still happening in parts of Africa not because of top-down (national) support, but because of international (above-the-top down) support.

Until this situation changes, bottom-up development will always be limited to making local stakeholders feeling better about addressing some of their own issues without a guarantee that the framework conditions will re-enforce their goodwill. Sometimes this will yield excellent results if the right champions drive the activities, thus making it dependent on individuals and not systems. But for local initiative to become systemic, in other words, leveraged with multiplier effects, governments across Africa would have to sincerely embrace bottom-up development by addressing the constraints that limits local action.

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